Penny’s Pen: It’s Tough in the Bluff

(Miss Amy Work kindly agreed to pen this description of her children’s ministry.)

Helping with the Bluff ministry is tough. It’s often dirty, smelly, inconvenient, time consuming, and physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. It’s not exactly the earth-shattering experience that we come to expect from mission works. I don’t see a lot of changes. The day-to-day, week-to-week plodding on is not quite as glamorous as the stories I’ve read and heard. But, the longer I’m involved in the downtown Atlanta ministry, the more I’m learning that it’s also one of the greatest privileges God gives: to be so closely involved in the outworking of His promises, to be on the front line of His kingdom building, and to be a participant in the manifestation of His sovereign will.

If you were to join me on a typical Sunday afternoon, we’d ride down Interstate 85 to exit 249D. We’d pass the impressive buildings of the Georgia Tech campus and the Coca-Cola headquarters until we found ourselves in the Bluff area. We’d see houses abandoned, burned down, overgrown, and dilapidated. Brightly colored corner stores stand at every other intersection. Mothers pushing baby strollers up the hill stop to chat with people on the street. Neighborhood get-togethers blast music. Stray dogs wander down the middle of the road. I’m pretty sure those folks over there are in the middle of a drug deal. That lady there in the power wheelchair used to be a friend and faithful attendee. She has since turned her back on us.

We’ll have our windows rolled down because it is hot this time of year, and we’ll hear the folks on the corners call out to us. Just ignore them. Smile and nod, but ignore them, eyes to the front. They won’t bother us. They’re just “salesmen” hawking their “wares.”

My first job is to play the taxi driver. It’s time to pick up Nathan. He’s an intelligent middle school student who loves school. I like to ask him what he’s learning in science and history because he likes those subjects. He wants to be an engineer when he grows up. Lately, he took apart some household items to make his own air freshener. He’s quite proud of it and likes to be asked how he did it.

Our next stop is to pick up Rose. She has been a great help each week setting up the tables and chairs and putting out Bibles and Psalters.

Now I need to call Pastor Smith to see if I should to pick up anybody else. There are at least three or four of us who go around picking up various people and bringing them to church. It takes quite a number of trips and some logistical juggling to get it all accomplished. A 15-passenger van would be a huge help and time saver. But, as of now, that’s outside our means. We’ll keep praying for one. In the meantime, I’ll drop off Nathan and Rose so I can go get Angel and Deon.

Angel and Deon are siblings. Angel is a normal middle schooler with normal pre-teen challenges but she studiously works at copying my notes during the service and blushes when I compliment her on her pretty singing. Deon is in high school and is a steady, level-headed young man who aspires to be a lawyer. He loves to have conversations and, unlike many kids his age, comes and initiates conversations with adults and kids alike. He’ll look you in the eye and give you a firm handshake. I like that about him.

When we get back to the church, Jenario, Miyani, and their mother are there. First, I have to tease Jenario about anything I can think of. I told him when he turned 16 that I get to tease anybody who is 16. He’s going to be 17 soon, so my teasing days are numbered. He rolls his eyes, but I can tell he’s eating it up. Out of all the people who come to church, I’ve known Jenario and Miyani the longest. They were my first students. I still have a hard time remembering that Miyani is 12 going on 13 instead of the little 8 year old she was when I first met her.

My job now turns to being the social coordinator. I want to make the kids feel welcome and valued. I try to talk to each one. I need them to know they are loved. One of the best ways to do that is to invest in them and what they care about.

Sometimes we have several other kids join us, sometimes we don’t. When my Sunday school partner, Jerusha, and I are pretty sure everybody is there, we corral all the kids to the front. It’s like herding cats.

“I need to go to the bathroom!”

“I need a drink!”

“Miss Amy, did you see my new shoes?”

“Do I really have to sit up there? Why can’t I sit back here?”

“Hey! She said to come sit down!”

“What are y’all doing? Can I play?”

I put my “teacher hat” on now. Goofy, playful Miss Amy takes a break. Serious, earnest Miss Amy takes her place. I don’t mess around. I can be rather strict. But, if these kids need anything in their lives, it’s structure, order, and predictability.

When we’re finally settled, we pray the Lord’s Prayer in unison. It helps to have something we all say together because it focuses our voices and, hopefully, our thoughts. Next, we work on our memory work, Psalm 146. If there’s time, we talk about what various verses mean.

Then, I take my group of middle and high school kids to the rear of the church while Jerusha keeps the younger kids with her at the front, and Miss Michele conducts an adult reading class on the side pew. The noise and activity of three different lessons going on in the space of a living room can get distracting. Adults who have arrived early for the service tend to sit around and chat as the lessons progress, adding to the general hubbub. Pastor Smith is continuing his search for larger accommodations since we are quickly outgrowing our current facility. The Sunday school crowd is only part of the group because Pastor Smith comes back every so often to drop off more adults that he has picked up for the worship service. It gets pretty cozy. We’ll keep praying for God to provide the space we need. What a blessing to have such a problem.

My Sunday school lessons are taken from J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. I do a lot of “dumbing down” of Packer’s language and illustrations, but the book begins with very foundational truths about God, and that’s what these kids need right now. I want them to know who it is we worship each week and why we worship Him. I want them to know how much they need His grace and mercy and how much He loves His people.

So, I read from the book and we talk about it. I try to make the lessons interactive and include some kind of activity to do together. Did you know that middle and high school students really go for opening flaps like in lift-the-flap books? If I hide half the lesson under flaps, the kids will get so excited about trying to guess what’s under the flaps. Then we read part of the book, and they get to open the flaps up to see if their guesses were correct. Who’d have thought they’d enjoy something so simple?

As we end our lesson, I ask the kids to write a prayer, meditating on what we’ve just learned about God. This can be successful some days and a huge flop other days. Sometimes they write beautiful prayers. Sometimes they can’t think of a thing to say and I have to pull teeth to get them to do anything. But, we persist because I think it’s important to reflect on what we’ve learned and even more important to learn to pray God-centered prayers. It’s a matter of practice and forming habits.

With Sunday school concluded, we make an inordinate amount of noise and commotion trying to get settled for church. I have to poke and prod the older kids to sit up closer to the front. I supervise who sits where so that the kids under my responsibility are within easy smacking range. Just kidding. I don’t smack the kids. But I am particular about where I let them sit. Certain combinations do not make for a good learning environment.

Once seats have been assigned, I hand out notebooks and pens for the older kids to take notes. Jerusha has to settle her brood of little ones. Three people will need to go to the bathroom. Several will want water. Nobody will have bulletins, even though they were just passed out. I’m sure I saw somebody putting bulletins at everybody’s place! Once bulletins have been distributed (again), two people will have lost theirs and need help finding them under their Bibles or behind their chairs. Pastor Smith will pass out popsicle sticks with numbers on them which indicate which question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism each person gets to read. Popsicle sticks will be dropped, stepped on, used as swords, and sat on. We’re working on that. We’re getting better at using the popsicle sticks only for their intended purpose and reading the right question at the right time. There’s a lot less lag time between when the question is called for and when the spaced-off child holding the popsicle stick with that number realizes it’s his turn.

Prayer requests will be taken and the memory work will be read/recited. And then, after much wiggling, giggling, and shushing, we’ll be called to worship.

Now my job is to make sure everybody is paying attention, behaving, and engaged. This means I shush the whisperers, separate the misbehaving, permit or forbid bathroom trips, track down those who have been in the bathroom for a suspiciously long time, tell the kids to get their Bibles, help them find the right page, tell them to follow along, tell them to put the Bibles away, tell them to get out their Psalters, tell them to sing—to stand still and sing—tell them to close their eyes and bow their heads, then to sit up and get their notes ready. I think you get the idea. Some kids are pretty independent and require little supervision. Some require a lot. Some days all of them seem to be misbehaving and using up my last ounce of patience. Crabby Miss Amy comes out then.

Right now, most of the older kids are pretty well established in the habit of taking notes. It’s kind of a big expectation to have for kids who generally perform far below their grade levels, but I think it’s important for the kids to know that the sermon is not a time to space off, fall asleep, doodle, or play. It’s an act of worship. God speaks through His Word and the preacher, and we actively engage in the sermon by listening and taking in what is said. The more capable kids are allowed to take their own notes; the less able copy mine. I try to write simplified, summarized notes to help them better understand what is being said.

The kids know the drill when the sermon ends. They gather around me with their notebooks so that I can review their notes. I compliment progress and evidence of effort. I encourage some to try harder next time and give suggestions for how to improve. Everybody gets asked the same question: What did you learn in the service today? Sometimes their answers are pretty narrow and off topic. I try to bring them back around to something that was actually mentioned in the service. Sometimes they impress me with their summaries of what the sermon was about. I didn’t think they were getting that much out of it!

Now my job changes to recess monitor. They’ve sat for about two hours by this time and need to move! Keeping them out of the street and off the landscaping is a challenge. I’m always being pulled in three different directions at once. Deon wants to talk with me, a couple of the kids are being too rowdy, and some small girl dearly wants me to hold her hand. I sit on the steps where I can holler at the mis-behavers, talk to Jenario and Deon, and let the little girl braid my hair.

When she’s finished, she stands in front of me and cups my face in her small hands. She really wants my attention. “Miss Amy, your eyes are like mine,” she says.

“Really? How do you mean?”

“I dunno. You know somethin’? You look like my teacher.”

“Did you know that I really am a teacher?”

“No! You are? Oh. Welllll, I like Hello Kitty.”

“That’s awesome! So do I!”

Jenario plops down next to me after having chased his sister around the building. Miyani comes panting up to us. Angel hangs on the step railing and shouts a teasing taunt at Nathan, then turns to me and says, “Miss Amy. Why your eyebrows white?”

“They’re not white. They’re red, like the rest of my hair. They’re just so light they look white. See? Look. My eyelashes and the hairs on my arms are all like that. It all matches, just like your hair matches your eyelashes and eyebrows.”

“Oh. Well. You look like Miley Cyrus.”

Deon snorts. “No she don’t!”

“Yeah, she do!” Angel insists.

I laugh. “Is that a good thing?”

“Yeah, it is!” Angel says. She loves her pop culture icons, that girl. Then she asks, “Is your hair real?”

Now I’m belly laughing. “Yes, it’s real!” They want to know if I’ve got a weave—fake hair extensions woven into natural hair.

All of it is real?”

“Of course!”

Miyani looks incredulously at me and chimes in with, “And it’s all yours?”

“Every bit!”

“You sure got a lot of hair!”

Now it’s Jenario’s turn. “Miss Amy. Do white people really turn colors? What’s it like to get sunburned?” It’s never dull in the Bluff. We have cross-cultural experiences all the time!

We often stand around talking long after the service, but I’m sure you’re ready to go. Let me gather a group of people to take home. We’ll make our last trip or two, then head back to the interstate. It will be late by the time we get home, but even later for Pastor Smith and Penny. They have to put things back in order, close up the church, and drive one family to their home which is well outside of our ministry area before they head home themselves.

This drive home is where I do my reflecting about the day. I go over what I wish I had done better and what I’m excited about. There are some days that are beyond frustrating. Progress and growth seem so slow. Nothing bothers me more than when we’re trying to teach the kids about spiritual matters—the most important things they’ll ever hear—and all they’re interested in is the fuzz in the hair of the person next to them. But, there is progress. It’s in the little things. Miyani sang with the rest of the congregation for the first time this past week. She only sang one song, but for her, that’s a big deal. She was paying attention long enough for an entire song! And I didn’t have to elbow her in the ribs to get her to do it! I see progress in Jenario when he takes the initiative to move himself to a different spot so that he will be less distracted by the antics of his peers. The group as a whole is showing signs of growth. When asked how they can apply what they learned in Sunday school to their worship habits and to their lives, I’m getting better and better responses. We’re starting to move beyond the “Ummmm…I can…love God?” answers, to “Well…I can be serious and pay attention to the service.”

To an outside observer, there’s nothing earth-shattering going on here at the Atlanta ministry. The progress I can describe is not going to impress you overly much if you’re looking for grand transformations, hordes of people flocking to the church, and entire communities overturned. That’s not always how these things go. God is not limited by our expectations, perceptions of reality, or timetable. We’re working in a challenging environment. We’re doing the best we can with the limited resources we have. It’s not pretty, it’s not glamorous, and it doesn’t follow the patterns of other mission works. Does that make the mission work here invalid, doomed to failure, or somehow less important than those that do follow the usual pattern?

It makes me think about the ministry this one Man had a long time ago. People expected Him to bring about grand transformations and overturn the way things had been. They wanted Him to work according to their expectations and on their timetable. Seems to me that He was too busy with the sinful, the needy, and the messed up to be bothered much by people’s erroneous perceptions of what He was there to do. And there were times when He didn’t have the resources we might think He’d need. And, boy oh boy, the progress He made with the closest people around Him was ridiculously slow. They just didn’t get it. Sometimes, instead of focusing on the task at hand, His self-centered students were fighting over who would be the most honored. Sometimes He had to deal with some very unattractive people. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t glamorous. And, it certainly didn’t adhere to the pattern the leaders of the time thought should be followed. But, it was God’s work, accomplishing God’s will, done for God’s glory.

The Atlanta ministry, in all its fallibility, attempts to mimic the earthly ministry of our Lord. And that’s what I have to remind myself every time I get discouraged at the slow progress of my students or the fact that yet another person who “promised” to attend did not show up. As Pastor Smith once told me, we don’t do this for ourselves. Ultimately, we don’t even do this for the people. We do this for God’s glory. And when we go and do what God has put before us, He is glorified.

The timing of the progress in the people is not in our hands. Neither is the amount of fruit that will be produced. But, we are seeing fruit. There is progress and growth. God is accomplishing His will. We don’t have a van or a bigger meeting place or all the personnel we could really use. But, I do happen to know the One who is sovereign over this ministry. And I happen to know that He is intimately aware of our needs. And, no matter how frustrating those kids can be, I know that nothing they—or I—can do will stand in the way of God’s perfect will in their lives. So, maybe what’s going on in the Atlanta ministry is actually pretty earth-shattering after all—not because of anything we’re doing, but because of all the various things, seen and unseen, that God is doing.

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.