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 Brunner 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.
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.
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.
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.
Please meet our new friend Tori! This amazing young woman is a recent high school graduate who is traveling around the country building relationships with folks on the streets, handing out sandwiches to hungry folks, and trying to volunteer where she can. She spent about a week or two with us at Mercy and is moving on to Birmingham next. Please check out her blog and lift her up in prayer as she continues this grand adventure!
On Thanksgiving Day, I was driving down the highway, on my way to Florida to visit my grandparents. Unfortunately, I only made it 40 miles south, because my 1992 Nissan Sentra decided it was not feeling up to the trip. I pulled off to the side of the road. I was officially “broke down”. I made some phone calls. Thankful that at least the towing companies were open on Thanksgiving, I was towed to the nearest garage, and the tow-truck driver was kind enough to drop me off at a Waffle House, where I waited. I was of course disappointed that my Thanksgiving plans were thwarted. I thought about my sad situation; here I was sitting at a Waffle House when I had imagined myself in my grandparent’s living room! Well, fortunately, I had a lot of time to reflect at the Waffle House, and I found myself, to my surprise, becoming deeply thankful. I realized that in the course of only an hour and a half after I broke down, I had communicated with a whole group of people who are my family. Mom and Dad, now living back in Iceland, were worried and wanted to make sure I was alright. My grandparents were calling, and my beloved friend, Heather, and her parents drove an hour and a half to pick me up so I could spend the day with them. I felt literally showered with love and support. Family. What a gift to have a loving family. There is such a deep desire within us all, to be a part of a family. Human beings were created with a need to belong, to “be with.”And the astounding truth of the God we put our faith in, is that this God chose to become “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” This truth takes us back to the creation account in Genesis when God is convinced that it is not good for a human being to be alone (Gen. 2:18). We are created for companionship. We are created to be in relationship. So there I was at the Waffle House, and I found myself surprisingly comforted by the realization that there are people who care about me, who care that I am alive. Someone thinks I matter in this world.
Family at Mercy
Several weeks before my Thanksgiving road trip, I had driven north to Douglasville, Georgia, to pick up a member of our church who had just been released from jail. Rob was in jail for violating his probation. This is not an unusual offense because people who are poor often do not have the financial resources or the stability in life to be able to meet their probation requirements. Probation requirements most often include regular meetings with a probation officer, recovery classes, community service hours and hefty fees (anywhere from $50-$300 per month), which for someone who is homeless can be extremely stressful, if not impossible. So Rob’s situation was not unusual. Not unlike my being stranded by the road waiting for help, Rob was stranded in Douglasville, calling us, his church family, hoping for a ride back to Atlanta.
Rob is not the only one in our church who has probation requirements. Another woman in our church has to see her probation officer every month and account for what she is doing, and pay her fees. Every month since Patricia has been out of jail, I have gone with her to see her probation officer. This can be helpful in that it demonstrates to the officer that Patricia is part of a community that cares about her and advocates for her. But what is perhaps more important is that Patricia knows that we care about her. She thanks me every time I go with her and tells me how much she appreciates the support of her church family.
The evening before Thanksgiving, we decorated our church space with wreaths and lights. We painted cards, and we sang songs. We ate a delicious home-cooked meal of chili with salad and warm bread. And as we began cleaning up after our meal, a group of folks burst into spontaneous song and dance. Our bass player was grooving along as people took up barrels and water coolers and started beating on them! I saw people clapping and smiling, and some were waving their arms in the air. I saw people laughing so hard they had to hold their stomach. I thought to myself, this is family. And I realized then, as I do over and over again at our church, that so many of our church members see Mercy as their family. Or as one woman who cooks for us regularly said to me, “I come here because this is my family. I feel more accepted and loved here than anywhere else I go. Sometimes when I know I’m really struggling, I just start walking toward Mercy Community Church because I know that I will feel at home and I won’t be judged.”
Family in the Gospel Vision
The more I work at Mercy, the more I realize just how important it is to be church. Isn’t the church a new kind of family, a body, a fellowship of human beings who are united through Christ’s love? Every day I see people come through our church doors who have come from deeply dysfunctional families. And I realize how important it is, especially in light of the brokenness in our society and in our families, for Christians to practice being church. Every so often I hear people describe our church as a “homeless ministry” or an “outreach program.” Yet this is not who we are. We are not a program and we are not a service agency. Outreach programs and service agencies can serve good purposes. But Mercy Community Church is a church. This means that we are striving to live into our identity as a family in Christ, or as biblical scholar, Michael Crosby, says, a “household of the just in a world of the unjust,” a family that comes to pick us up when we are stranded on I-75 or in Douglasville, a family that accompanies us to probation appointments or to the Social Security office, a family that encourages us, a family that celebrates and dances and sings on Thanksgiving eve!
One of the ways in which the gospel rattles our cages is that it re-defines the concept of family. God’s vision for family does not meet our cultural and social standards. When a crowd points out to Jesus that his family is asking for him, Jesus challenges them by asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus looks around at those seated with him and answers his own question, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:32-35). In a culture where loyalty, honor, and social status were defined through kinship, Jesus’ words would have sounded absurd. Is our culture so different? What about us? Do Jesus’ words about God’s new understanding of family disturb us, too? They certainly challenge me. Perhaps Jesus’ words challenge me more because I have been blessed with such a loving biological family. Yet, even as I give thanks for this gift in my life, I am aware that Christ calls me to receive a new family, to open my arms to strangers.
We are not made to be alone. My prayer for all of us is that we would be church during this Christmas season. That we would practice the astonishing good news of Christmas: that God is with us. And that we would likewise bewith one another as God’s family.