A Holy and Wholly Different Experience



By: Parrish Jones

Pastor Maggie Leonard likes to throw water around, especially baptismal water.

As she writes in her church newsletter, “It is no mistake when the water poured into our baptismal font gathers energy and sloshes over the sides onto the floor. God is there, right in the middle of the mess of our relationships.” Worshippers at Atlanta’s Mercy Community Church, which is nested in the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church, where Leonard serves, find the spray from the water a bit surprising, but Leonard hopes all will come to accept it as “a delicious drop of grace on our skin.”

Being at Mercy Community Church is like entering into baptism as one finds oneself immersed in a holy and wholly different experience — homeless people eat breakfast, serving each other, anxious to share about all that is being done in the community. Instead of the housed serving the homeless, one finds the homeless serving each other and the housed. Following breakfast, the participants immerse themselves in fellowship, worship and the Word.

Each of the five weekly services, occurring on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, incorporates a different creative enrichment program: writing, small group counseling sessions, drawing and painting. Also on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, worshipers prepare food and serve it on the streets. On Sundays, Mercy feasts at the Lord’s Table and, then holds a common meal.

This schedule sounds like a full plate for the two-full time pastors — Leonard and Chad Hyatt —both of whom are serving without compensation except for the few donations Leonard gets from friends and family. Hyatt and his wife derive their income from her work at a local university.

This decision came after several years of serving as a full-time staff member of a Pentecostal church. Hyatt experienced a transformative experience in Jamaica when he traveled there to do mission work with the Roman Catholic order Missionaries of the Poor. He helped monks trying to rescue a man from a stoning and then ministered to him in his dying moments. Hyatt referred to this experience as a baptism that led him and his wife to move closer to the margins of ministry.

Leonard got involved in Mercy while working as a chaplain at an Atlanta hospital. She went with a friend and couldn’t stop going. When her first call came up, she felt committed to the community and followed that call, receiving validation through the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She was ordained by the presbytery at a service at Mercy. Those who can’t afford a full-time pastor need pastoral care just as much as those who can, Leonard said.

It is an odd mix for a church to have a Presbyterian pastor working with a Pentecostal pastor who studied at a Methodist school of theology. But Hyatt and Leonard celebrate their different styles of worship just as they celebrate the diversity of Mercy, which includes members of all ages and of Anglo, African American and Latino backgrounds.

The diversity is also celebrated by music ranging from rock ‘n’ roll to quietly meditative. The singing is accompanied by guitars, an African Djembe drum, a vase with glass stick, a soup pot, coffee cups, tambourines and a gourd shaker.

While Mercy is made up of mostly people who are homeless, other members have homes of varying degrees of stability. Mercy regularly prays for those who are incarcerated or dealing with mental or physical illness. Bible studies deal honestly with the issue of addictions and other “sinful” behaviors.

Who are the members? Hyatt replied as Leonard nodded agreement, “Those who come. Traditional models of membership can exclude and we want to include.” Some who are highly engaged with Mercy are members of other churches. In this, and other respects, Mercy is unlike most churches as Kevin Bowden, who shared his gift of music during worship, said, “I have found God, love, grace and home here at Mercy.”

Also, unlike many churches, Mercy is not insular — it touches the lives of the more than 250 people it counts as its community. Part of Mercy’s ministry is keeping track of those who are serving prison sentences, thereby maintaining their connection to the community.

Three days a week, Mercy immerses itself in the city by loading grocery carts with soup, water, sandwiches and coffee and pushing them to two locations to share food on the street. At each place, they pause and bless the food that it may bless the lives of those who eat it and thereby continue the circle of baptism by which we promise to nurture God’s children with faithfulness.

Parrish Jones is an ordained minister member of St. Augustine Presbytery and teaches philosophy at St. Johns River State College and writes for PNS and other media outlets. He has recently published Presbyterians on the Frontier: A Story of Presbyterian Border Ministry 1984 to 2014. You can purchase his book and learn more about his work at www.presbyteriansonthefrontier.net.

Dante’s Baptism

By: Megan Hodges

Surrounded by all of God’s followers

Dante Evan Weaver was welcomed John, Magee, Dante

with open arms and open hearts.

Drop by drop,

water gently touched Dante’s head

as he was blessed in the name

of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is as if we saw God’s Word

in the pure water dripping

on Dante’s face:




The joyous  community gathered around the little table

and welcomed Dante into

the Mercy community.

Everyone was able to witness

God’s love at Mercy’s first baptism.

Finding Grace in the Mess

By: Maggie Leonard

Fear and determination filled her eyes, I could see it as she looked from me, to her paper, to the crowd.  I grasped one shaky hand in mine and steadied the paper she held with my other hand.  Her voice quivered but she spoke with determination as the crowd silently coaxed and encouraged her from their seats.

“Maggie, you will need water in ministry—to drink when it’s hot outside, to make soup and coffee, and in cleaning up our space.  You have shown me that therembap10 is life inside of me, life that is like the water that Jesus promised to the woman at the well.  You have helped me to know how to drink water when I am thirsty—that is, how to ask God to help me.  Use this water both as you teach others and as you are taught by others.”

With that, she handed me a simple glass bowl filled with water.  A gift of ministry for me to cherish and utilize wherever God called me.

How frequently we try to limit where God’s grace works—declaring some water holier than other water. How wise Cheree was to offer me the simple gift of water at my ordination, so versatile and yet often overlooked in its importance in doing God’s work of mercy.

I did not think about it much at the time, but how precious it was for this symbol to make an appearance on my ordination day, just as it did when the church first proclaimed God’s claim upon my life and their promise to help nurture me that I might know God’s call.  In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, water regularly marks both the beginning of a new journey at the bequest of God and salvation in general.

I love the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts, a castrated slave. Though he traveled a great distance to worship, there was, and always would be, rejected from the temple for his impurity—made “unclean” by his mutilation and therefore outside the “righteous” people of God. It was this man who asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  For him, the good news was not just of Jesus, but the promise of inclusion in God’s people. We read in Acts that they came up out of the water.  Following God’s call is not a journey we are expected to endeavor alone.

Every Sunday as we gather at Mercy, we ground ourselves by remembering the call God paces upon us in community. The reality is that baptismal water and the promises we make to those who are baptized is not limited just to cute babies.  We never age out of being those who the church promises to nurture and for whom we care.  We are each called into that beautifully broken people of God!  In our baptism we are not only claimed by God, but we are called to care for others and to share our own vulnerability.  Being baptized into a community is no joke.  We are a diverse people with many strong personalities and ways of living; our life together is frequently complicated and messy.

It is no mistake when the water poured into our baptismal font gathers energy and sloshes over the sides onto the floor.  God is there, right in the middle of the mess of our relationships.

Our church members, like many in other churches, fear the spray—I suppose some could say that I am to blame for our empty chairs on the first and second row—but I look forward to the day when the splashing water will be accepted as a delicious drop of grace on our skin.  How often we encounter the Holy Spirit in our midst and do not realize it!  If only we could see the possibilities the water holds—a puddle-time-warp in which to stomp and play and transport us to spryer days, a start in our mopping, a foot-washing, an illustration of the rippling effect of our actions, an escape from the summer heat…

It could be nothing less than God’s grace that brought Philip and the eunuch by a pool in the middle of the desert.  If only we found the same relief and joy in the water!  God’s grace spills out indiscriminately on the rocky ground, thorny patches, and church floors.  But it doesn’t stop there!  Each sip of coffee, rain storm, bowl of soup, newly cleaned floor, shower, or swimming pool can be a reminder of our baptism.  Like the Eunuch, our eyes become attuned to the water God places before us in dry places and help us to see how it might faithfully be used!

From His Side Blood and Water Flowed

By: Chad Hyatt

The story of Mercy begins with a baptism.  I had been baptized before, while in college.  That earlier one was the “official” one—the one we recall when invited in worship to remember our baptism.  It holds deep meaning for me still and need never be repeated.  But the baptism that began Mercy was 24-41altogether different.  I didn’t seek it.  It caught me: sudden, spontaneous, of the moment, in the Spirit—not unlike the surprising flow of blood and water from the wounded side of Jesus on the cross (John 19.34-35).

I was working in Kingston, Jamaica, with the Missionaries of the Poor, a Catholic religious order founded in the early 1980s by Father Richard Ho Lung.  For those who have no idea about the varieties of Catholic religious life, I usually describe MOP as “Mother Teresa for guys.”  All over the world, communities of vowed brothers give their lives alongside the poorest of the poor in “joyful service with Christ on the cross.”  Daily life is organized around prayer, community, and the works of mercy: to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, to welcome the stranger, and to visit the sick and the prisoner.

A man, already dying from AIDS and abandoned in the dirty gutter of a Kingston alley, was about to be stoned to death by a frenzied crowd.  One of the brothers ran into the streets, somehow carrying with him enough authority to disperse a mad, stone-wielding mob, and along with another one of the brothers, brought the dying man back to the house.  Immediately, they set about the task of cleaning the man from the blood and dirt and filth that covered him, head to toe.  It was more than the two brothers could manage themselves.  Close at hand and watching it all, one of the brothers saw me and asked if I would help.

That was my call to baptism, there in the showers of a Jamaican house of hospitality.  I held the man as best as I could, my trembling arms beneath his sagging shoulders, as we stood together under the cold water that poured from the shower head.  The two brothers worked together, slowly, methodically, gently, stripping the ragged and filthy clothes from his wounded body.  Water mixed with dirt and filth, and mud and blood mingled, as the streams ran in widening arcs toward the drain at our feet.

Holding his wounded body in my arms, I was baptized—plunged deeply and outside my control—into the human experience, one marked as indelibly as if by blood with suffering and death.  Why is our experience, created for beauty, soaked in blood?  Because we hurt one another.  And we hurt ourselves.

As Father Christian de Chergé, one of the Trappist monks martyred in Algeria, observed with humble wisdom:  “I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.”

But baptism is being plunged not just more deeply into suffering but more deeply into Christ.  Jesus himself was immersed into the depths of suffering and death, becoming a “curse for us.” (Galatians 3.13-14)  Like Jesus, the man I held in my arms was a scapegoat, already outcast and now ready for sacrifice.  In the  eyes of the mob, this man with AIDS was cursed.  They saw him as an evil that must be eliminated for fear the curse would spread to include them.  But Jesus has once for all redeemed us from such scapegoating violence.  Through Christ we are baptized into the experience of cursedness so that we might be delivered from it—from both the shame of being the one cursed and the fear that drives us to curse one another.  In Christ, we see most clearly that God is present in our suffering—and does not abandon us even when we cause the suffering of others.  Always God is active to save, to heal, to lead us toward life.

In baptism, we say both a “yes” and a “no.”  We say no to Satan, the “accuser”: the frenzied fingerpointer, the rabid segregationist, the angry stone-thrower—the dark power behind all our scapegoating.

From these works we turn away.  But saying no is never enough; we must also say yes.  We say yes not just to God but to God’s own work in our broken world: the works of mercy.  We become part of a community with a vocation of yes: of engagement with pain and suffering, with brokenness and death—with the human experience, even at its darkest depths.

The grace to be found in the story of the man dying with AIDS is not in the event itself, in the simple fact that it was happening.  Grace is found in seeing that it is happening—that it has happened, that it will happen—and entering into it so that we might act to redeem.  We are called to act with God and with our sisters and brothers to redeem everyone who suffers—and all who create suffering.  By grace we know violence must be stopped, but because of grace, it cannot be stopped without our participation.

This is the deep call of Mercy—and how it started with a baptism.  Our church is the direct result of experiencing God’s grace by holding a dying man in a shower and the need to say yes to that grace.

Mercy is a community with a vocation of yes.  We are sent out into all the world but particularly into the abandoned alley-ways where children of God are left to die—so that all of us might be lifted up together into God’s own decisive and resounding yes to life.  This is my story, but I believe it is the call of us all.

May God give us the grace to remember our baptism.