I’ve been collecting call stories from my friends who are serving in diaconal ministries – ministries of service – expressed in the United Methodist Church through the provisional and ordained deacon, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, and home missioners.  In this post you will hear from Mike Friedrich is a provisional deacon serving as the Emerging Ministries Specialist to the Bridges District of the California Nevada Conference..  Here are Mike’s words: 

Here’s the short version:  I stood in a church one day and out of the blue said to myself, “I gotta be part of this!”

I think you’ll find the longer version is more interesting.  Here it is:

I was raised in a practicing and faithful Roman Catholic family and was personally active spiritually and religiously while attending my Jesuit college. Yet, I fell out of practice when I discovered all the local churches I knew were into families and I was a single 20-something guy.  There was no welcome space for me.

Mike leading micro lending training for Bridges District

Mike leading micro lending training for Bridges District

Twenty years later, disquieted, I began to explore the church again.  In a roundabout way I wound up being one of the “founding fathers” of what we’d now call a small faith group, at the UC Berkeley Newman Center, but then was just called a “men’s spirituality group.”  We enjoyed what seemed to be the oxymoron combination of men and spirituality.  That group met weekly for five years before disbanding.  I went in knowing I was searching for something but not sure what it was.  I came out knowing that what I was searching for was “community.”

Easier said than done.

Backing up a bit, 15 years earlier, my domestic partner and I had bought a house a block away from Berkeley Methodist United Church (BMUC).  My partner had been somewhat raised in the Methodist church during the civil rights struggles in Alabama, when that denomination had been somewhat standing up for civil rights for all, while the white churches were divided.  So she was willing to check out the local Methodist church.  We learned it was an historically Japanese-American congregation, a new community to both of us.  But while the people were friendly, neither of us felt comfortable attending more than once or twice.  Every few years she or we would try again, but with the same results.

Then in 1997 or 1998 we happened to notice the sign out front had changed and there was now a woman pastor.  We said to each other, “That’s a good sign,” and a week or two later we attended again.  This time we experienced the difference between “friendly” and “welcoming.”  A parishioner named Sharon Tsuruta glombed on to both of us. She wanted to hear everything about us and made sure to introduce us to the pastor and the key figures in the congregation.  In addition, we found Rev. Naomi Southard’s sermons to be down to earth and engaging.

In short, we found the community I’d been seeking.  Slowly I learned to appreciate the Japanese-American (JA) values of mutual support and obligation.  Each year I found myself slightly more engaged in the life of the congregation, whether helping to plan worship services or volunteering to join the rice-cooking crew for the annual food bazaar.

In 2006 a Japanese woman stood up and introduced herself at Sunday service as Nobuko Miyake-Stoner, an old friend of Rev. Naomi’s and the pastor of a church in Honolulu.  She invited everyone to come visit her in Hawaii.  Amused, I got her business card in case we had the chance to vacation in Hawaii again.

In early summer of 2008, a young woman was introduced to us as Akiko Miyake-Stoner, the daughter of the woman who had come two years prior.  We were told that Akiko would be an intern at BMUC the following fall, as part of her seminary studies at nearby Pacific School of Religion.  I may have introduced myself, but I don’t recall.

As it happened, later that summer my partner and I did in fact vacation in Honolulu and I made of point of alerting Rev. Miyake-Stoner to say we’d come to her church for Sunday service.  After joining that service, Rev. Miyake-Stoner made a point of chatting with us afterwards.  During one moment, she said something like “I’m glad my daughter is in the care of Rev. Naomi and your congregation.”  A little lightbulb went off over my head.

I have to be honest and report that as we walked away from the church I turned to my partner and said “I’m fucked now.  I’ve met the mother, I owe the daughter.”  I’d internalized enough JA sense of duty and obligation to realize that Akiko’s mom was expecting me to take care of her daughter.  I knew it probably meant a lot more of my time, but there was really no question that I had to do it.

So when we returned I made a point of seeking Akiko out, telling her I’d spoken with her mother and asking her how I could help support her.  Akiko was somewhat surprised, but she asked if I’d join her parish mentoring committee, which I readily acceded to.  As it turned out, since I live so close to BMUC, I wound up hosting a monthly Saturday brunch conversation where Akiko would review her activities with us and we’d provide feedback.  She proved to be a warm and wonderful woman who I couldn’t help but love.

At the end of her school year we learned that she would intern at another church the following year, but every couple of months I would have some sort of short conversation with her.  At the end of the following school year, now May of 2010, Akiko invited all of us in her BMUC mentoring committee to attend her graduation from Pacific School of Religion (PSR).

So I found myself walking into a church on Pentecost with two or three hundred very happy people.  It was a joyous occasion.  The band struck up a jazzed-up hymn that I didn’t know (I’ve since learned it was the Mark Millar arrangement of the Charles Wesley classic “O, For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”).  Perhaps it was the joy in the room, perhaps it was the music and the song, but I was suddenly filled with the thought, “I’ve got to be part of this!”

I must say I didn’t really know what “this” was, but I assumed it meant having a seminary experience.  And boy did I fight the calling!  In my financial planning I was about five years away from retiring.  I couldn’t afford to stop that salary and go spend tens of thousands of dollars on graduate school.  So with the advice of another PSR student I consulted with Rev. Joellyn Monahan, then an Admissions officer at PSR, who listened carefully and suggested that I try a two-year program of monthly Saturday courses aimed at lay leaders.

Well, after my first three months of classes, I said, “that’s not enough” and took the big plunge.  I gave my job four months advance notice, retired the following summer and enrolled in a full time program in the fall of 2011.  But even then I had no idea what my call meant and I wasn’t sure I could even maintain myself with a study program 40 years after my undergraduate years, so I enrolled in a one-year certificate program.  Halfway through the first semester once again I said, “that’s not enough,” and transferred into a two-year Masters of Theological Studies program.  I graduated with that MTS degree in May, 2013.

Mike (kneeling) leading a trip to Palestine and the Holy Land, here at the Sea of Galilee

Mike (kneeling) leading a trip to Palestine and the Holy Land, here at the Sea of Galilee

Meanwhile, Rev. Naomi back at BMUC continued to provide me guidance and she recommended that I investigate Deacon’s orders in the United Methodist Church.  From her own work on an ordination committee she knew about Deacons, but they are rare in this region, so she only had theoretical advice, not specific advice.  But I’d learned to listen to Rev. Naomi’s advice, so I started my own investigation and I was attracted to the self-starting entrepreneurial aspect of UMC Deacons, since before my job I’d been self-employed for 35 years.  I was fortunate to have as my first ordination mentor a man who in midstream was appointed to be my District Superintendent.

As it has turned out my organizational and strategic skill set has led me to be appointed to the Bridges District, with my former mentor as my supervisor.  I support the development of a community micro-lending program for local churches; help facilitate multi-church revival conversations; help educate about and advocate for a beleaguered village in Palestine named Wadi Foquin, threatened with extinction by burgeoning illegal Israeli settlements; support a food and meal program; and somehow stay connected to BMUC.

I was commissioned as a Deacon in 2014 and am on track to be ordained, inshallah, in 2016.