Penny’s Pen: . . . .The Least of These

We are frequently asked how the ministry in the Bluff began. So I thought I would step back a bit and write an article describing the means by which the Lord led us to this location.

It all began shortly after Pastor Frank and I moved to Georgia in late 2008. In order to provide an income for us, Frank sought work as an adjunct professor at colleges in the area and soon found employment at Atlanta Metropolitan College, catering mostly to African Americans. It was a long commute, requiring about a 35 minute drive to the MARTA commuter rail station, a 45 minute ride on the train and an 11 minute bus ride to the edge of the campus. With wait times and walking times it meant at least an hour and a half commute each way. Frank was ministering at the mission work in North Atlanta at the time (later to become Northminster RP Church) and when it became obvious that there was no interest in an evening service, and a couple of attempts failed at starting a Bible study in a distant area in which one of the members lived, he decided to begin a Bible study at the college campus. This outreach started in March, 2009.

During this time, when Frank was having lunch and discussing various church matters with a friend who was a deacon at a church in a conservative Presbyterian denomination, he outlined his vision for inner-city ministry. This man asked Frank if he really wanted to do this and, when Frank answered in the affirmative, he quoted from the movie Amazing Grace in which the aging John Newton told William Wilberforce who was fighting to put an end to the slave trade, “Do it, man, do it!”

One of the beneficial things about using public transport is that a pastor can interact with fellow passengers as the Holy Spirit leads. One day whilst riding the MARTA bus he sat next to a black lady who, he noticed, was reading a devotional book so he engaged her in conversation. Her name was Mary, and she asked Frank what he did. When he answered that he was a professor and minister, she replied that she could tell that he was a minister. During their conversation, when Frank indicated his desire to conduct an inner-city ministry, she pleaded with him not to forget “. . . the least of these”. She told him that she had been looking for someone to teach her the Bible, so Frank gave her his business card. After he got home he received a phone call from her and agreed to pick her up for the Bible study at the college.

The day after meeting Mary, Frank again had lunch with his deacon friend during which they continued to discuss his vision for inner-city ministry. During the conversation, this man said, not knowing what Mary had said, “don’t forget the least of these”, which confirmed in Frank’s mind the fact that he was providentially being led to this kind of ministry.

After a few weeks leading Bible study at the college, however, with attendance not going well, we made arrangements to move to a room at First United Methodist Church across the street from a former hotel converted to low-income housing where Mary was living. She and one or two of her friends attended the studies faithfully and Frank was able to “compel” a number of people hanging around the street corner to come in and join us each week and we averaged about ten in attendance. A couple of months later we decided to change location and were welcomed into St. Paul’s PCA, also in downtown Atlanta. Located in a beautiful old structure, the building had, for a period of time, been used as a restaurant, and the large room in which we conducted our Bible study had been the bar!

The street corner on which we were located did not have as many people loitering or passing by as had the corner by the Methodist church, so, even though Frank roamed the neighbouring streets looking for people to invite, attendance dropped off drastically. In one case, only the two of us were there. We were beginning to wonder whether the Lord was closing the door on this ministry, which would have been fine with us, if, indeed, this was the Lord’s will.

Then one day, April 4th, 2010, Mary came and announced “I’m gonna take you to the Bluff”. We got in the car and Mary directed us over to English Avenue, the heart of which contained an area known pejoratively as “The Bluff”. We did not know what The Bluff was, but after driving past some famous landmarks including Georgia Tech, we found ourselves in an area of broken down and burned out houses and apartment buildings, and corner convenience stores which had groups of black males loitering around, eyeing us with suspicion. It quickly became clear that we were in a dangerous neighbourhood and, as Mary directed us to a particular intersection and told us to park and get out, Frank and I looked at each other with wide-eyed apprehension. However, we obeyed, and as soon as the local residents saw Mary, whom they knew well (her husband had at one time been the drug kingpin), the black faces relaxed and we saw white teeth smiling at us and found folk shaking hands with us. It was a strange experience, and as she introduced us, Mary pointed to the steps of a derelict, roofless, old church building, the interior of which was overgrown with weeds, and told everyone within earshot that we were going to have church there the following week. This intersection, we would later discover, has one of the highest crime rates in the country. So, the following Lord’s Day, April 11th, 2010, we were back with an easel and markers conducting a Bible study on the steps. We arrived early and roamed the streets handing out leaflets, introducing ourselves, and inviting people to come to the study. That evening we had nine people in attendance.

This account covers the period up to the time that I started writing articles called “Penny’s Pen” which are now archived and posted on our website. The first one was penned in June 2010 and I know that many of our faithful prayer warriors and financial supporters have been keeping up to date with the ministry by reading these articles.

As Mary once told us, “the Devil is at that corner and he wants you to fail”. But prayers, such as this one from John Calvin, lead us to have the faith to overcome “all the hindrances of this world”.

“Grant, Almighty God, that since Satan at this day sets against us many terrors to cast us down, and we are very weak – O grant that with our eyes lifted above we may meditate on that invincible power which thou possessest, and by which thou canst overcome all the hindrances of this world, and then, when nothing in this world but what is contemptible appears to be capable of confirming and supporting our faith, may we, nevertheless, by the eyes of faith, behold thy hidden power and never doubt that thou wilt at length perform what the world at this day thinks to be impossible, and therefore ridicules; and may we so constantly persevere in this confidence that every one of us may devote to thee his labour to the end, and never faint in the work of promoting the spiritual building, until at length we ourselves shall be assembled, and others also shall be gathered through our labours, to offer to thee not only spiritual sacrifices such as thou receivest now from us, but also to offer to thee, together with the angels, that eternal sacrifice of praise and triumphant thanksgiving on seeing perfected what at this day is only feebly begun.”

Knowing that our efforts are indeed feeble but exhorted by the Holy spirit not to despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10) we pray that the Lord would smile upon His servants as we attempt to claim this portion of downtown Atlanta for Christ and that He, by His grace, would grant us the stamina and resources to carry on.

Penny’s Pen: Vacation Bible School

In the proverbial shadow of the Georgia Dome and in spite of the fact that there were few literal shadows, Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship’s Vacation Bible School attracted a total of eighteen students from the Bluff and surrounding neighbourhoods. The theme was “The Ten Commandments” and it was a joy to watch the children, ranging in age from about 5 years to 16 years old, enjoying the lessons, the skits, crafts and games, and learning about God’s Law.

The event was held in a very pretty park in the Vine City area of Atlanta which, although still in a low-income neighbourhood, is not as derelict, and does not have the crime rate of the Bluff even though it is only a few blocks from it. It ran from 10 to 12 on Friday and Saturday mornings, the 13th and 14th of June.

The event did highlight one of our prayer requests, namely that of the need for a people-mover because even with three people and their cars ferrying children back and forth to the Vine City Park, some participants were having to arrive well in advance of the activities. However, amazingly, we were able to start on time both mornings.

There was no need to reserve any part of the park but we hadn’t checked on “park maintenance day”. So on Friday morning we arrived to find that city workers had just started mowing the long, wet grass in the area in which we had intended to set up the activities. They were apologetic and directed us to an attractive patio which overlooks the park and was a perfect place to set up our tables and prepare for the children to arrive. The noise of the mower, blower and trimmer did not completely cease until we were about half an hour into the activities, but it did not prove to be a particular obstacle.

Pastor Frank opened the session with prayer and then led the children in some songs to help break the ice.

This was followed by a skit which, on the first day, illustrated the events leading up to the giving of the Commandments. It had our two Short-Term Missions Team members (Josh Giesler and Calvin Biedeman) dressed up as Moses and an Israelite, with Pastor Frank as Mount Sinai.

Amy then kept the younger children on the patio with her to do the lesson on the first table of the law, and Josh and Calvin took the older ones to a grassy area under some trees.

The boys led the games for both age groups out in the freshly-mown grass and Amy led the crafts, making Ten Commandments magnets and Mt. Sinai models complete with cloud. Everyone regrouped for snacks but, having been invited to lunch by a group of folk from a nearby church, we headed there for cheese sandwiches and fruit cups. We had a total of twelve children and eight adults in attendance.

The second day opened in the same way and the skit this time had Amy’s character expressing to Calvin’s character her serious misunderstandings of the purpose and relevance of the Ten Commandments and their applications in real life, even arguing some points that Calvin was making. Eventually, however, her character comes to understand the biblical principles and how to put into them into practice.

The lessons covered the second table of the law; games were played and crafts fashioned including file folders shaped like the tablets of stone which opened to show each of the commandments.

This time we provided double cheeseburgers and cold sodas for lunch at the end and received pledges from many of the children that they would come to church the following afternoon and give presentations of their crafts and what they had learned. On the Saturday we had fourteen children in attendance and eleven adults. Four children from Friday did not return (three of them because they went home, which is out of the area, and one because of a sore throat). But six additional children came giving us seven each in the older and younger groups.

Ten of the children did come on the Lord’s Day including three, along with their mother, who had not attended a service with us before. The same skits were performed with Pastor H. P. McCracken from the Southern Church Extension Committee playing Mt. Sinai. Pastor Frank provided the sound effects of thunder, lightning and trumpets much to the amusement of all.

With only two weeks to put it all together, Miss Amy did an outstanding job leading the planning for the VBS, including the overall production, both skits, the lessons for the younger children, and all the crafts. Josh and Calvin planned the lessons for the older children and the games. Advertising was done door-to-door and one-on-one in the streets, with Pastor Frank and the Missions Team using a downtown apartment (bereft of stove and shower), as their headquarters.

We are so grateful to the Lord for bringing so many children to our mini Vacation Bible School and for bringing them back for worship the following day. We hope and pray that these young people will not soon forget the lessons they learned. The concept of following a moral law and understanding that these laws are still relevant today appears to be practically unknown in areas of crime and violence such as the Bluff. In fact, it was on Thursday morning, the day before VBS started, that we heard of the stabbing death of a man to whom we had ministered many times while still located on the steps of the abandoned church building in the heart of the Bluff. We had entertained him at our house overnight a couple of times so that he could attend Northminster with us on the Lord’s Day. He had come to visit us in our current church building one time, in February, and we had hoped he would return. This man was the second person to whom we had ministered who had been murdered, the other, less than a year ago being a woman who desired to leave her life of drugs when her life was taken by someone who raped and strangled her.

Life in the Bluff is brutal. Children suffer. As I have mentioned before, the Lord has led us to minister to many children in the area. Please join us in praying that the lessons they learned on Friday and Saturday, and the sermon on Sunday, will help to inspire them to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds and strength and their neighbours as themselves.

From The Pastor’s Desk: Murder in the Bluff

His name was Clifford Johnson, but everyone knew him as “C.J.”  He was a star athlete at Jersey City State College who later ended up walking with a limp.  He spent more than one night in jail.  He was a church member who encouraged others to get on the straight and narrow.  He was kind and seemed to have a smile for everyone.  He loved to sing and play music.  He worked odd jobs, and didn’t have much money.  At the age of 58, he was staying in a house that had no running water or electricity.

On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in broad daylight, a man jumped out of a car and stabbed C.J. in the neck.  This happened right in front of the corner grocery store where we used to meet for worship.  C.J. staggered down the block, bleeding profusely.  An eyewitness told me that C.J. finally collapsed and started gasping for breath, as well as thrashing around.  By the time the ambulance got there, C.J. had almost completely bled out.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

We had ministered to C.J., even to the point of hosting him overnight in our home a couple of Saturday nights, so he could get a warm bath and come to Northminster Reformed Presbyterian Church with us.  But that was three years ago.  Since then, we would occasionally see him, but hadn’t seen him much recently.  One of our two RP Missions team members did come across him three days before he was murdered.  C.J. wanted to be remembered to us.  When the team member asked him if he was going to come to church, he replied, “Probably not.”  At least he was honest.

This is the second person who has come to our ministry, who has been murdered within the past year.  Last summer, Linda Madison, a drug addict living in an abandoned house, was raped and strangled.

These incidents remind us of what it is like to live in “the Bluff.”  It is a place of violence as well as grinding poverty.  But such venues come as no surprise to those familiar with the Bible.  The Scriptures are filled with examples of horrific manifestations of total depravity.  To cite but one example, Psalm 10 vividly portrays the wicked person, who lurks and preys upon the poor and murders the innocent.

However, the psalmist does not despair but triumphantly affirms that “The Lord is King forever and ever” who has “heard the desire of the humble” in order to “do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may oppress no more.”  The Lord sees all of the morass of wickedness—the drug deals, the stabbings, the killings, the prostitution, the sexual immorality—that covers the Bluff.  The Lord will take account.

Often, He does so in this life with respect to temporal judgment, as He uses the state to execute violent criminals; accordingly, we pray that C.J.’s murderer (and Linda’s killer) will be brought to justice by the civil magistrate.

More significantly, there is a judgment day coming when the wicked will be sent to hell.

But what we all need to remember is that the Apostle Paul in Romans 3 quotes Psalm 10 (and other Scriptures) to demonstrate that total depravity is universal.  And the only way for any of us to escape eternal punishment, is if the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to us as we trust in Him by faith alone.

C.J. would sometimes tell us that our being there in the Bluff brought hope to the area.  We were heartened by that comment; we would like to think that we are a salt and light influence, promoting peace in the city streets and helping those who are deeply impoverished.  However, our ultimate goal is not the fostering of merely temporal blessings.  It is the gospel which we preach that brings genuine—and abiding—peace and hope.  And that’s the reason why we’re in the Bluff.

Penny’s Pen: Where Do We Go From Here?

Unlike most church plants in middle-class America, a downtown ministry attracts a lot of people who are needy in a material sense as well as a spiritual one. We have been stimulated by reading the biography of The Man who Moved a Mountain which relates the story of a Presbyterian minister who was born into the desperately poor and violent world of the Appalachian hollers at the turn of the twentieth century. Life was cheap, and children were born into a place and time in which the hungry did not have food stamps, the sick did not have “safety net” hospitals, infants were fed brandy, drunkenness was the norm, education was frowned upon, and killing was a sport. The story of how the Lord changed hearts using this man was inspiring and encouraging. It showed love, faith, and determination; a willingness to spend and be spent; a willingness even to be physically threatened and financially cheated; a willingness to forgive and to carry on, all to bring the message of the gospel and a change in the culture. In comparison, the poor of the downtown districts of urban centers in the United States in the twenty-first century do not have to suffer either the level of violence or the hunger that the destitute did a century ago.

Of assistance in stimulating our thinking, the book When Helping Hurts has been instrumental in helping Frank and me design a picture of the ministry that we would like to develop, with plans for this year and goals for the future. The authors of this book admit to having made their own mistakes in the past which they use as illustrations of what not to do, and they then go on to list effective strategies and resources that they or others have developed which have proven successful during many years in this kind of ministry.

Each of these books comes from a different perspective. The mindset of the preacher in the first book is that of a raw, bold and fearless crusader with rash and lofty ideals, demanding to be educated, and using gut instincts and spiritual nerves of steel to pull people out of the depths of depravity. The mindset of the authors of the second book is to provide a methodology which is scholarly, measured, and practical. Both books reveal the necessity for those of us in this kind of ministry to pray for the gifts of patience and long-suffering.

Believing that the Great Commission must be the main thrust of our own ministry, we did not set out to be a social agency. But we do want to make ourselves available to help those people whom the Lord brings our way to work towards developing a godly lifestyle. We pray that being spirited and audacious as led by the Holy Spirit, tempered with caution and prudence, will enable us to be of greatest benefit in the modern world, bringing glory to our Saviour.

To walk with us in this effort the Lord has been gracious in bringing us a new family which recently moved into Georgia. Lieutenant Chris Meyers, his wife and four young children have been driving up approximately every two weeks from his new duty station, Ft. Benning, in the western part of the state. It takes about two hours to drive to Atlanta, so it is not something he is able to undertake with his family every week. Chris is a wonderful addition to our team as he brings an abundance of energy and a variety of skills. Please take a look at the website he has created for us at atlanta-rpc.org (no www). Having recently been licensed to preach by Alleghenies Presbytery he also filled the pulpit for Pastor Frank on one occasion. His wife Misty and the children have also been a blessing to the ministry.

Given the large numbers of children we have been attracting, Miss Amy and Miss Jerusha decided it would be helpful to split the Sunday school class into two, with Miss Amy teaching the older children and Miss Jerusha the younger. While the idea is a good one, the occasional exuberance of the younger children can disrupt the older class. Hence it is becoming more and more desirable to find a more capacious location.

In addition, Miss Michele is teaching a lady in the group to read and write, so we actually have three lessons going on simultaneously in the same room. When all three classes are quietly and studiously engaged, one can enjoy the heartwarming warble of a harmonious hubbub.

We are looking forward to hosting a short-term missions team for the fifth year running. Two young men will be joining us for 2½ weeks in June, with one of them staying for an additional four weeks. The plan is that, for a large part of the time, they will be living in an apartment in the area in which we minister in order to give them the opportunity to get to know some of the residents more intimately. They will, as in the past, run something akin to a Vacation Bible Study for the children and will also have a prayer table set up in the heart of the Bluff. Please pray for this intense outreach effort: that it will be effective in introducing our ministry to the residents of the area, and that the fruits from that effort will be of use in the future.

Other prayer requests comprise “The Five P’s”, namely:

1. for an increasing culture of Prayer among our team members,

2. for more Personnel to come alongside us to support us in this growing effort,

3. for a 15-seat People-mover,

4. for a more commodious Place in which to hold worship and Sabbath school,

5. for Property of our own (eventually) to use for both worship and ministry activities.

Thank you for your continued interest in Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship. May the Lord be pleased to bless your own ministries as we all strive to advance his Kingdom in this broken world.