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.

GA State Newspaper Article

Link to full article w/photos

Giving them a voice

Atlanta Overlook tells the homeless’ side of the story

By Terah Boyd

Published: Sunday, December 4, 2011

The courtyard of Mercy Community Church quietly fills up with knit-cap covered heads, each waiting patiently for their turn at fresh coffee. As the Bible study next door lets out, Jeremy Godfrey prepares pens and paper for his writer’s workshop class held inside the church. The workshops are designed to help the writers that contribute to his newspaper, Atlanta Overlook, fine-tune their writing skills. However, the Overlook is no ordinary newspaper: the entire writing staff of the paper is homeless.

      “I prefer the term residentially-challenged,” said Gerald, a homeless writer attending the workshop. “When you say residentially-challenged, you can always get a smile out of someone. ” Godfrey, an English professor at Georgia State working on his dissertation, has been an active volunteer with homeless-affiliated organizations before creating the Atlanta Overlook.

       Godfrey said that “not a lot of people know about street papers in general,” but most major cities in North America and Canada now have papers similar in concept to the Overlook.  These papers were what drew Godfrey’s initial inspiration. “I was in the library researching and came across Nashville’s Contributor, which has been established since 2007, has a monthly circulation of over 150,000, which is incredible,” Godfrey said. “It’s basically aphenomenon.”

      Godfrey traveled to Nashville to meet with Tasha French, theContributor’s executive director, to see how her street paper operated.   “I was like, ‘wow, I could do this’ and got really excited,” Godfrey said.

      Godfrey was an active volunteer at Mercy Community Church and they graciously agreed to partner with him to host the workshops.

      Meeting Monday and Thursday mornings, the church workshop hosts seven to twelve homeless people on average. On these days, men and women of varying ages and ethnicities gather around wooden tables in an area that doubles as an art room.

     During one of the meetings last Thursday a woman walked into the room in the middle of the workshop activity, inquiring if this is the place where the homeless people can come and write.

     “I’m a writer! I’m a writer!” said a woman named Beth, who fell on hard times since she returned to the Atlanta area from California. She said she hopes to enroll at Georgia State sometime soon. Another peculiarity of the paper is that the writers double as newspaper vendors as well, which they sell for a dollar a piece.

     “That’s part of the method of empowerment, the way I see it,” Godfrey said. “There’s that one-on-one interaction between the public, passersby, and the vendors.” “[This is] a way of reaching a public that views homelessness in a negative light, hopefully bringing those two sides together; the public and the marginalized community,” he continued.

      One of the most successful vendors is a homeless man named Steve, who said he is grateful for the Occupy Atlanta protesters because they make such great costumers.   “If you go to a rally with Jeremy, you are going to sell some papers,” Godfrey said. “The people of Occupy Atlanta are ready to hear what we have to say.”

     During the workshop last Thursday, the writers and vendors made it clear that they want to make sure their personal distribution of the paper is informative and not perpetuating stereotypes that they say marginalize the homeless “Now, [shoppers] have these homeless papers in their face, they see it as a nuisance… they are trying to shop,” said Legend, a writer for Overlook that is known for his hand-made jewelry, which he sells in Little Five Points.

     He said that he has witnessed over-ambitious solicitation of the paper in that area. How and where they sell the paper matters, especially if they don’t want to drive costumers away. One concern is weather to promote the paper in areas that are notorious for homeless drug abuse. “The people that distribute [Overlook] represent the paper,” said Richard, a homeless writer and vendor who is concerned that untactful distribution could hurt Overlook’s image and stain their message.

     Even with these dangers, Godfrey believes in the positive impact of the paper on the lives of those who contribute to it. “I’ve had people who write for the paper come up to me and say, ‘this is really changing my life,'” Godfrey said. Godfrey has felt the impact as well.

      “It’s really helped me rethink my teaching here at Georgia State,” Godfrey said. “How do you build community? You have so many people from different walks of life walk through the door.   “This is kind of like my life goal.”

Homeless reporters launch Atlanta newspaper

by Jaye Watson, 11Alive Reporter

ATLANTA — In Jeremy Godfrey’s creative writing class, ideas are born, discussed.

“Today’s assignment was based on a writing assignment out of the Chicago street paper,” he said, sitting propped on a chair in front of the classroom. “The three characters in this assignment don’t realize the police are there.”

What this group learns in this classroom will help them report out on the streets, where they live.

Ivan Cooley is uncomfortable being called a reporter. For years the only thing he’s been called is homeless.

“Hopefully people will hear our voice and maybe we won’t be as stigmatized, ” he said.

Cooley’s work is in the debut issue of Atlanta Overlook, a newspaper whose entire reporting staff is homeless. Georgia State doctoral student Jeremy Godfrey launched the paper with the help of Mercy Community Church, which serves many of Atlanta’s poor and homeless.

“I think it has the power to reach a public that views homelessness in a negative light,” Godfrey said.

Every Monday, the reporters meet at the church for a writing workshop and submit stories for the next issue.

Lynda Moore wants to write about being a single homeless mother. “This economy is affecting so many people and it might be them one day,” she said.

Lynda Baker’s article in Overlook is called the Homeless Psalm. She reads part of it aloud, “The system is my shepherd, I lack everything that I need. The system makes me lie down on the concrete…”

They are recollections, opinions, snap shots of lives different than our own. But this slim newspaper is fact for those who live it.

Baker sits at the bus stop in front of the library on Ponce de Leon. She wants it to be her nighttime spot, but one cop keeps telling her she has to move. Having spent most of her adult life on the streets, she knows what people think of her. ”As far as I’ve heard, we’re no good; we’re just bums,” she said.

This paper aims to change that, to serve as a connection between the homeless and the housed, between the average individual and people who feel invisible. These collected articles are a chance for these people to be seen, understood.

“I get a certain satisfaction when I hear people say ‘Hey, that’s pretty good’,” Cooley said.

Cooley’s first article for Atlanta Overlook is a poem, a dream for his life. He reads the last stanza aloud. “Compassion, grace and mercy. Let those be the leaves that cover the branches of my life and grow strong, like a redwood tree.”