FORGIVE ME

By: Maggie Leonard

THE PROBLEM

I think I might be too churched. Not in a I’m-too-institutionalized kind of way, but rather in the well-duh-of-course-God-and-Jesus-forgive-us kind of way. In Matthew 9, the legal experts are offended by Jesus’ IMG_20150831_171826forgiveness, and somehow I am completely unimpressed by Jesus ability to forgive sins. It is odd how blasé we can view the amazing things God is at work doing. These are the two responses—indifference or offense—I have seen time and again in different Bible passages about Jesus forgiving sins, and physically healing someone in the process. Every time I read them, I remain unimpressed.

For the first time ever, I have realized that there is a third response to Jesus—one different than indifference or offense, it is the response of the crowd. After the man leaves, the witnesses ‘were afraid and praised God who had given such authority to human beings.’ Not authority given to the Human One—the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah.—God’s authority of forgiveness was given to human beings, to us. The crowd saw the implications of Jesus’ authority, and it terrified them. They saw that they were called to follow and do likewise, to forgive others.

What would it look like to live in a world in which only God forgives? I shudder to think of it.

What is truly offensive is not that Jesus forgave the man, but that God has the audacity to call us into a life that includes the hard work of forgiveness as well. Jesus does not just forgive sins because he is God and can do nearly impossible things, but because he is forging the path we are so resistant to take.

Writing this article has been challenging for me, and so absolutely necessary. As is true of many of us, I have had a lot of experience in my still young life with forgiveness—sometimes more successfully than other times. Probably like you, I have been the one who needs to be forgiven, the one who forgives, and sometimes the one doing the work all alone. In all its complexity, I think that forgiveness is one of the most important things that we can learn to do—and one of the things that as a society we often quip proverbs about doing but rarely engage in reality.

In preparation for this article I was curious, so I googled, ‘how to forgive’ just to see what would come up. I found most of them lacking. Almost all of the hits involved lists of reasons that pointed to the philosophy of why we should forgive, as if we needed to be convinced that forgiveness is ultimately a good thing.

I hope all of us can agree forgiveness is good.

If the advice went any deeper than ‘this is why you should forgive,’ it was entirely based on self-work. Now self-work is incredibly important for forgiveness, and sometimes our only option. Sometimes, however, we need to forgive people with whom we would like to maintain connection. This is even trickier and something very few articles try to tackle. None of the articles I found tried to take on forgiveness as a joint effort, in large part, I suppose, because it is work that is half-way out of our control.

With God, forgiveness is always there, so it gives the illusion of being something that only we, as the offender, need to engage. Jesus is so good; he lets go of things so quickly. I wish it were so easy for me.

I have started to think of forgiveness as the work we do in our hearts—both the inward look of self-reflection, as well as the outward look of understanding the other person with whom our relationship is broken. True reconciliation—the work of forgiveness between humans—requires inner work and outer conversation. To bring about reconciliation much work and willingness to sit with discomfort is required, but with two willing parties, reconciliation can be truly incredible.

WHERE WE MESS IT UP

Below I have outlined some of the pitfalls of forgiveness and reconciliation that we fall into, both as the forgivers and the offenders. It is not an exhaustive list by any means, but a working list that I am sure I’ll be updating all my life. I hope you will explore the different dimensions of forgiveness with me and in your own life. I will warn you, reading this list is a bit of a bummer and is a little dry. Hopefully, it will help us all become more aware how we might hope to engage forgiveness and reconciliation differently the next time around.

We hide behind God’s power

We are comfortable with God forgiving us, but if someone else hurts my feelings, you’ll be lucky to be forgiven—and I’m surely not going to forget! We often add that last part just for good measure.

By telling ourselves only God can forgive sins, we excuse ourselves as participants from God’s work of reconciliation in the world. We philosophize ‘sin’ to the point that we no longer see sin as the real ways in which we actually hurt one another. As we hear the call in Matthew 9, we are called to give others the same gifts God gives us.

We doubt forgiveness or think it is something to be earned

We really do doubt forgiveness when it is given—either because we do not believe it is truly a gift or we do not see ourselves (or others) as worthy of it. Perhaps this is why Jesus had to visibly demonstrate the healing that had occurred. We put so much more stock in truths that we see—proof, data, and pie charts are crucial to our buying into a vision. Forgiveness is something earned, or so it seems sometimes. It comes with strings—real or perceived. For many of us, forgiveness is something that someone else has held as a carrot in front of us, always out of reach. Other times in our guilt we feel that we must make amends but don’t believe that we have made up for what we did in the first place. We do not believe that a gift can be freely given or that we can freely accept it. When we are unforgiven, we are downcast with hurt or guilt, turning our eyes away from hope. Maybe this is why Jesus told the man, ‘be encouraged’ or ‘take heart.’

Forgiveness is a gift. It is freely given by the person who has been hurt. It is not a tool for manipulation nor is it something we can earn. There may be other consequences for our actions, but the gift of forgiveness is free.

We define ourselves by our hurt, believe we are a martyr, are lonely, or wear our hurt like a badge

Sometimes we tell the story of how we were hurt again and again to our friends, remaining angry about the nerve of the other person. We cling to the hurt. We ban together with others who have also experienced our hurt. We push it in the face of others. We want others to know how hurt we are.

When we feel hurt and lonely, we wish to have company where we are—which is most easily done if someone Cody, Arnold, Genaroelse also feels lonely or even just lowly. We dwell on the negative and tear down the other person in or conflict—or even lash out at unsuspecting passersby. In a way, we are comforted by someone else feeling what we feel.

Too often we are so focused upon our pain that we forget that the person who hurt us may already feel hurt too. In fact, some of their prior hurt is probably at the root of their action.

Finding solidarity with others who have been hurt is not a bad thing. However, eventually, the healing process takes us outside of our hurt. We have to do the hard work of letting go that Jesus makes look so effortless. We liberate both ourselves and others when we forgive. This work takes time. It is hard. But it is also good to be defined by something other than hurt.

We say it is too hard, avoid it, or believe others should just ‘get over it’

The truth is that forgiveness is hard, so we frequently gloss over it or avoid it entirely. True Christians forgive, we say to the person we hurt. Or we decide it’s really their problem if they don’t like what we did, they should just get over whatever ails them.

Sometimes we even engage the process of forgiveness for a little while, then stop and abandon the relationship entirely—it really was not working out anyway and I don’t have the energy for this.

Some of us believe conflict is to be avoided at all costs, and so we avoid the elephant in the room or even the person if we think that they will make us talk about our difference of opinions. Or perhaps, we tell ourselves, if we turn a blind eye to a problem, it will cease to exist. Even when the other person is eager to put in the work, we step away and make excuses like, ‘I am stable, my life is stable, and those who rock my placid stability do not maintain a lifestyle that I wish to further engage.’

Talking about hurt feelings is always hard and uncomfortable, but it has to happen. Never will we find someone else who agrees with us all of the time. We will find ourselves lonely or without real, intimate relationships if we always run away when conflict arises.

Yes, there are times when the healthiest thing we can do is take time away from a relationship. But at the very least, we should directly name our intention to stop the conversation for a time and express our hope for the health and well-being of all involved.

We get defensive

Defensiveness is not an emotion or a tactic that we are taught early on to identify, like happy or sad or angry. I literally had no idea what the term meant for years. When we are defensive, we all make excuses for ourselves and our bad behavior based on what we intended. When we hear that we have hurt someone, we defend what we did—after all, ‘I am a good person’ or ‘I didn’t mean that.’ Even if we can admit fault, or that we should have done things differently, we forget the simple power of two words: ‘I’m sorry.’

Without blaming the victim, it is important to see how both parties always play a part. Learning happens for both the offender and the offendee—perhaps I need to learn to control how I express my anger, perhaps I need to leave an abusive conversation more quickly, perhaps I acted without consulting someone. Not only will humility be your friend in this process of self-reflection, but it will also help you hear and honor the experience of the other person.

When we stand alone

And when one of us cannot, for whatever reason, engage the process, we still have to separate out what we contributed to the situation from what the other person contributed. Sometimes we will have to learn to forgive someone without conversation. Other times we will have to forgive ourselves for our poor choices in engaging another.

It is such a relief when we offer forgiveness to one another, but we should never remain ensnared in guilt or shame or hurt or anger because someone continues to try and punish us. In every painful situation, there is much more there than is ours alone.

OUR HOPE

I am grateful to say that I have some truly remarkable colleagues, friends, and family members with whom I have the privilege of sharing the gift of life. Things are not always easy, but they have helped teach me how to live in love and work through both my hurt and their hurt.

We need to have the courage to say ‘I’m sorry.’ We need to have the courage to say, ‘I forgive you.’ So often we say everything else.

Some things are a big deal. Some things are a small deal. But all the things need to be dealt with. To journey through difficult times together, we must be dedicated to our relationships and trust that what is said is said in love. We will both have work to do along the way. When we are healthy, we can allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of emotions—grief, anger, hurt, kindness, and compassion—toward a person with whom we are in 64681_865416436388_2703986_47956248_1169912_nconflict. In forgiveness and reconciliation, we acknowledge our hurt and anger, but more than that, we learn to respond to our feelings from a place of kindness rather than rage. Working through hurt requires both parties to be vulnerable—vulnerable about weakness (I was hurt) and vulnerable about fault (that happened as a result of what I did). We will both feel exposed.

We have to learn to name what we need after a conflict—not to hold another person for ransom, but to help speed the process of reconciliation. Naming needs can help us establish new boundaries or regain trust. Sometimes we just need to sit in silence, to take a break from anger and sadness, or to return to the situation later. Eventually, we are called to learn from our mistakes, to move forward, and to make memories.

Thanks be to God that God offers us the gift of forgiveness and empowers us to forgive each other.

Ten Years at Mercy

By: Johnathan Wells

The past ten years have been a pleasure to watch and experience. Mercy has undergone many changes, and I have been there to witness all of them. We at Mercy are blessed to be fed and clothed with good, orderly IMG_6571direction. For many of us, we are aiming for a more disciplined life, though each member is given freedom of choice in all their affairs. Pastors Chad Hyatt and Maggie Leonard have been wonderful in their contributions to growing Mercy Church. We are also blessed that other churches mingle with us and serve along side of us as volunteers. I personally like participating in the youth development with church groups from across the country—experiences with groups from North and South Carolina have been particularly meaningful for me. Pastor Maggie is a wonderful yoga instructor and does well with crisis management. It is my hope that the members of Mercy Church will encourage their leadership team to broaden the church programs to emphasize self-dependency. May God grant and give us at Mercy God’s wonderful grace to better our choices and to serve each other for many years to come.

A Holy and Wholly Different Experience

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http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/7/21/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.

My Calling, right now

By: Justin Chambers

All my life it seems I have been searching for the proverbial “call” or purpose for what I am supposed to do with my life.  I wanted God to come down and say, “This is Justin, my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased, this is what I have called him to do.”  ch43

I recently went to a retreat where an awesome, awesome man-of-God shared some wise words that have changed my outlook (I really enjoy his speaking as you may be able to tell).  David LaMotte spoke, and sang, some great messages, but what really stood out to me was his belief we do not have a purpose; as in a singular call in life.  We do, however, have many callings.  This idea was profound for me because I have spent much time—perhaps even wasting time—searching for my one singular call.  This idea, this sense of call has been both what I have been passionate and excited to find, and horrified and stressed to discover.  What could this calling be?

If we have many callings, then we are called to live in the moment and to be faithful to the calling of that moment. My call today may be to share my sandwich with the person sitting on the curb next to me. Or, my calling tonight may be to listen to how my roommate’s day went, without interrupting or trying to put in my opinion; just listening.

I decided to do a second YAV year after meeting with the director of an organization that engages the prison system.  I hope to become a lawyer and thought the opportunity would be advantageous to my career.  When funding fell through, it felt like my calling was also blocked.  Through some conversations, and knowing that Mercy has wanted to be more intentional about supporting our members while they are locked-up, we decided to formally expand Mercy’s ministry to include a jail and prison ministry.  I am interning with them to help in this expansion.  Things finally seem to be falling in place, though not in ways that I expected.

One Friday, during a Bible study with a passage rooted in community and solidarity, Pastor Maggie illustrated the theme by using an example from the civil rights movement.  When one activist was attacked by a mob, the others dived into the skirmish so that the blows would be divided between many—I remember her acting it out at Mercy.  What an awesome example of solidarity.  I do not know what situations I will have to dive into this year while walking in solidarity with people in the correctional system and I do not know what bruises will come along with it, but I do know is that God is in this call.  God is present behind the walls, the fences, the barbed wire and the chains.

One of my friends, a frail, fifty year-old sister who is a part of our Mercy community, was lost behind those walls.  Gunnar, our sister, who is homeless, was arrested in the early part of February for trespassing when she took refuge in a parking garage—the safest spot she could find to lay her head.  Spring and summer went by, we were confused by why she did not have a release date; we prayed for her, along with other folks in jail.

At the beginning of my new internship, I was tasked with not just praying for Gunnar but finding out why she had been in jail for so long and what was needed for her release. By our estimation, she should have been released long ago.  I called the local jails and got bounced back and forth between offices, leaving many voicemails saying, “Hi, my name is Justin. How are you today? I was wandering if you could help me find a friend of mine; she seems to be lost in the system.” Nobody had an answer.

One Monday, I was overcome with joy to arrive at Mercy and see our sister.  When I interviewed her about her experience in jail, it became apparent that the stories of what she was being told on the inside and what I was being told on the outside did not match up.

Gunnar was sentenced to seven days, but instead sat for seven months in a single cell by herself for twenty-three hours a day.  I do not know if it was our calls or if someone finally realized on their own that a mistake had been made, but whatever it was I give thanks for the captive being set free.

I think I have found that passion about which David talked. I have found that thing that I have been trying to describe to people for years, yet words seem not to come. I can see how broken our criminal justice system is and, for now, I am not called to change it but to be present, if only by phone, with people who are navigating it from the inside.  Solidarity can be hard and messy at times, but it is the calling; my calling.

A Bad Pray-er

By: Maggie Leonard

I have a confession to make.  For most of my life I have not been good at praying—I do not mean that I did not pray well, I mean that I did not pray.

During church service prayers I colored loudly (according to my parents).  I groaned and protested at going to youth group.

In college, I hid when asked to pray aloud at the campus ministry.

In seminary, there was no room for heart in my formal prayers, beautifully crafted words of hope that pointed to a carefully plotted theology of God’s promises.  ch51Moreover, I learned about spiritual formation and spiritual direction and thought it to be a boring practice for self-indulgent, lazy, and/or privileged people.  I knew that good Christians, and especially pastors, prayed, and I felt sort of bad that I did not, but there was too much to do and prayer felt trite.

When I was a chaplain at a local hospital, because it was my job, I prayed with people and asked for things—but never too much, just in case a healing was not in God’s plan, and carefully choosing my words so not to offend my own theology.

Yes.  I was a bad pray-er.

Or at least I was bad at what I thought it should look like.

When I first started at Mercy, we prayed unscripted prayers before meals and once during the Sunday service.  That was it; and it suited me just fine.  After a few months the hives I develped from having to pray without warning, on cue, and without specific theme, had almost started to disapate. We Presbyterians have prayers of confession, for illumination, of intercession, of Great Thanksgiving, before the offering, after the offering—each one separate and spoken at the appropriate time during the service.  When we first decided to switch the schedule and Chad suggested that we have an hour of prayer every time we met, I almost quit—or at least gave him a look of disbelief and skepticism.  To spend long periods of time in our little noisy church each day in prayer?  He must have gone crazy.

The hour was boring enough, but I had to act like it meant something to me, and I had to herd others who were equally uninterested  and skeptical into the room.  Together we started to explore the Psalms, the Rosary, “silence” (Chad playing music in the background, bags rustling, food being eaten), and Ignatius’ Examen—which I thought of as looking at the highs and lows of the day.  Most days, words felt empty and, if I were doing the Examen, I was so aware of my failures—when I spoke in a harsh voice, acted in spite, paid less attention to someone than they deserved, or took something personally that was not meant with ill-intent—that I forgot about grace.  Reviewing my day only brought guilt.

I prayed, like a good Christian, about once a year, and it was not while I was at Mercy.  I had a stirring in my soul when I journeyed to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to help facilitate conferences or retreats.  The worship services on those retreats always filled me and left me with a great energy and sense of peace.  The one time I journaled that year would be while there—in the quiet of that place, staring off into the expansive plains behind which majestic mountains and cliffs stood, I could see how God had been at work in my life that past year.

I always felt refreshed after my time in New Mexico, but, at best, that opportunity only came around once a year.  The other 360 days a year, I would try to calm my anxiety with action, doing something about the problem.  God was busy—and only helps those who help themselves—so it all depended on me, I thought.  My call was set before me; I already understood it, so I set to work.  I would return to herding at Mercy.  The fix was temporary, it was not sustainable, nor would my work be if I did not change something.  I had to find ways to incorporate what I did at Ghost Ranch in my everyday life—being unplugged, journaling, praying, silence, hiking, reflecting.  I realized that many of those things could be done at home.

I started hiking on Saturdays and realized that they were indeed walking prayers.  I read a chapter on a book of spirituality toward the beginning of my hike which gave me a framework for my thoughts. The processing I do, an opportunity to reflect on my week, allows me to imagine new ways of engaging old problems, and see where God has been at work.

I also found myself sitting in my bedroom, lighting a candle and meditating.  Perpetually, I am in my head—worrying, analyzing, dreaming.  Breath prayers became crucial for my sanity; a break from the business, a break from the anxiety, a break from the fear that I hold.  In those moments when I bring my attention to my breath and slow it down, I start to become aware of the energy in my body.

I recently visited a little house of prayer in south Georgia called Green Bough, excited to see a dear friend.  I was surprised to discover that I left not only with a full heart from seeing a kindred spirit, but also with an awakened sense of rhythm.  At Green Bough we prayed together multiple times a day—midmorning, evening, and night—and I also had short devotions by myself first thing in the morning and last thing before bed.  Upon returning home, I yearned for those moments of communal quiet and the rhythm of stopping to appreciate what God was doing that day.  I actually wanted to come back and pray at, with, and for Mercy.  I wanted to make a regular and nightly ritual of prayer and remembrance.

The funny thing is, when one starts to feel the rhythm of prayer, its hard not to discount where prayer is.  I may have been bad at praying the way I though prayer was supposed to look—mountain-top experiences every day—but I was, by no means, a stranger to prayer.

Maybe there was prayer in those early years too.  Toward the end of high school, my heart would flutter at certain scripture passages, and I found myself stirred when reading the word “BEHOLD!”

While in campus ministry, I found myself more confident in myself than ever before and love just seemed to pour out of me in all kinds of wholesome directions.  I also started to see the scriptures in an unfamiliar light and became curious and excited to put into action the new challenges I heard.  Faith started to have real life consequences.

During my volunteer year in Guatemala, I wept.  And I cried.  And I boo-hooed.  And I was broken beyond words.  And I was lonely.  And I had a hardened heart.  And I felt rigid.  And I was loved. And I was sung to.  And I had to try and listen because I didn’t know how to speak.  And I softened.  And I learned.  And I laughed. And I loved.

In seminary, I learned that my emotions were okay, even good, and that I did not have to stifle or apologize for them.  I learned my limits and was liberated by the realization that saving the world did not depend on me—God was at work!

While I was at the hospital and miserable, I clung to my yoga practice.  I learned about grace and flexibility and breathing and process and gained an appreciation for silence.

I suppose the softening of our hearts takes time.  As we get older, I think we also come to appreciate more our humanness, our limitations—not just that we are mortal and therefore must be careful, but that we cannot and should not think that we have to do it all.  It is only in being aware of our limitations that we can truly be forgiving of the limitations of others.

I have heard it said that we are not human beings trying to become more spiritual, but that we are spiritual beings trying to become more human.  I think this to be true.  Our flaws present us with opportunities for us to grow, a reason to offer grace to others—they are just as broken as we are— and to turn to God because God is working in a much bigger way than we can imagine.

At Mercy, we talk constantly about process.  Praying is not about arriving somewhere.  It is about being truly present to the moment in which we find ourselves.  It is about understanding our motivations—especially our fears and insecurities—so that we might respond in a less reactionary way.  It is about sitting quietly and listening, that we might put our worries aside for a few moments and sense God’s comfort and call on our lives.  All in all, we find the opportunity to be more human, more loving, and to open ourselves to true growth and transformation.  Now, when I neglect the rhythm of prayer and meditation in my life, I miss it.

I now see how broken and perfect my prayers have been.

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!

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!

Banned

By: Dwayne Brooks

About a year ago, I was banned from Mercy because I acted aggressively toward someone who was upset with me.  We started to argue and things escalated—neither of us could control our temper so our time away from the community escalated too.  One week became one month, became six months, as we couldn’t quiet down.  “Make it a year, three years, forever!” I baited the pastors.  Six months is the one that stuck.Dwayne Brooks BW Photo-Martin

At first getting banned did not matter—I was mad and didn’t want to be at Mercy anyway.  It took me a while for the consequences of my actions to sink in.  I’ve had arguments with other people before, but this was the first time that I was banned for a substantial amount of time.  After a week or so I felt that I had let myself down both by my reaction and how I carried myself.

I continued on with my work but knowing I could not go to Mercy left an empty space in me.  I kept popping up at Mercy, even though I was not supposed to, because I had nothing to lose—I was already banned.

Recently, I was banned again, this time for a month.  Instead of coming around during that month, I stayed away.  I knew that I would be able to come back more quickly if I showed that I could respect boundaries.  When I am away from Mercy I miss it.  I enjoy the singing which helps relax my mind.  And I find that the Bible studies build up my spirit.

Losing my temper has not been helping me to be who I want to be or to interact with others the way I think I should.  While I was away from Mercy I had the chance to take an inventory of myself and really think about how I react to things, especially where I am in denial about my actions.  I watch my surroundings and take it all in.  I see lots of things, lots of violence, lots of people treating each other poorly.  When I am mad, I frequently try to suppress it until one day, everything that I have been holding in comes out.   At that point it doesn’t matter who I hurt—the water must boil, the ball must unravel.  I need a release.

I am learning how to control my temper a little better, though I still have a long way to go.  I need Mercy in that way; it is difficult to try and change my attitude when I am alone.  I have started talking about some of the things that are on my mind—expressing myself rather than holding things back.  I have found that it really helps me to express what is on my mind either to one of my pastors, my mother, or my Higher Power.  I feel better and more relaxed when I express myself, as if a hard ball in my stomach deflates.

It is a process, as we say.  But it is good work, and I’m proud of the progress I have made.

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.”

Mercy And Morrie

By: Ivan Cooley

I found the book Tuesdays with Morrie to be a very poignant and touching book; its story was uplifting and encouraging.  I appreciated its message that our only hope in this world is based in love.  We live in a society that conditions us to acquire as much money, power, respect, status, and material goods8-15-26 as we can.  We substitute our love of one another with our love of things.  Often we think that only those that are favored or cherished deserve our love.

Tuesdays with Morrie is not the only place where I have heard and wrestled with such messages; I have witnessed and become acquainted with them at Mercy.  Reading this book, I’m almost surprised that Morrie learned these lessons of loving and giving somewhere other than my church.

Morrie advises his young student to “‘devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.  You’ll notice,’ he added grinning, ‘there’s nothing in there about a salary.’”

There are times when I have wondered whether this house of love in a cold, cruel world is all that it is cracked up to be, but then I think about Morrie’s words, “Of course we have pain and suffering.  But giving to other people is what makes me feel alive.  Not my car or my house.  Not what I look like in the mirror.  When I give my time, when I can make someone smile after they are feeling sad, it is as close to healthy as I ever feel,” and I know them to be true—I feel a sort of verification for my experience.  This is exactly what I struggle and strive to believe, live, and practice faithfully each day.  At Mercy we say life is God’s work in process.  We use the word process so much it has become our catch-phrase.

The dictionary defines process as “a natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead toward a particular result.”  That is a good scientific sounding definition, but I like to think of process as more of a journey.  It is a journey where we meet and greet, love and laugh, share and smile, cry and grieve, and sing and praise.

We are a diverse community and do all of these things.  But community doesn’t quite describe who we are—family names it more closely.  We are all sons and daughters, sisters and brothers of and in Christ: from the pastors and teachers, to the employed or unemployed, to the homeless or housed, to the volunteers or sleepers.  We love God, we love each other, and we love ourselves.  Notice (now I’m grinning) there is nothing in there about a salary!

So bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.  You’ll be overwhelmed by what comes back!