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.

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

Scales Falling off

By: Justin Chambers

I have been here in Georgia and at Mercy for roughly eight months now.  That’s been more than enough time to have more than a few life-changing experiences. Each experience has invited and forced me to grow my proverbial edges, sometimes to the point of discomfort.  Yet each produced amazing growth. I came to this year of service expecting to help others and be the face of God for someone else.  More often, however, I have seen God’s face in those I came to served. Justin Eating

I followed God’s call to Atlanta, but was skeptical about what I would find.  I wondered if I was going through some kind of a quarter-life crisis, spending a year volunteering instead of getting a “real job.”  I came seeking to change the world, instead I have had a journey-to-Damascus-scales-falling-off-the-eyes-life-changing kind of experience.

I first started to notice that my world view was changing when I visited the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia—it is the largest immigrant detention facility in the country and is privately owned.  The detention center looked a lot like a prison to me.  Security was tight: the gates were 10 feet high with barbed wire at the top, families were sent away unable to visit their loved ones, and for those of us who did make it in, we had to talk to the detainees on a telephone because the plastic window was too thick for sound to pass through.

I assumed once again that I would have the opportunity to be a super-volunteer and minister to an “evil-doer” who had reason to be locked away. Once again, I was wrong. The detainee ministered to me more than he may ever know.  He asked me about my life  goals—he was genuinely interested, and it showed. We even talked about my relationship with my estranged eldest brother who is in prison. My life connected with that of this stranger—noticing injustices in the world and expressing our hopes for the years to come. In the midst of all the uncertainty—deportation—we connected and the figurative barriers fell, though the thick plastic remained. At the end of our conversation, we fist-bumped through the glass and parted ways.

I had no idea that many people like my new friend had no choice in  coming to the States. Frequently, people are brought to the States by their parents when they are just two or three because their parents hope to be able to better provide for their family here.  And honestly, I had never cared about what I did not know—I was comfortable with the “us/them” rhetoric and scapegoating debates of politics.  They were not like me and it did not concern me.

Soon after, I found myself standing at Catch-Out Corner sharing food with Mercy.  As I looked at my sisters and brothers who had gathered around our coolers, grateful for lunch with few prospects of catching-out a day labor job, I realized that many of my friends could easily end up in the detention center.  I saw how vulnerable my Latino sisters and brothers were, standing out on this corner, ready to work, and frequently watched by the police. I knew I saw them differently.

But they were not the only people I saw differently.  I knew other scales had fallen to the ground, in fact, the ground around me was littered with scales.  I hadn’t realized it, but I spent my first month at Mercy in a state of blindness.   I realized that day by day folks in our community were helping to free me of those scales that blinded my eyes.   Now I am aware that some days my sisters and brothers merely had to wipe the scales off, my view of the world changed, became clearer.  Other days they were surely using pliers to yank off the scales as I resisted change.

I am grateful to know that I don’t go about experiencing change alone.  I am supported.  I am in community.  Just as Paul had Ananias, I have my sisters and brothers at Mercy walking with me.  We help each other.  Saul would never have regained his sight if it were not for his obedience and the obedience of Ananias. Talk about walking by faith and not by sight! Ananias chose a hard, uncomfortable journey—that is living in community. We all have shameful moments in our past, but in this same community we come together and find, or regain, our sight and perspective. It is in this community where folks come and touch my eyes with their stories.  Day by day, I learn to see this world a little differently.

This community has changed my life; I can never look at church the same. Truth be told, sometimes I find myself living with my new sight and other times I find myself on my knees trying to piece my old life back together.

Christ offers new sight every day! The choice is ours. We can either stand up and live or try to take steps back into blindness.

I know I have so much more to see and learn (and it’s probably going to take a jackhammer to get the rest of the scales off), but I choose to see. I choose to see the church being called outside the four walls of a building. I choose to go out to the hedges and highways, remembering to look in the hedge and under the highway because that may be where one of our brothers or sisters is looking for community. Seeing as Christ sees is a process, one that can be painful and joyous; yet a process never the less. I look forward to what is to come; there is no point in turning back now!

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

Poem written by friends visiting from Oxford, MS

By: St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church’s Youth Group

From what we have, let us share!

As God’s people, we support one another because God loves and supports us.

We will encourage one another every today.Photo on 2013-03-11 at 14.13

For all we lose physically from our abundance, we gain spiritually.

When we’re lost in dark valleys—when we feel anguish, brokenness, hopelessness, sadness, anger, loneliness—let us helping hand, comforting shoulder, and listening ear we will accept the help of our neighbors.

When we are feeling good, healthy, and energetic, we will do the same for others.

We, God’s people, will provide warm beds to lay our hearts and heads.

May we forever place our hope in the Lord who will give us the confidence and courage to do this good work.

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.

SACPC Youth

Youth groups this summer have been re-writing Lynda’s Homeless Psalm and Psalm 23 to reflect how we experience God in the world. This is the Psalm that the youth choir from St. Andrews-Covenant Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC and members of Mercy wrote together:

God is our teacher, leader, guide, protector, father, mother, brother, sister, and friend.

We are content in the face of challenges, you are always with me in different forms.

We lie down in the woods, alley, train, abandoned buildings, under the bridge, and comfortable in bed.

As we walk, we listen for God and know you are near.

Our prejudice and ignorance try to destroy us.

We gather round your table, friends and enemies unified in your love.

In that moment, we find hope—a glimpse of what you want us to be.

Amen.