Story of a Blood Donor by Dorothy Williams

When I was 14, my sister, just a year older than I, underwent open heart surgery – her second heart surgery. I knew that she had used blood and there was a big “debt” to be paid in replacing it. While she was in the hospital, my brother had a fluke bicycle accident and was hospitalized 20 miles across town. It was an intense time, and all I could do was try to keep the home fires burning, supervise my 7-year-oldbrother, and try to manage a few things in the house while my parents were at work or at the hospitals . . . but I wanted to do something more meaningful. As soon as I was old enough, I started donating blood to the local blood bank to replace some of the units my sister had used, grateful that she was well and aware that my brother was fortunate not to have needed blood, too.

Over the years, relatives needed surgeries, friends had accidents, illnesses, and surgeries, and then I gave birth to very premature twins. All of these could have…and many did…required blood transfusions.

If your life has not included this much first-hand exposure to blood as a medical need, you may indeed see yourself as blessed or lucky.

But I, too, see myself as blessed or lucky – certainly not because of the illness, birth defects, prematurity, or other situations that made my life so full of this awareness – but because I had something I could share. I had an opportunity to DO SOMETHING MEANINGFUL in response to these needs. I had blood in abundance, and with less than an hour of my time and the willingness to roll up my sleeve and endure the pinch of a needle being placed in my arm, I could actually make a huge difference in someone’s life – I might even save it!

Now, mind you, I don’t like needles any better than the next person, but if I ever got cold feet about donating, I could always remind myself that the recipient of that blood had a whole lot more needles and pain than those few seconds when I would experience anything unpleasant. It made me feel good to know that I could do something “important” for someone else who might be in the same position as my teenage sister or my 2-pound babies who received blood as an almost-daily treatment.

Donating has become a habit. In Luke 3:11, John taught that “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” I think the same can be applied to blood!

Dorothy Williams is a long-time First UMC member and has been one of the main coordinators of the Blood Drive for several years.

This article first appeared in the April 2016 Sentinel.
Learn more about the Health Ministry of First UMC.

Life as a Youth Counselor by Dan Stirling

A little over 20 years ago my good friend Mark Burnett was the youth director at First UMC, and he occasionally asked me to help take the kids to the beach or to Magic Mountain during the summer. In 1995 he invited me to become a Senior High youth counselor, joining Ben and Karen Ing. I was noncommittal but enjoyed coming on occasion. After a few weeks Mark asked me to make a more sincere commitment, noting that it was important for the youth to know that I would be there consistently.

And so the adventure began. I never imagined that I would still be a counselor 20 years later, but at the end of each year I knew I was eager to begin the next, to reunite with the continuing youth and to meet new ones.

Over the past 20 years I have had a myriad of experiences, and developed countless relationships with youth and with their parents and other counselors. I recall trips to miniature golf, broom hockey overnighters, snatch breakfasts, midnight hikes to Inspiration Point and photo sessions at the Camp Colby waterfall. I remember sacred songs in our chapel and intense discussions about our Christianity and many other topics. I remember fundraising drives, and eight weeklong service project trips, and many candlelit devotionals that I wished would never end. And I remember so many unique individuals, whom I impacted in some way and each of whom in turn had a tremendous impact on me.

My primary goal has always been, as our YMC Mission Statement says, to help youth “gain tools to help them explore and grow in their faith.” I want them to know God’s presence as I feel it, and to be able to intelligently choose their own path in this amazingly complex universe. But most of all, I want them to know that there are people who care about them, personally, enough to share in their joys, their sorrows, and who want them to understand what is important in life.

To quote and to paraphrase my old scoutmaster: Time has an alchemy all its own. It transmutes glum defeats into joyous victories with the passing of years. My own twenty years have been nerve-wracking and scar-producing and sweaty. They have been sprinkled with unruly kids and upset parents and emergencies, and programs that didn’t work and more and more to plan. I think I’ll do twenty more.

This article was originally published Decemer 2015 Sentinel: UMYF Celebrates Dan Stirling.

Bearing Witness: Connie Casillas – As Told By Shalimar Carducci

As the 93 years young Mrs. Casillas lets me into her lovely Santa Monica home, I notice all the photographs on the walls – old glamour type shots that make one look like a 1940s Hollywood movie star, school portraits from all ages, baseball card pictures, family celebrations, vacations – and I think to myself: “Wow, this woman has had a lot of love in her life.” We spend the next couple hours talking about that love and her ties to First UMC.

Connie was born in Marfa, Texas, and was “born a Methodist.” Her parents were immigrants from Mexico and her father died when she was very young. At the age of 2, she and her mother Susana made the move to Santa Monica to be with her stepfather Joe, a botanist who always made sure they were taken care of. Her grandmother, a very devout Christian who visited them often, would always ask if they found a Methodist church yet. “No, not yet, Grandma, but we will. We will.” Finally, by inquiring of neighbors and the community, they found “our little Mexican church” on 19th St. and Michigan. When Connie was 12 years old, her grandmother gave her her first copy of Upper Room (a daily devotional magazine) in Spanish, in the hopes both to guide her faith and love for God and to teach her how to speak and read her family’s native language. As Connie tells me about their “little church,” her beautiful smile widens. “Back then, there were mostly Catholic Mexicans, so there was just a handful of us Methodists and that was OK.” And this handful was very devoted and proud of their little church. She recalls the woman who used to play the piano and the dinners the congregation shared.

“Dr. [Rev.] Carlson would visit us often, and he also preached once in a while, but we had quite a few older people that didn’t speak English too well so they didn’t like that. Then the freeway came and took our little church. Dr. Carlson invited us to the big church and we went.” However, before the freeway came, they would visit the “big church” on 4th and Arizona and attend events, concerts, or special dinners, making the transition smooth and comfortable. “I had a great picture of my mother in front of the little church. But my daughter took my cabinet and moved all my books without telling me. Never do that to your mother.” I definitely won’t, but we eventually found the photo (see below).

Most of the congregation from the “little Mexican church” started going regularly to the “big church,” but eventually they started moving away little by little. Connie and her husband Carmen and their six children were regular attendees of First UMC. As were his mother Virginia and sister Amparo or “Ampie” who sang in the choir. Connie and Carmen were often greeters while their sons were acolytes and ushers. “Bobby was an usher for 26 years!”

“Mark, my youngest son, played the violin and the piano. He was so talented and got scholarships for music. Dr. [Jim] Smith would hire him sometimes.” In addition to Connie’s three daughters being married here, there were baptisms of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Then, in August of 2012, Connie lost her son Mark and her husband just weeks apart from each other. “I cried so much when he (Mark) died. Then my husband. Carmen was a beautiful person. His daughters idolized him. I adored him and he adored me. Nancy [from the church office] was right there with us when Carmen died.”

Connie and I talk for a while; there aren’t any particular stories she shares, although she does recall the church always having a beautiful choir. There’s pride in her tone when she tells me the church is quite active, “We do a lot, we always have.” She tells me about her in-laws’ tortilla factory, Casillas Tortillas – the first in Santa Monica – and their market. How she was in her glory when raising her children. When her oldest, Susanne, and son-in-law Ed rented a big Cadillac and drove Connie and Carmen to Texas to visit their hometowns, both of whom had not revisited since they left as young children. Mostly we spoke of the incredible love she and her husband shared for 72 years.

“Wherever I was, he was, and vice versa. If I were sitting in the living room, he would make his way to sit next to me. If I were vacuuming, he would move the furniture and take over. And he was such a good cook!” When the war broke out, Carmen spent two years in Italy and came back an even better cook. In their heyday, they enjoyed going to the Hollywood Palladium every Saturday to dance. “He always pampered me, and that’s how he liked it, he would say.” They renewed their vows for their 25th and 50th anniversaries, the latter taking place in the First UMC sanctuary and officiated by Rev. Chuck Wiggins.

She walks me through her gallery of photos in her hall and other rooms. There is so much to take in and so many questions to ask, but I have to get back to the office. We say our farewells and I walk out feeling like I just made a dear friend. Connie Casillas definitely lives a life believing and belonging at First UMC of Santa Monica, and I am grateful to her for allowing me to see what her love looks like.

This article was originally published November 2015 – “Bearing Witness: Stories of Believing and Belonging at First UMC of Santa Monica.“

Bearing Witness By Mira Pak

Having been asked to write what this church community means to me forced me to organize my feelings in some way to better convey them, and so I’m sharing a few highlights to spare you the autobiography (my second choice). I first came to First UMC Santa Monica when I was 11 years old, simply because my mother made me. I am forever grateful for that.

Being Korean-American, I was worried that my family and I would be treated differently. Thankfully, that never happened, and so I settled into the rhythm of going to church every Sunday, first to Sunday School, and later to the “big person” church. Lulled by the steadfastness that is our church, over the years I grew to take it for granted. I did not truly appreciate the wonders of our church until I went away to graduate school in Boston.

With a church on practically every corner, you’d think finding one to attend each week would’ve been easy. It wasn’t. I learned to avoid the “scary” ones (cult-like in their rules) and cycled through the “soft” ones (where the minister read poetry in lieu of a sermon) and the “not-a-good-fit” ones (too formal or too casual). When I returned to our church during winter break, I realized it had taken me going away to understand that First UMC was home. The accepting laity and clergy; the meaningful, Bible-based sermons; the music and choir; the balance between the more formalized structure of the service and the ability to wear jeans to worship; and even the décor in the sanctuary create the feeling of welcome and belonging.

With my newfound appreciation, I thought I really valued this church and that I understood how magnificent it was. I was wrong. Eight years later, while I was in my Ph.D. program, I served as a Literacy Coaching working with classroom teachers in Watts. Having been raised in Santa Monica, I was under-prepared for the conditions in the South L.A. schools. There were times I sat in the pew on Sunday, looking around at the congregation and wondering if I was in the right place. This church, the place where I came to feel grounded, seemed so separate from my work life. How could I explain my experiences to people who were not working in those same environments? I’m not sure I would’ve completely understood them myself before I started Literacy Coaching.

Then a couple of things happened to make me feel less lonely in my work in other socio-economic conditions: The Nordbys were invited to describe their work with assisting under-privileged youth to find access to medical care; and Lydia Cincore-Templeton, the Director of Children Youth and Family Collaborative near USC, served as a guest preacher. Then as I started to share my own experiences, I found laity who also had or were currently serving at-risk and under-privileged populations, sometimes under tense conditions. This church was even better than I thought – and I had thought it couldn’t be better

I recently had an experience that reminds me that no matter how much I love this church, I am always in danger of taking it for granted. During a day-long professional development for teachers that I was conducting with a colleague, I sat down at lunch to check my smartphone (which is only sometimes dumb) for emergency emails from students. I noticed a text had come in from the coordinator responsible for the professional development. It said “Jesus is coming.” What? Why did I get this text from her? Who knew she was even that religious? Should I respond? What should I say? Half expecting a follow-up text that joked “So, look busy,” I pondered the meaning of this. Debating whether or not to send my own text (maybe “Hallelujah, amen!”), I was interrupted by her second text to me: “He has the copies.” Oh. Jesus was the Latino office worker who ran errands for us during the professional development days. I had left a voicemail for the coordinator reminding her we needed more materials, and the text was her response.

Driving home, I felt bad. Were God and church so compartmentalized in my life that I was Christian only on Sundays? Why would that text seem so out of context? God is the context, the whole context. Maybe I needed to be Christian more visibly. But did that mean I had to buy “He has risen!” bumper stickers and some cross jewelry (surely the couple of Goth-like necklaces I had, large enough to ward off a vampire attack, didn’t count)? Did I need to stand outside VONS handing out First UMC pamphlets or blackmail friends into coming with me to church? Then that Sunday, Patricia preached about the multiple ways God is in our lives. God was talking to me. I was reminded that there are many ways to be Christian, to have a relationship with God. Nowadays, I do volunteer more about my relationship with God, as appropriate, and I do ask my friends to church (sans the blackmail, though).

Each time I start to forget that I belong to a great church, something happens to remind me. Over the years, one way I’ve learned to remind myself is to serve on church committees and task forces, to volunteer for both long-term projects and one-day events. While I don’t think doing so ensures me a spot in Heaven (alas!), assisting in this way contributes to our church and serves as a sign of my believing in and belonging to First UMC.

This article was originally published October 2015 – “Bearing Witness: Stories of Believing and Belonging at First UMC of Santa Monica.“

Bearing Witness By Sam Johnson

In January, 2008, I was unmoored and disconnected – sometimes a ball of rage, sometimes a bundle of nerves, but never the man I thought I would be at 44. My career seemed to be limping to a close; I battled unhappily with my ex-wife; my children lived far away from me; my union was on strike; and I woke up every day worried about money. I was sure there had to be a more meaningful life than the one I was living, but I did not know what it was or where to find it. So, for the first time since my teens, I slunk into a church.

Almost immediately upon entering the First UMC of Santa Monica, I felt a wave of nostalgia for the Methodist church in Columbus, Nebraska, where my grandparents often brought me as a boy. It was a quintessentially Midwestern edifice: plain, sandstone and oak, almost austere in its lack of decoration. Yet when I heard the Santa Monica choir processing down the aisle to Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, I thought, “I know this.” The Lord’s Prayer, which I learned from my grandmother on a camping trip, came to me like an old friend. Even the Doxology struck me as especially beautiful in its familiarity.

In that first service I attended in 2008, the reading was from Psalm 27, which begins: “The Lord is my light and salvation – whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” The words seemed to speak to my anxious state of mind. And Reverend Farris’s sermon that day, emphasizing the importance of prayer, hit me like a lightening bolt: “We break the rods of our oppressors when we share our burdens with God.” Could this be the balm my soul was seeking? As an agnostic (at best), I had not said a prayer in decades. I didn’t know if I was ready to take that leap of faith, but my heart was full.

Later, when Reverend Farris quoted a Robert Frost poem in her sermon, I found the metaphor to help me understand what I was feeling. The poem was “Death of the Hired Man,” about an old worker who shows up unexpectedly at the New England farm where he’d been employed some years before. Frost writes, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” For me, this church was the home I had to go to.

Since then, prayer and the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica have been important parts of my life. The words and music of the church went far to lift me out of my period of unhappiness, but there has also been the Methodist ethos of service and participation. I’ve loved attending the Men’s Bible Study group; breaking bread (and donuts) with smart, interesting, curious guys I never would have encountered otherwise. Serving as an usher has been a blessing — I have thoroughly enjoyed shaking your hands and collecting your offerings on Sundays. The Disciple Bible study program taught over several months by Kurt Poland and Rev. Larry Young put the Bible into my every day life, and I really enjoyed those afternoons with the other participants. And this past year I felt privileged when I was asked to serve on the Staff Parish Relations Committee (ask me about it!).

Two years after my first visit to the church, I was baptized. It continues to be a great source of joy for me. Being a part of something so much bigger and better than myself is a constant reminder that there is more to the world than fortune and career. There is love and grace, fellowship and service, and I am lucky enough to have found them.

This article was originally published September 2015 – “Bearing Witness: Stories of Believing and Belonging at First UMC of Santa Monica.