Background Noise

Background Noise


Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

I have this thing about TVs. And truth be told, I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I became aware of it when we got our first color TV (a Curtis Mathes) the day before the very first Super Bowl more than 50 years ago. It manifested itself again when I bought one of the first stereo televisions on the market (never mind that the right speaker never quite worked right). It ratcheted up when I purchased my very first HD TV (with accompanying surround sound speakers set up all over the den), and watched my first HD telecast – a NASCAR race replay that had me transfixed for an hour because of the clarity of the picture and real-life sound. I think, however, it recently reached its zenith (although there have been many more mountaintop experiences over the years) when my new OLED TV with an ATMOS sound system arrived that provides a clearer picture and more precise sound than my old eyes and ears can appreciate. 

I know you’re probably thinking there’s nothing remotely spiritual about any of this – especially for a bishop! And I agree. But let me be absolutely clear for the record. There’s no way I’m going back when it comes to sight and sound!

It should not be surprising, however, that God can take my unrepentant heart and use it to teach me what God knows I need to learn. This is what happened last Saturday evening as the Hogs showed the Texas Longhorns how the game of football is played. I was watching (and trying to get my children who attended Texas to respond to my texts) when I realized that there was so much background crowd noise that I hardly could hear the announcers describe the action on the field. Not surprisingly, I did what I thought was the most rational and reasonable thing to do. I turned up the volume. And I kept turning it up until it became a point of deep theological discussion with Karen, and I did the thing I probably should have done in the beginning – I turned up my hearing aid volume as high as it would go.

But guess what? I could not hear the announcers any more clearly. Sure, everything was louder. But nothing was any clearer.

In that moment, God struck. I realized this is exactly what happens all too often in my life. There is so much background noise from social media, 24-hour news cycles, ideological diatribes, music, conversation that doesn’t have much substance, my failed attempts to be in control of my life, and my own negative self-talk, that I simply don’t hear when God is speaking to me. That’s a crazy way to live. And it’s time to change. So please pray for me, that I will listen to God in a way that I may truly hear. And if by chance you find yourself in the same kind of struggle, know that I will pray for you.

Thank YouA Final Word from the Editor

Thank You
A Final Word from the Editor

caleb hennington

Caleb Hennington, Digital Content Editor for the Arkansas Conference.

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

I thought a lot about what I would write for my last From the Editor column.

Yes, you read that correctly, this will be my last time writing a From the Editor column as the Digital Content Editor for the Arkansas Conference. I have found a new career opportunity in Arkansas, and have decided to end my time here at the Conference office in order to pursue a new adventure.

And it’s a bittersweet change because although I’m excited for what my new career has in store for me, I’m also sad that I will be leaving a position that has taught me so much. I’ll also miss working with people who have been so good to me in the three and half years I’ve been here, many of whom have become close friends of mine.

But rather than be sad about all the things that will be coming to an end, I thought I’d use this last editor’s column to talk about the things that have been accomplished in my time here.

When I started writing for the Conference in June 2018, I was tasked with taking over and transforming The Arkansas United Methodist newspaper, a 130-something-year-old publication with a rich history in the state. From the ground up, I, along with the awesome Center for Communication team, transformed the AUM from a print-only newspaper to a digital-first, online magazine, The Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith.

Although, in the beginning, many people questioned the plan to change such a storied publication so drastically, most people came to love and appreciate the new format. And at the first United Methodist Association of Communicators awards event after the redesign, our team took home multiple first place wins for the new AUM magazine, solidifying that our decision to take the AUM into unknown territory was the right one to make.

As your editor these past few years, I have loved getting to know your pastors, your churches, and your mission work. I’ve consistently been impressed with the depth and breadth of work and love that Arkansas United Methodist Churches put into their communities.

My favorite stories to tell were the ones where churches came together with their communities to overcome physical hardships and deep, emotional struggles. Like the volunteers that came together to help people who had lost everything in the historic Arkansas River flood of 2019, or the racial healing that occurred in our congregations in the summer of 2020 after the horrific murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

These stories were hard to cover, but they were necessary for healing historic wounds and for bringing together United Methodists all over Arkansas for a common cause. It’s stories like these that made us forget about all of the fighting and turmoil surrounding the UMC’s General Conference that weighs heavily on the hearts of many in our church.

My initial From the Editor column in August 2018 was titled “A New Chapter,” and in it, I said that I didn’t want to focus on the fear of the future, but instead, I wanted to focus on three important things: hope, faith and optimism. 

Hope that the new format of the AUM will be well received.

Faith that this is the right direction for the publication.

And optimism for the future of not only the “Arkansas United Methodist,” but for the United Methodist Church in general, that the church will remain intact, and continue to create vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.

And although the ball hasn’t moved very many yards down the field since 2018, and we’re all still wondering when General Conference will take place, I think it’s important to continue to remember those three things: hope, faith and optimism.

In my mind, those first two points have been met; the AUM’s new format was well received by many, and I believe this was the right direction for the AUM.

As far as optimism goes, although things have looked rocky for the United Methodist Church for a few years now, and COVID-19 has accelerated those fears even more in the last year, I am still optimistic that the decision that will be made at General Conference on the future of the Church will be the right decision for all parties involved, and the mission of creating disciples for Jesus Christ will continue on.

Thank you to everyone who has written to me, emailed me, called me, or texted me with a story idea over the years. You have helped me in more ways than you realize, and my only regret is that I didn’t have the time to cover every story of vital mission work that came across my desk.

I have no doubt that the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church will continue to be a place where the vital work of making disciples, who make disciples will continue for many, many years to come. 

Thank you for allowing me to play a small part in the vital mission work of the ARUMC, and I’m sure I will see many of you again in the future.


Caleb Hennington

Young Leaders Engage in Service and Civil Rights Learning at 2021 Hendrix Youth Institute

Young Leaders Engage in Service and Civil Rights Learning at 2021 Hendrix Youth Institute

HYI Birmingham

Young leaders in the Hendrix Youth Institute is an annual service trip for Hendrix students. One of the stops on this year’s trip was in Birmingham, Alabama to assist low-income residents in that area.

Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen

HYI Project Director and Director of the Center for Calling & Christian Leadership

My journal on June 28, 2021 read:  

“Thirty-six hours out from the end of this year’s Hendrix Youth Institute and I’m still awestruck. I’m awestruck by this insightful and kindhearted group of young people. I’m grateful for their willingness to confront histories and present realities of racial injustice in our country’s past and present, and by the spirit of grace and truth among them as we engaged in hard conversations about what it means to be white people of faith in the midst of these realities. I’m amazed by their hearts of service, and the ways in which they bear witness to the Gospel.” 

Nearly two months later, I’m still in awe.

Hendrix Youth Institute is a two-week high school program for high school juniors and seniors in Arkansas who are exploring a call to ministry. After COVID-19 cancellations in 2020 and delays in decision-making and planning in early 2021, the planning staff — which included me and Rev. Ellen Alston, Hendrix College Chaplain — and mentor supervisor — Miranda Donakey, a current seminarian — were grateful for the opportunity to host nine high school students and three college staff as part of this summer’s program. Below are reflections from three of our participants: Marleigh Hayes (Mt. Sequoyah UMC), Jeb Mathis (Greenbrier FUMC), and Julia Staggs (Sardis UMC). I suspect and pray you will also experience awe as you read them. 

-Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen, HYI Project Director and Director of the Center for Calling & Christian Leadership

Marleigh Hayes

On my first mission trip, I was told that God sends us where His heart is the most broken, and I’ve never felt that statement more evidently in my life than this past June. 

Luckily, I was able to return to Hendrix Youth Institute 2021 with an encouraging group of youth and mentors. During these two weeks, our eyes were opened to the very real, heartbreaking circumstances both in the church and in the world. The first week on campus, we heard from a panel of pastors from across the state who shared their perspectives on the injustices in the world and church today. Over the past year, I have felt emotions about the state of the church and the world that I have not been able to relate with others about. After listening to the laments of these four pastors, my struggles and concerns felt seen and comforted, and my call to ministry was affirmed. The vulnerability shared during this conversation meant a lot to my peers and me, and gave us a perspective as we traveled to Birmingham to dive deeper into mission and many current social justice issues, especially racism.

In Alabama, we learned many things that were tough but necessary to hear. One of the most impactful moments for me was simply walking around the city of Montgomery, thinking about the history and significance of where we stood. We stood in the Legacy Museum, formerly used to hold slaves between their time of arrival from the sea and the moment of their auctioning. As a privileged white person in America walking where slaves walked, I felt a heavy sense of guilt and remorse. We also visited museums and memorials where we learned about another side of history, including the evolution from slavery to lynching and mass incarceration. Although the experience was heavy, I am so grateful to be more informed about our nation’s history so that I can use that knowledge to make greater change in the future. This experience made me feel more confident in my call to be a Deacon in the United Methodist Church, so that I can further connect the church with justice issues that need our action.

Jeb Mathis

We learned and observed so much during HYI 2021. These weeks are designed for us to discern our call to ministry, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that this experience made a significant impact. I know that whatever my ministry becomes in the future, I am not the same person I was before HYI. 

There were many meaningful parts of HYI to me, including: 

  • Morning reflections that positively began each day, and all of the worship services that helped us praise and give thanks to God;
  • All of the museums that we visited helped educate us and help us not forget the past, but learn it so that we may have the opportunity to move forward;
  • Small group meetings in which we had meaningful and thought-provoking conversations and bonded with each other;
  • Working at Canvas Community where we served our homeless friends and had the opportunity to connect with them;
  • Working at Urban Ministry in Alabama and painting rooms that will someday educate children, and painting Ms. Theresa’s house and seeing her priceless reaction;
  • The church service at Community Church Without Walls, which was such an influential environment and felt like home for so many people.

Overall, the most impactful part of the experience was the relationships built. On the first day of HYI, I was hesitant and worried that this was going to be a difficult two weeks. But God works in mysterious ways and changed my mind, making these two of the best weeks of my life. I am so grateful to my fellow participants for their presence, and your awe-inspiring words and actions. We formed friendships that I hope will last my lifetime. I am grateful to the staff for everything they did for me, and for all of us—planning and working relentlessly so that we could have a worthwhile experience. 

Julia Staggs

I walked into HYI thinking I would figure out my call to ministry. Little did I know, I’d leave with an entirely different understanding of callings, a fire for Jesus and his mission on earth, friends to last a lifetime, and a broader perspective of what it means to not only be Christian but human as well. 

We met and interacted with so many people of so many backgrounds, and we served and loved, and were served and loved as well. The Urban Ministry Center provided a well-needed reminder of the true mission of the church — to glorify God through true service and love. The people and organizations we were able to interact with provided some of the greatest examples of what it means to love your neighbor that I’ve ever seen. 

As I got to know and love so many different people, it was put on my heart again and again that we are all beautifully and immensely human. This mindset has continued to help me in my faith and ministry at home. Hendrix Youth Institute and the many experiences, friendships, and lessons it brought me have helped me to grow in faith and my expectations of ministry in ways I will forever be thankful for.”

Learn more about HYI at @hdxyouthinstitute and at 

Information about HYI 2022 coming soon!

Sustaining A Summer Camp During A PandemicA Q&A with Camp Tanako Executive Director Kayla Hardage on the struggles and successes of camping ministries in 2021

Sustaining A Summer Camp During A Pandemic
A Q&A with Camp Tanako Executive Director Kayla Hardage on the struggles and successes of camping ministries in 2021

camp tanako

Camp Tanako. Photo by Casey Crocker.

Camp Tanako Executive Director Kayla Hardage had to battle a global pandemic once again this year in order to make a safe and fun environment for campers to enjoy the beautiful, serene setting at camp Tanako. She shares with us some struggles (but mostly successes!) that she experienced during the 2021 summer camping season.

This summer’s camps were obviously quite different than in years past due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. How did Camp Tanako adapt to the challenges of having camp this year?

Having made the decision to cancel camp in 2020, we did not want to cancel two summers in a row. The international camping and retreat community was a wonderful resource of ideas and best practices to adapt camp with pandemic precautions. The safety of our campers, their families, and our staff was always a priority. We relied on CDC recommendations for general space. The CDC also released camp-specific recommendations that were very helpful. We adjusted how we scheduled activities and meals and we changed how we ran small and large groups to create pods of campers and staff. By engaging in the CDC recommendations, we were able to contain COVID-19 when we had a positive case during our last week of camp.

What are some new things you tried out this year that you haven’t attempted in the past?

Keeping social distancing in mind, we moved more activities outside. A favorite was the Kona snow cone truck every Wednesday for canteen time. Thanks to a couple of donations, we were able to sustain the weekly visit. We look forward to setting this up for next summer. We also had some old picnic tables that we tie-dyed and used to make an outdoor classroom. This was a huge hit, and we plan to make a couple more areas. One of the things that is great about outdoor classrooms is that we can use them all year!

Share with us some successes from this year. What are some blessings that you experienced at Camp Tanako?

We hosted 10 weeks of camp! We had over 1,500 campers in Day Camp, Overnight Camp, Time Out for Tanako, and guest groups. I made the comment several times this summer that hearing children laughing and silly camp songs were good for my soul! The little moments you spend with a camper while they tell you a story, or hand you a friendship bracelet that they made for you, help to realign the good in this world. My favorite part of the day is evening worship, and it is always amazing to see the campers grow within the week. The last night of singing “Sanctuary” re-energizes the staff, as we remember why we do what we do!

What was the most challenging part of having camp this summer?

We had a few! As we all see today, there are mixed feelings on precautions, and asking some parents and campers to wear a mask was harder on the staff than we anticipated. Another challenge was the litter created on the grounds by disposable masks. Every day we had the fear of shutting down camp because of either an outbreak or rising COVID-19 cases in the state. On top of a pandemic, this was the first summer with campers for both me as Director and Matthew Gwinner, our new Program Director. Getting to personally know our staff, campers, and their families as the summer went on was great for our leadership. We learned a lot this summer, and are excited as we now plan next summer.

How did campers respond to camp this summer? Can you share any joyful moments with us?

These campers were ready to play outside and see their old friends and meet new ones. They were just as excited as my return staff to be here and see each other. We did notice that the stamina of staff and campers was not as it was in previous years. We expected a little of this and adapted as needed. After our first week of camp, we had a parent tell us that when they got home, their camper was playing like a kid again! As the summer went on, we all regained our sense of childlike joy in our day.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned from this summer’s camps?

People need people…the human connection is a beautiful thing to witness. No matter the relationship at camp, from parents picking up their camper to greeting the food delivery guy once a week, this place brings all the good feelings of joy, peace, grace, and love! It is our responsibility to be an open, safe place for all to come and be present with themselves and each other. One thing I say a lot when giving a tour or talking about Tanako is that if we just get people here, the outdoor chapel or a night at the fire pit on the lake will work their magic. Christ is present in this place! The testimonies of the campers through the generations give us the encouragement to keep going when things like a two-year-long pandemic seem to jeopardize our future.

What do Camp Tanako’s plans for the rest of 2021 look like?

We had several large groups cancel due to rising COVID-19 cases. We have adjusted our marketing to invite individual families or small groups to stay with us, as we did last year. Tanako is a great place to stay for a little R&R! We have RV sites, several options for cabins, and plenty to do outside. Being located 10 minutes from downtown Hot Springs makes us a great, safe place to stay while taking in the local attractions and parks. Registration for Summer 2022 camps will open October 1. (They make great Christmas presents for the children in your life!). We are hosting an Alumni Reunion weekend November 18-20, with the hopes of bringing old and new friends back to camp. Following our social media is the best way to stay up to date with us. Due to our large groups not coming, we are working on a couple of fundraisers that should be announced soon. Please consider Tanako in your charitable giving this year.

Obituary – Rev. John O. Alston

Obituary – Rev. John O. Alston

Rev. John O. Alston

John Overton Alston, a United Methodist minister, died peacefully Friday, August 27, 2021, with family at his side. He was born February 23, 1931, in Mena, Arkansas, to the late Overton Bettis Alston and Alice Pearl Williams Alston. He was preceded in death by his brother Maurice Edward Alston of Shreveport, Louisiana, and his sister Helen Marie Wallace of Lebanon, New Hampshire.

John grew up appreciating what little he had. Food came from the family’s meager farm. A horse was extravagant transportation, but it sure beat walking in his one pair of shoes. The television wasn’t in the living room – it was in the window of the local general goods store; the house lacked electricity, and the closest radio was far down the dirt road. After his father became an amputee, John, being the youngest, was the only one left at home to help his mother around the farm once his brother joined the Air Force and his sister married. His humble beginnings and commitment to a Christ-centered life meant he never yearned for material things. He appreciated people more than things, he was always willing to help those in need, and he had a special place in his heart for those who lived life to the fullest with little in the way of worldly possessions.

John graduated from Acorn High School (Mena), Hendrix College (Conway), and Perkins School of Theology, SMU (Dallas, Texas). Following high school, he enlisted in the Army Reserve National Guard, drove a Coca-Cola delivery route, and worked in a newspaper office in Mena. His Polk County Guard unit was activated for duty in Korea during 1950-51. (After cruises to and from Korea courtesy of Uncle Sam, John never developed a love of the sea nor the desire to experience another cruise.) Upon return, he was the first veteran of the Korean Conflict to enroll as a student at Hendrix. As students entered the college cafeteria, John was known for being able to address each one by name. His budding call to ministry was nurtured through the “pre-the” (pre-theology) community on campus and “caravan” outreach trips off campus. He met the love of his life, Mildred Chapman from Louisiana, while they were both students at Perkins School of Theology; their first date was to an SMU basketball game, and they married in Cox Chapel at Highland Park Methodist Church in 1959. 

Together John and Milli lived and loved as he served pastoral appointments in Arkadelphia (Wesley Foundation); Malvern (Keith Memorial); Benton (Parkview Methodist); Lonoke; Smackover; DeQueen; DeWitt; Dumas; Pine Bluff (Wesley); Hamburg; Little Rock (Pulaski Heights, Associate Pastor); North Little Rock (Gardner Memorial); Hampstead and Upperco, Maryland (Shiloh and Mt. Zion); Lanham, Maryland; Shreveport, Louisiana (St. Luke’s, Interim Pastor); and North Little Rock (Gardner Memorial, Pastor Emeritus).

John was frugal with everything but his generosity, time, and love. From clipping coupons to cleaning the cake batter bowl, nothing went to waste. Socks with holes were still socks; hand-me-downs (or hand-me-ups) were favorites; the old whatever, as long as it worked, was new enough. When you had a conversation with him, you always knew you had his full attention. He related well to all ages through his care and compassion, quick wit, silly humor, ping-pong prowess, and occasional pranks. Friend to all, John always had a dad joke ready for the occasion. 

John drove countless miles over the years to support his children through piano, dance, scouting, and sports. He loved them dearly and everything they have become – committed Christians with strong family bonds. Ellen, Gayle and John all followed in his footsteps to Hendrix, and his daughters have both been called to church leadership and ministry. He beamed with pride when speaking of his son and his commitment to public service as a police officer and detective. John adored his grandchildren, was eager to share in their games, concerts, or other activities, and was glad when they visited to share time, stories, a meal, or premium chocolate bought at a discount after the most recent holiday.

John loved working crossword puzzles – in pen, never pencil. Anyone visiting the house would find the latest unfinished puzzle resting on a nearby end table with a ballpoint pen on top. Never one to boast of his mastery, he ensured completed puzzles quickly disappeared. When handwriting became more difficult, John switched to Mahjong on the iPad with the same tenacity and precision. 

By far, John’s favorite activity was keeping up with family and friends. Sunday afternoons and unfilled evenings were spent maintaining those connections until he became unable to do so. He talked on the phone as much as a teenager. He cherished gatherings like the Alston Family Reunion on Rich Mountain. He appreciated the outdoors, especially state and national parks, and he loved sharing the places he loved with people he loved. He had worked one summer as a student minister at Glacier National Park, and forty years later took a trip with extended family to revisit breathtaking landscapes, as well as the site of his once getting “stuck” overnight across the Canadian border. 

Now having crossed the boundary from earth to the great beyond, John’s gentle spirit will live on in all whose lives he touched. The words that keep coming up as loved ones speak of him are “kind,” “full of peace,” “funny,” and “one of a kind.” Mere words cannot fully describe the gift of his life, and the impact of his living and loving will continue to transcend his earthly frame and the years it has been such a privilege to share with him. 

John is survived by his wife of 62½ years Mildred “Milli” Alston; children Ellen Alston, Gayle (and son-in-law Tad) Bohannon, and John M. Alston; grandchildren Nathaniel Dauphin, Spencer Bohannon, Caleb Alston, Carson Alston, Claire Alston, and Corbin Alston; in-laws, and a host of nieces and nephews. 

The family would like to extend deepest gratitude to the committed and capable staffs of UAMS Hospital, St. Vincent Rehab Hospital, Lakewood Health and Rehab, and Hospice Home Care for the attentive care and genuine concern shown to John and his family throughout these last few weeks. 

A service celebrating his life will be held at 11:00am, Friday, September 3, 2021, at Gardner Memorial United Methodist Church in North Little Rock. The family will receive guests beginning at 10:00am.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial gifts be directed to Gardner Memorial United Methodist Church (1723 Schaer St., North Little Rock, AR. 72114,  501-374-9520 or Hendrix College (1600 Washington Ave, Conway, AR 72032, 501-450-1223