Finding grace at heart of theology
It’s Sunday morning at Wayland United Methodist Church and the Rev. Jeff Williams calls the congregation’s children to the front of the parish. The hymn quiets and the church pianist keys a tune from Super Mario Brothers.
Up front, the children gather around Williams; he sits on the floor, legs crossed.
“There were thousands of people gathered and they were hungry,” Williams says. “Jesus only had five loaves of bread and two fish—he looked up and offered a prayer to God—and said ‘go feed the people.’”
Williams doles out five little loaves of bread and asks the children to feed the parish; they hand the loaves to the first few people they see.
“They gave away what they could,” Williams says. “Five loaves and two fish—the people ate and afterwards (the Bible) says they collected what was left.”
Williams repeats, “They collected what was left” and then hands the children baskets. “It’s time to go collect the leftovers,” he says.
The children turn to the parish—parents and ushers pull out hidden loaves of bread from under the pews and out of their jacket pockets. They thrust the loaves into the air.
Awe struck, the children go from hand to hand collecting as they go. Williams watches, smiles and spurs them on.
Children’s time is one change Williams has brought to the church. He himself is a change—the congregation welcomed its new minister July 13.
“I want to be able to see (the children) and have them see me and know we can have time together in worship and it’s not an interruption to the service,” Williams said. “They belong. I want them to know everyday that God loves them, their families love them and their church loves them.”
Williams has been a local ordained minister for 25 years. Starting as an intern pastor in Gurnee, Ill., Will-iams made his way up north, leading churches in Three Rivers, Western Michigan University, Rockford, Bel-mont and Hartford before coming to Wayland.
“It’s been wonderful to have multiple experiences,” Williams said. “(To lead) established churches in the country and city, and the campus experience (at Western Michigan University).
“(That) was challenging and incredible—to capture the interest of young people was so energizing for me,” Williams said. “They were free to respond with their own time and interest—we could have very active, very dynamic kinds of worshiping experiences—mission trips down to Appalachia—im-mersion weekends in Chicago—soup kitchen and homeless shelter (volunteer work).
“It was very inspiring.”
Williams said the campus experience ultimately led to his becoming a chairperson for United Methodist’s Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry. It was also a particularly special time for Williams as he was able to share the experience with his three daughters, Lindsey, Sarah and Amanda.
According to Williams, the Wayland community has been very welcoming, renovating the church’s parsonage before his arrival, and hosting social gatherings for him in their homes.
Williams said he would like to come to a deep understanding with his congregation and ultimately impart some of his own theology onto the church.
“I come in first as a guest; I am a new person,” Williams said. “So one of the goals is to learn the personality, spirit and history of Wayland (United Methodist Church).”
“The church is called to be hospitable, for both Beverly and me that is just nonnegotiable.” Williams said. “You receive people as they are; you get to know them and listen.”
Williams said he introduced himself to Wayland with a very distinct message.
“When (my wife) Beverly and I came (to Wayland), I started by saying the best thing I could—God is grace,” Williams said. “I understand grace as the power of God’s love and that has shaped my ministry.
“That is why I value acceptance and hospitality.
“(Grace is) not bound by our thoughts about it or experience—then there’s the grace we know when we come to faith in Jesus. Then grace continues in our lives as we think of what to do next (as we) live.
“(God’s grace is) really the center and heart of my theology—at the church we speak of open hearts, open minds and open doors.”