The Rest is Commentary

By: Rev. Whitney Wilkinson

Mission trips, whether they be working in someone’s yard in our own community or leaving the familiar for what is unknown, are powerful for me. My seminary professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi once quoted Emil IMG_0827Brunner saying, ‘Mission is to the church what combustion is to fire.’ The church can’t exist without it. I find that I can’t, either. And so I was so glad we were headed to Atlanta. And also, a bit tired, honestly.

I spent a lot of time thinking and praying for this to be a meaningful experience for everyone involved, a way for us to ‘see church’ in a radically new way, and discover Christ among those who fall through the cracks of our society. As to myself? Well, I just sort of wanted to be fully engaged, and facilitate that experience. Of course, I wanted to discover Christ in a new way, too. I just wasn’t sure I had the energy for it.

But as I entered Mercy Community Church in Atlanta, and saw my dear friend Maggie blossom into a caring and no-nonsense pastor before my very eyes, I was inspired. When a dear woman named Barbara slept on my shoulder during worship, placing great trust in me in that moment, I couldn’t help but feel Christ. He was sitting right next to me, leaning on me. (Or she, as it were.)

Eating delicious soup made by one of their own on the streets next to people whose stories I’d begun to learn was amazing. And the one thing I took away from it all was quite surprising.

It wasn’t the overpowering need to rally against and/or navigate the systems that make it extraordinarily difficult for a person to get in, so they can have the tools to build a life so many of us take for granted, though that was learned.

It wasn’t that Christ really is present with those on the margins in a different and obvious way, though that was learned.

It wasn’t that every person affected by homelessness has a story, just like I do, and that if I wanted to recognize their dignity as a human being and a child of God, I better listen, though that was learned.

Quite simply, the lesson I learned was this: Life is extraordinarily simple, in the end. God created it to be simple. And ever since then, we human beings have been about the business of complicating it.

So these days, this morning when I allow myself the grace to work from a comfortable abode graciously provided for me, I am choosing to live my life with simplicity. Yes, this might mean de-cluttering my space, and giving away what I don’t need. But even more than that, it means de-cluttering my heart, my tired soul, my overly-analytical mind. God is good, and can be trusted. We are all children of God made in God’s image. We need to treat each other that way.

I’m reminded of a story of Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud, a sacred text in Judaism. Rabbi Hillel was around about the same time Jesus was, and legend has it, that a man came to him one day promising that he would become Jewish if the Rabbi could explain the whole of the Torah in the time it took him to stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do your fellow human. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”

Sounds quite a bit like something that Jesus fellow said as well. So, here’s to a simplified life, seeking grace in every moment and seeking to share it with others in every moment as well. The rest is commentary. Beautiful, raw, healing, reconciling, hopeful commentary.

Yoga=Peace

By: Derek Sean Turner

When I was a kid, about thirteen years old, I remember my mother taking yoga classes—this was at the height of the Farrah Fawcett inspired exercise craze. I would constantly harass my mom about how silly yoga looked. Fast IMG_20150901_160843forward to 2015, I am stuck in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone—I do not remember who—sent me to Highland and Ponce de Leon to ‘Mercy Church.’ I appreciate Mercy for the activities it offers—Bible study, art class, and music, especially—but above all else I like the yoga classes. Pastor Maggie leads a yoga class on Fridays, in partnership with Centering Youth—a local non-profit that offers free yoga classes to at-risk youth and marginalized populations. I really enjoy the way it relaxes me and helps me find inner peace.

My favorite yoga positions are Locust pose, when you lie on your belly and use your back strength to lift you arms and legs off the floor; Warrior pose, where you stand in a lunge with both arms raised and reaching for opposite walls—this one really works my muscles; and Tree pose, where my balance is challenged—this one helps me find a deeper connection with God. Come join us!

Mercy AIDS WALK

By: David Swank

My two pastors, a bunch of Mercy members, friends from St. John’s Lutheran Church, and I recently had the opportunity to be involved with a fun and worthy fundraising cause.  We participated in Atlanta’s annual AIDS Walk and 5k Run to increase awareness and funding for DSCF5562AIDS research.

I have no problem telling anybody that I participated in a walk for this cause.  For years it was a taboo subject.  While no longer taboo, I think it is still pretty hush hush as a conversation topic.  Lots of people have AIDS and do not talk about it.  In the twelve years that I have been homeless, I have had multiple friends die of AIDS.   It was really hard to watch them waste away before my eyes.  At one point I could literally see my friend’s ribs poke through his skin.    I have abundant hope and enormous faith that God will guide all our scientific researchers in the lab to find a final cure for this dreadful disease.

On the day of the walk, the weather was great—the temperature was comfortable and the sun was bright.   We joined  thousands of others on the walk.  The AIDS walk started and ended in Peidmont Park and wove through the surrounding neighborhoods.  People were having a good time, there was an air of celebration—lots of cheering and laughter.  You could tell that folks were happy to be supporting a good cause.

Lusha, Steve, Justin, Terry and I walked the race together.  In general I am a fast walker.  The crowds did not slow us down during this walk—we were trying to catch up with the front.  At the water stations, they were playing funky music and I passed by each one dancing and swinging my arms above my head.  By the time we finished the race I was sweating like a pig.

At the end of the walk we were happy to learn that our very own Matthew Hyatt won first place in the 5K run for his age group.

I had a great time and am looking forward to next year’s walk.

DSCF5564

Tubs, Suds, and Glory

By: Alan Mackie

Last month I was having breakfast with Chad and my pastor, George Tatro of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church. Over the grits, Chad reminded us of a conversation that we had had some months previously about Memorial Drive washing the clothes for the members of Mercy. IMG_2514

As the need had become quite urgent, the solution was seemingly straightforward. I rather boldly committed Memorial Drive to doing the washing twice a month, starting within the week.

And so our laundry ministry was born. Chad delivered nine large bags of dirty laundry to Memorial Drive.  In committing our new endeavour to God, a bag of the dirty laundry was brought into the sanctuary and dedicated as a part of our weekly offering in our Sunday service. By Wednesday, I had three other volunteers to join me at the Medlock coin wash to sort, wash, dry, and fold.  We had fun and fellowship with each other, so much so that some of the other patrons became curious to know what we were up to.

At the end of the first evening, before leaving the laundry, we stood, held hands and said the grace together. Then one of our number pointed to the ceiling and said, “To God be the Glory”. It made me think: can the simple and practical task of washing dirty clothes be described as “glorious?” I don’t know for sure, but I believe that in God’s hands it can. And God will be glorified, if doing the laundry softens our hearts and makes us more loving towards those who live on the hard edges of society. As the laundry ministry gets underway, I believe God has much to teach us amidst the  “tubs and suds.”

The other week, we read together the late Lynda Baker’s homeless psalm and considered our own struggles and connivance with the ‘System’ that could not break Lynda.

We like to think of the laundry as a ministry, because it sets it apart from our routine chores and helps us to be mindful that we are doing the washing in simple obedience of Christ’s injunctions to love our neighbour and make sure that “the naked are clothed.” We even have a short reflection on Scripture, sitting there on the benches in the coin wash while the washing cycle is underway.

I am also delighted to say that friends from North Decatur Presbyterian Church are joining our laundry ministry and a local mosque is committed to donating clothes. We all believe, you see, that the God of Abraham is a God of promises and God is working through all God’s children.

The 35-Year Layover

By: Vickie Headrick

My name is Vickie Headrick.  I came to Atlanta 35 years ago by way of a Greyhound bus in 1978.  I was coming from Montgomery, headed towards Knoxville—I had a two and a half hour layover here in Atlanta and have been here ever since.Vicki's Hands

Mercy was, and is, a safe haven for me.  It has been a good place for me to visit, especially when there is bad weather (our worst nightmare on the streets).  Before I started attending Mercy I had been homeless for about 15 years off and on.  I am glad to have a place where I am welcome during the day.  I spend a lot of time walking—sometimes all day and half the night— looking for a place where I am welcome to rest or lay my head.  Sometimes I can manage to find a friend to put me up for a few days, it’s nice to get a shower, a fresh change of clothes, and be able to rest peacefully.  Sometimes one of God’s angels comes along and puts me up in a hotel for a couple days.  Much of my day is spent trying to find refuge from the weather or find a spot where I would go unnoticed.

I like how Mercy built itself as community and how we help and nurture our friends, homeless or not.  Mercy has helped me to utilize my spare time.  Like the phrase goes, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.”  I know that I will always have a place to come, not only to utilize the facilities, but to have a chance to mingle with my friends, and participate in Bible studies and recovery meetings.  I have learned a lot.

Recently, we at Mercy joined up with the good people of St. John’s Lutheran Church.  They put aside a part of their church property to have a garden with us.  I had a good time gathering with them at the church one Saturday to start the project.  We nailed boards together to create raised beds, which we then painted and filled with dirt.  There is one bed of tomatoes, another of squash, a third with melons, and the last is filled with strawberries!  It was well worth getting dirty for the project; we will be eating well this summer!

Where Theology Becomes Real

By: Drew Bonner

As a student at Columbia Theological Seminary, getting involved in the world outside of school was important. For someone who spends most of the week in the books and in my head, getting out and actually talking to people has become ch35incredibly important for me. I came to Mercy as a part of Columbia’s Community Engagement Fellowship, a program which places students in communities or organizations for 8-10 hours per week. The goal of the program is for seminarians to get involved in the communities and issues around them while in seminary so that they will continue to do so when they move into their own congregations or other jobs.

At Mercy, I have found much more than a place to get out of the books. I have found a community of faith which can be brutally honest, something I was desperately needing in the midst of a theological education. I have found a place where I feel like I can belong. I have found a place where not only am I becoming involved, but I am learning and growing thanks to an incredible community of people with a vast array of knowledge. And I have found friends. The sights, sounds, and people at Mercy have become a welcome sight to me: from Tom’s explications on The Big Three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), to Dave’s awesome laugh, from Jennaro’s ever-present banter to Lance coming into the clothes closet just to chat with me, and from Terry’s daily handshakes to Craig’s wacky stories, I have found the amazing gift of being part of a diverse and wonderful community.

My time at Mercy is certainly not my first experience working with homelessness, but it is one of my first sustained experiences. For me, there is certainly a great difference between meeting someone once to serve a meal and getting to know someone over the course of a whole year. During my time at Mercy I have developed relationships which have taught me about life on the streets, about the issues which perpetuate our struggles with housing and food, about the ways in which organizations are helping or hurting the members of our community who have no shelter over their head—all things which I could not have learned from simply reading about them in the paper or online. To truly understand, I needed to learn about the challenges and hardships of the streets from those who experience them every day. I have come to understand more and more about addiction, recovery, looking for work, and issues of safety. Walking out and taking food to Catch-Out Corner and seeing the blankets and “spots” in the surrounding parks have helped me to connect the parts of their lives that I hear people talking about to the sights and actions of the streets. Through Bible study and Sunday morning church, I have learned to read scripture through a new lens, through the perspective of our community. The stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or in exile take on a truer and more vivid meaning when reading with our community members for whom exile is a daily experience. Above all, I have learned compassion. I have learned that second and third and fourth chances do not always mean being a push-over, sometimes they are a part of a process toward healing.  We must view each other with fresh eyes each day, because we have no idea what the night before held for the other.

I have learned about forgiveness, grace, and mercy. And God knows we all need more of each of these than we get. As I walk the streets of Poncey-Highlands these days, I don’t simply see homeless people. Instead, I see my community. I see people with faces and names and stories that are life-changing and life-giving. I see a people who care deeply about one another, are not afraid to speak bluntly with one another, and are able to forgive one another. I see God’s church enacting itself in new and beautiful ways.

Our Psalm— Mercy and St. Luke’s Pres

We are all God’s children,IMG_5447

though we don’t always act like it.

Sometimes we feel like we live in chaos,

and it’s scary—we get frustrated.

We know God is always with us and has a plan,

even when we can’t tell.

We are going to help others whenever we can

by listening

praying,

and acting.

We hope that others will have compassion for us,

like we try to have for others.

We commit to being in community, even when it’s messy.

And we will learn from one another with humility.

We do this because we’re trying to follow God’s call—God who is always with me.

Loving one another will be hard, but we will do it anyways.

 

*photo by Lucie Canfield

My Year of Transformation

By: Thomas Gutherie

A year and a half ago, as I packed all my belongings from my one bedroom apartment in Sarasota, FL, I realized life was about to look very different.  After college, I had accepted a job as an assistant front office manager at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota and stayed in that IMG_0131position for six months.  As my time at the Hyatt came to an end, I applied to be a volunteer with PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV)program in Atlanta, GA.

I had no idea what would come from the experience:  I was going from a four-star hotel to an outreach center. From offering hospitality to millionaires to offering it to those who have nothing. From working in a business suit to working in ripped jeans and a t-shirt.  From worshiping in a church to worshiping in a night shelter.

I was a qualified business school graduate and was ready to solve problems and help people in need for a year.  I planned to be a committed volunteer, but I was sure that I would return to the corporate world after my year of service.

When I started the program, I was a lot like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. At that time, my prayers sounded something like this: “Thank you, God. Thank you for not making me like other people: the homeless, drug addicts, mentally ill, prostitutes, criminals.  I mean, God, I gave up my salaried position and 401K to come help THESE people in need; I truly am a great person, aren’t I!”

My YAV placement took me to work on the margins. You might ask what does that mean? The term “marginalized” refers to the process in which individuals and entire communities of people are systematically blocked from rights, opportunities and resources, like housing, employment, health care, civic engagement, democratic participation, and due process.  These resources are generally available to members of society and are key to social integration.

Mercy is not like most other agencies that deal with homelessness. All are welcome; as they say at Mercy, “We will meet you wherever you are.” Mercy is unique in that grace is offered to each and everyone. For example, many of the members at Mercy have been banned from other service providers around Atlanta.

I had a lot of frustrations and questions about what I was really doing in Atlanta when I first began. Things were not going the way that I thought they were going to go, the YAV house community was falling short of my expectations, work was good but repetitive, and I was not really seeing any changes in myself.

Eventually I made the decision to be intentional about all my interactions and decisions.  It was then that, my year truly started. During this time I sought out people and ideas that would force me to change.  It was in this time, there on the margins, that my working with the homeless became much more then a job.  Over the course of the year my work with the marginalized  became my passion and my calling.

It was in the beginning stages of striving to become more intentional that I truly immersed myself into the Mercy community. Every week I would look forward to the time I would get to spend with the caring, laughing, struggling, loving community of people at Mercy.  The stories they shared of struggles, brokenness, and pain were always honest and from the heart, not holding anything back.  It was the pure honesty of the community that allowed me to imagine another way of being.

Mercy is a place of transformation. Not only for those dealing with homelessness, but anyone who walks through the gates: volunteers, interns, youth groups, and mission groups.

One cold morning a young woman came in off the streets with a guitar strapped on her back and hot pink hair.  It was just like any other morning at Mercy, a mass of us sat on the patio and shared hot coffee, bagels, bread and homemade jelly.  Later, after prayer and

Bible study, we gathered in a circle for music time where we loudly sang and played our favorite songs using guitars, djembe, tambourines, shakers, and pots. It happened that this day our new friend decided to join us and eventually asked to share an original song with the group. I could tell she was nervous by the shakiness of her hands and voice. In the middle of her song she left abruptly and fled for the bathroom in tears.

When she returned, she started packing her guitar, looking to get out as quickly as she came in. “Don’t go! Stay here with us and play some more,” the group encouraged. Her demeanor instantly changed and she sat back down in the circle.  At one point, near the end of the day, she even told me that she had been looking for a church family for most of her life and today she had finally found one here at

Mercy. When she left that day she was filled with joy and full of the Holy Spirit.  I was completely blown away by the power of simple, genuine hospitality that Mercy offers each and every day.

Re-engaging this story months later, Chad helped me see that Mercy offered the same love, hospitality, grace to me as the girl.

I finally recognized my own brokenness, which allowed me to start the hard work of becoming whole. Just like the Pharisee in the gospel reading, it is very easy to identify the brokenness of others, especially those living on the margins.

I realized that we are all just as broken as those living on the margins, though I, and many of us, work hard to hide it.  It is in our brokenness that all of us can begin the journey of healing. My prayer sounds now more like that of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, for I realize how broken and full of sin I truly am.”

Brought Together By the Word

By: Maggie Leonard

A couple months ago, I sat in a lunch with other Presbyterian pastors from the central Atlanta region.  As we shared glimpses of our lives with one another, Lindsey Armstrong, one of the pastors of First Presbyterian IMG_3879Church Atlanta, relayed to the group her excitement about starting up a new Wednesday morning Bible study on the book of Hebrews.  She had hoped for 20 participants and wound up with eighty!  As it turns out, Hebrews is a challenging book and she had come across surprisingly few resources to help prepare for the study sessions.  We all nodded, passed on our sympathies for so few resources, and promised to be in touch if we came across anything.

As I got in my car, I couldn’t help but think, “I bet the few resources she has found are from a culturally homogeneous group of academics. We do really good interpretation at Mercy, in fact, our folks are incredible at biblical interpretation—especially the hard stuff.  We are also really good at connecting Bible stories concretely to our lives… maybe First Pres would be interested in hearing the street perspective of Hebrews in addition to doing their own wrestling with the Scriptures…”

It turned out that they were!

For the past couple months, once a week we have been working our way through Hebrews and sharing videos, podcasts, or handouts that summarize key points of our discussion with our friends at First Presbyterian Church Atlanta.  They have gifted us by hearing our voices and we have gifted them with our reflections.  It has been a truly empowering, engaging, and energizing experience for us.  We as a community, teachers and participants both, have been challenged by this Scripture, but ultimately we have grown a great deal in the struggle, and it’s not over yet!

Hebrews is written more like a sermon than a letter.  The author of this sermon desperately tries to explain Jesus’ significance to his audience; much of his cultural explanations are a bit beyond us.  Frequently as we read a passage, we remind one another not to forget the forest for the trees.  While it may be easy to get caught up in the language of angels, high priests, and blood sacrifices, ultimately this book points to God’s grace.

So far, my favorite quote in this book, as folks from Mercy now well know because I re-quote it anytime the first word is repeated, is “encourage one another every day, so long as it is called ‘today’” (3:13).

The author of Hebrews seeks to comfort us with the certain knowledge that we are loved by God and may be liberated from our mistakes because God has cared for them.  Whether or not we acknowledge it, our conscience has been wiped clean and we are called to do work in the world that reflects guiltless hearts freed to love.  We are not alone, God’s beloved people-—all people-—surround us and are called to motivate and help us along the way.  We need not live in fear!

This is not a new message, it is God’s encouragement and hope for us since the beginning of time.  However, IMG_3868we just don’t get it.  We can not do it on our own.  So God came to us, Emmanuel, “with us is God,” to model a way for us.  The way of love, however, always makes us nervous.  It questions our desire to hold power over one another.  So we killed love.  But even that dysfunction, brokenness, shame—whatever you want to call it—did not have the last word.  Resurrection, new life, was born out of that death.

Hebrews tries to make sense of that death within the context of the Jewish religious system.  It is ultimately a word to inspire courage and diligence for God’s people to do good work.

I am grateful for this opportunity to offer and receive encouragement from my sisters and brothers  at First Presbyterian Church Atlanta.  This has been a study that has sufficiently challenged us, and in the midst of our struggle, born much fruit for our faith journey.

We look forward to further partnership opportunities.