The Atlanta Seven

June 2016―Earlier this year an elder and his wife from our Columbus, Indiana, congregation, Gary and Cynthia McNamee, visited the ministry in order to experience it for themselves and to make plans to return in the summer with a small team of workers in order to conduct some door-to-door work and run a Vacation Bible Study program.

As a result, on Saturday, June 11th, Gary, Cynthia, their son McCheyne, Bryan Planalp and his son Thomas, Joy Decker and Sam Goble, otherwise known as the Atlanta Seven, left Indiana in Gary’s 12-passenger van towing a trailer carrying all their supplies and headed south.

However, the team ran into a challenge, as the air conditioning in the van soon became intermittent, most likely due to pulling the trailer in hilly country in temperatures that spiked into the 90’s.  But the situation wasn’t dire and our stalwart crew carried on undaunted.  About three hours out from our house, however, they broke down completely and found themselves stuck on the side of the road―still in very hot temperatures. It was about 2:30 pm, and there was much concern that they wouldn’t make it to Atlanta that evening. But the Lord provided the right people with the right skills at the right time to get them back on the road and they arrived at our house at about 8:30, tired but looking forward to their adventure.

But air-conditioning woes would continue to plague the endeavor. The next day when we arrived at the duplex for Sabbath School and the worship service, we found that the temperature in the building was 99˚!

We had been dealing with air-conditioning issues for several weeks and someone had come by during the week to fix the problem.  However, he reattached wires incorrectly resulting in the furnace coming on instead of the air conditioning unit resulting in it being hotter inside than out.  Thankfully there are a number of shade trees around the property so we were quickly able to set up two children’s Sunday School classes and the adult class outside.

Mercifully, the worship service went well in terms of comfort and blessing.   In spite of an outside air temperature of 97° and the edge of a small squall passing near us accompanied by the sound of thunder, forty-four souls remained dry and comfortable under the shade of the trees singing Psalms, praying, and hearing the Word preached by Gary McNamee.

On Wednesday afternoon one of the Atlanta Seven, Thomas Planalp, conducted a basketball clinic at the Boys and Girls Club as an outreach to the community.  He was assisted by his father Bryan, and Gary.  It was a huge success, with eighteen local boys participating.  The club leaders were also very grateful for the effort put in by the group as well as the balls and other equipment they donated.  At the end of the workout Thomas did a really fine job presenting the gospel to the boys, even though two of them were unwilling to listen because they were Muslim.  Those who remained were given wrist bands and head bands with scripture verses written on them.  Each boy was also given a Bible containing Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship’s name and contact details inside.

Following initial preparations and set-up at the beginning of the week the Atlanta Seven were raring to go with VBS starting at 5pm on Wednesday afternoon, following the basketball clinic, and going for three hours.  The air conditioning situation had been improved upon but not completely fixed.  We started off cool but warmed up rather quickly.  A total of 38 people were in attendance including fifteen local children and four local adults.  The theme was “God Always Wins”, and began with a lively song, “Don’t Be Afraid”.  The skits aimed to illustrate how God does indeed always win.

The skit on this day told the story of how God led Moses to victory against Pharaoh.  It was exceptionally well done with magnificent acting featuring Sam as Moses persistently confronting Pharaoh played by McCheyne, and a tall, menacing soldier portrayed by Thomas.  The costumes and props were very cleverly done, especially the portrayal of the plagues, including the river turning to blood. Finally Moses leads God’s people to the Red Sea and the pursuing soldiers are swallowed up.

The players held their audience captive―everyone loved it.

Chick Fil-A had kindly agreed to provide meals for the group.  Before the appointed dinner hour boxes of chicken sandwiches, bags of chips and cookies were delivered and much enjoyed.

Following dinner the children split into two groups, one to play games outside and one to do craft activities.

At the end of the evening everyone reassembled to practice the song and pick up their completed crafts. Here, too, a Bible was given to every child present.

The following day we had 47 in attendance with nineteen local children and ten local adults.  The same schedule was followed.  The skit this time, continuing the theme that  God always wins, illustrated the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal which, again, was extremely well done.

On their final full day in Georgia, the Atlanta Seven relaxed and enjoyed Amicalola State Park featuring Amicalola Falls, the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.  The group is pictured here with Pastor Frank and one of our Sunday School teachers who joined us on the outing.

It was tough saying goodbye to our new friends whom we had grown to love, and with whom we had shared so many experiences during the week.  They were willing to find sleeping places where they could, line up to take a shower, squeeze around the dining table and spread themselves out as required across our house with never a word of complaint.  Cynthia and Joy did a wonderful job gathering and preparing all the meals in an unfamiliar kitchen.  Gary, Bryan and the younger men were willing to engage in anything that needed to be done, including replacing a broken vanity and mirror in one of the bathrooms at the duplex and brightening up all three bathrooms with fresh paint and cheerful shower curtains.  All the men engaged in door-to-door outreach, returning excited about the contacts they were making and never complaining about the blistering hot and humid conditions.

We are so grateful to God for the willingness of the Atlanta Seven to use vacation time to come here and work so diligently and tirelessly to reach out to the residents of this depressed area with the gospel and to bring encouragement to us and our fellow ministry workers.

When Little Things Make A Big Difference

[We are pleased once again to welcome to “Penny’s Pen” our guest blogger, Miss Amy Work, who serves as our Sunday School Superintendent.]

May 2016―Lately, I have been learning about big things and small things, and that my perception of their effect is usually way off.  What I perceive to be a big deal turns out to be much smaller than I thought; what seems small and insignificant to me ends up being a much bigger deal than I ever imagined. Let me explain.

I’ve been leading my Sunday School class, comprising middle school age kids, through a study of 1 Corinthians 13.  One week, we were focusing on “Love suffers long and is kind.”  It had been one of those disruptive and distracting days, and I was really struggling to maintain both my classroom management and my cool.  Before I knew it, it was time to end class.  In fact, we were already late, and I was feeling the time pressure to get downstairs and settled.  One class holding up the show has a ripple effect on the kids already downstairs on time.  They get bored, which leads to them getting rowdy, and that makes calming them down and focusing everybody for worship much more difficult and time consuming.

Knowing that I had new kids in the class who were unfamiliar with our procedures, I wanted quickly to explain how to take notes, and my expectations.  “Ok, guys, as you line up, let me just quickly go over why you’re taking your notebooks and pens downstairs.  What we do—”

Knock, knock, knock.

I stopped, opened the door, and found a pair of bright brown eyes and a small impish face grinning up at me.

“Hi, honey. You need to stay in your classroom.”

I shut the door, called for the class’s attention, which took a moment to regain, and then began again.  “So, during the worship service, we use the notebooks to—”

Knock, knock, knock.

I glanced at the clock as I opened the door again.  We were really late.  I just needed two minutes to give simple instructions.

“Hon,” I said gently, but firmly.  “I told  you once.  Stay with your teacher.”

The little girl giggled and ran back to the head of her class’s line.  What a fun game!  “Sorry, guys,” I said, taking a deep breath.  “I just need to tell you—”

Knock, knock, knock.

This time I wrenched the door open.  There stood Miss Penny.  I was sure she was there to fetch us down to worship since we were seriously late by now.

“We are on our way,” I snapped.

“Ok. Well, we just need to use your bathroom,” Miss Penny sweetly explained.  I stood aside and let a mother and young child come through to the bathroom.

My face was burning as my class looked at me.  I became intensely aware that I had just spent the last hour teaching them to love others with longsuffering love and patience, and we weren’t even out of the room before Miss Hypocrite showed them a shining example of what not to do.

And that’s about when I began to consider the effects of what I had done.  What a failure.  What kind of teacher was I when I didn’t practice what I preached?  What kind of witness was I being to these kids?  How could I be worthy to represent Christ to these kids?

Throughout the following week, my injured pride allowed the guilt of that failure to hang over me. But, by the next Sunday, I was determined to make it right.  While I had apologized in private to Miss Penny, I wanted to make my mistake into a learning opportunity for the whole class.  The kids needed to know how to handle things when they messed up, as I so clearly had.

So, the next Sunday, we reviewed the passage up to the fateful “Love suffers long and is kind” verse.  “So, guys,” I began.  “Remember last week when I lost my patience with Miss Penny when she knocked on the door at the end of class?”  I waited for the snickers and the shared knowing looks.  All I got were blank stares.  They had no idea what I was talking about.  This thing that I was sure was such a big failure turned out to be a very little thing in their eyes.  I did go ahead and use it as a learning opportunity, though, and reviewed how mess-ups like that should be handled.  But, my perception of the devastating impact that my personal failure would have to the progress of the ministry and to my relationship with the students was, in God’s gracious mercy, way off.

Then there are the small things that end up being much bigger than I imagined.  One day, one of our regular attenders brought a small stuffed toy to class.  Now, this is a very bright young man with a stubborn streak to match my own.  We have gotten into a number of battles over whether or not he will comply with instructions. Building a relationship with him has been challenging.

As a teacher, I am sometimes overcome by goofy moods so, one day, on my initiative, we all chose nicknames for ourselves, and I had to refer to the kids exclusively by their nicknames.

“Ok, Wonder Woman, what does verse 3 mean?”

“Yes, Batman, would you like to add to that?”

“Cool Cat, put that down and stop bothering Sonic.”

We can only go so long. . .

before bursting into laughter in Sunday school!

Well, on the day in question, I was in another of my goofy moods.  When the aforementioned boy entered the classroom, he was walking on his knees as he carried that stuffed toy.  (As a side note, that boy never enters or exits the room normally!  Last week, he balled himself up and rolled in.)  Anyway, he propped the toy up on the table, and I immediately addressed the toy as though it was a new visitor.  I carried on the game through the whole lesson: I wrote down the toy’s name on my attendance chart, to the owner’s immense delight (“Look, guys!  She really wrote his name down!  Look at that!”).  I required the toy to read the verse along with the class—a bit of a sneaky trick since one of our battles is this boy refusing to read the verse with us when I know he is more than capable of doing so.  I asked questions of the toy and allowed the toy to give input to discussions.  I even had the toy write a prayer along with the rest of the class to close the lesson.  All through the lesson, this young man was more compliant, controlled, and engaged than I’d ever experienced.  It was like magic!  Before going down to worship, I told him that he could either leave his toy in the Sunday school room or put it in my bag where I carry all the confiscated items (phones, sunflower seeds, notes being passed, ipads, etc.).  He opted for my bag.  Under his careful supervision, I nestled the toy comfortably into my bag.

The next step in the day is ensuring all my students are seated appropriately: those who need note-taking assistance are seated next to me, those who are too chummy and distracting are separated, and those who are independent note-takers may choose where to sit on their own.  This boy is an independent note-taker and generally chooses to sit far from me, but directly under Pastor Smith’s nose, which I think is a good place for him.  I was noticing that several of my students were lingering in the kitchen getting drinks instead of finding their seats.  I went to chase them out.  “Ok, guys.  Take a last sip and then we need to find our seats.  It’s time to start.”  I addressed this young man directly: “You too. Let’s go.”

He didn’t move.  He didn’t say a word, and he certainly didn’t do as I asked.

Calling him by name, I said more firmly, “Go find your seat.”

He merely blinked up at me, still saying nothing, and inched closer to where I was standing. That drove me nuts.  He did this all the time.  I’d tell him to do something, and he’d just look at me with that insolent expression.  Why wouldn’t he obey?  Why was he still just standing there beside me? Then it clicked: he wanted to sit next to me!  He wasn’t choosing his seat because he was waiting for me to choose mine!  I gave him a hug and headed off to a strategically located seat, closely followed by a grinning boy.

We got settled and the sermon began.  It was like I was sitting next to a completely different kid. Gone was the boy who was either sulky and sullen or mischievously pushing every boundary. This version of the young man was fully engaged, making relevant comments and asking thoughtful questions throughout the sermon.  It was almost to the point of becoming a distraction, but I couldn’t bring myself to silence his enthusiasm.  It was amazing.

Since that Sunday, he has chosen a seat as close to me as he can get. Now, I suspect that a primary reason he wants to sit next to me is to monitor my note-taking progress to ensure that he takes more notes than I do. The deal is, anybody who takes more notes than I do can earn two stickers instead of one.  However, there is a change in him, and the small, seemingly insignificant act of being goofy with his toy opened a door for me to connect with this boy who sincerely seems pliable to the workings of the Spirit.

There are dozens of examples, I am sure, of small things that have had an unexpectedly large impact.

– The two-sentence note I quickly jotted to a teenager telling him I missed him since he had been gone for the last couple weeks brought him to church the following week.  He made sure to tell me it was because of the note.

– The games we play up in the Sunday school room before class starts build our sense of community without our even realizing it.  I watch the reaction of a teenager when he finally gets the hang of the game and wins a round, after long being intimidated by the complexities of the game and refusing to play with us.  It’s so important for a guy like that to have a win, however small, in some area of his life.

This ministry is a Goliath of a task. There are major, major issues among the people, and it is overwhelming to see all the work, effort, struggles, and cares in which Pastor Smith and Penny engage.  I suspect that what we know of the details of their work is just the tip of the iceberg. We deal with big sins, big problems, and big failures—lots of big things.  But, I’m learning firsthand that the God who brought down Goliath with one little stone—a small thing that had a very big impact— is our same God.

My prayer is that while we work to deal with the big things, which are truly small challenges compared to God’s power and plan, we will also be mindful of and prepared for the small opportunities that come along, which can end up being the tottering steps we take along the path of righteousness.  Enough small steps—enough small things—put together can add up to some pretty big, pretty wonderful things through the power of God.  May His kingdom come and His will be done in both the big things and the small!

The Nation of Islam is Here

January 2016―”Islam is a religion of peace and it has been demonized by the likes of Donald Trump and others who play on the xenophobic paranoia of our white brothers and sisters.  We welcome the Nation of Islam into the English Avenue community. The Nation of Islam has an excellent track record for taking Black males and ministering to them and giving them a sense of hope and discipline and dignity and introducing them to God through the Muslim faith, and we applaud that.”  That is a quote from a Baptist pastor located in our ministry area.

We should note here that the Nation of Islam is an American invention, begun in 1930 and led by men such as Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.   It is not traditional Islam, being neither Sunni or Shiite, but is a militant, black superiority religion.

According to the report by an online news outlet, the Nation of Islam leader in Atlanta is planning to put down “an anchor,” stating that, “We are getting ready to build an army over here for real.  Ten thousand, think about that. ”  The location from which he is recruiting his “army” is only several blocks from where we meet.  In August, the Nation of Islam had a vocal presence at the anti-drug and pro-law enforcement National Night Out on a weekday evening in the English Avenue community (aka the Bluff; that being a pejorative name for our ministry area), which event was attended by representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, police, and politicians.

When Pastor Frank mentioned, as an application in a recent sermon, the fact that a local Baptist preacher is supporting this attempted takeover of the neighbourhood, it was met with loud outcries of disbelief and anger by adult members of our congregation who either live now or have previously lived in the Bluff.  Frank had to calm the congregation down before being able to continue.

The sermon was an exegesis of the parable that Jesus told, in which an evil spirit leaves a man but comes back later with seven other demons worse than he is, the result being that the man is far worse off than he had been before.  The application of this in terms of the Bluff is that even if the neighbourhood is cleaned up from drugs, that would not solve the more basic problem, which is that something is needed to fill the void when the demon leaves.  And that has to be Jesus Christ.

The Nation of Islam is not the only Muslim activity in our area.  The Atlanta Muslim Center meets at 2 o’clock Sunday afternoons at a house right in the heart of the Bluff, just half a block from where we used to gather on the steps of the derelict church building.  On an adjacent empty lot, that group sponsors a community garden.  There have been free food giveaways by Muslims very close by the intersection where we used to conduct Bible studies.  And just a block away from that old church building, down another street, is a commercial building flying an American and an Islamic flag where, on the last Lord’s Day in December, a couple of Muslims were “preaching” with the use of a loudspeaker system.  That location is just two blocks from where we presently meet for worship―so close that we were able to hear the amplified voice though not able to distinguish the words.  When Pastor Frank happened to drive by, he saw the two men―with no one gathering with them or apparently listening―and was able to hear the man with the microphone complaining about how the police kill blacks.

It goes without saying that we were surprised but grateful for the visceral reaction from our congregation.  The Muslim invasion, which, amazingly began only a few months ago, is rapidly expanding in range and influence.  That, and the lack of resistance to it by most of the Christian churches in the area, continued to be the main topic of conversation following the service.  We can only hope and pray that other area residents are similarly discerning.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  No-one comes to the Father but by me”.   Not by Allah, not by Mohammed, not by Buddha, not by the pantheon of Hindu gods, not by my own good works.  But by Christ alone.

There is a spiritual battle raging in the English Avenue district.   Please pray with us that we can proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ so powerfully that the demons will flee and that the message of Christ, and Christ alone, will fill the void.

God’s Word is Precious

August 2015―Over the weekend of August 8th and 9th Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship held a Back to School Family Fling, similar to a Vacation Bible School except that it also included adult participants. Designed by Miss Amy Work, the theme was, “God’s Word is Precious”, based on Psalm 19:7-11 and Psalm 119:72.   The event included singing, classes for adults, older children and younger children, crafts and games.  In the picture below we are learning the “The Law of the Lord is perfect, etc.,” chorus:

Following the opening exercises the children participated in a treasure hunt, solving the clues hidden around the inside of the building which eventually led them to a beautiful wooden jewelry box in the form of a treasure chest hidden in the stove containing ?????? and a Bible.  Then, during crafts time, the children made their own treasure chests from pre-cut cardboard and decorated them using a variety of “gemstones”, strings of pearls, glitter, etc. that Miss Amy had brought.  The treasures the children put in the chests included a gem-adorned note card with Psalm 19:9-10 on it, plastic gold coins and a miniature Bible on a key chain.

Below are pictures of the younger and older classes and one of the cardboard treasure chests:

Meanwhile the adult class, led by Tim Bloedow and Pastor Smith, taught adult applications of the preciousness of the Word of God specifically with regard to finances.

Miss Amy had written a skit in which teenage heartthrob, Justin Bieber, (played by Jerusha wearing a Justin Bieber mask) was being witnessed to by a girl on a park bench, played by Miss Amy.

Mr. Bieber rejected what he was hearing, claiming that he has tons of money, so much that he can swim in it.  He said he wanted more stuff, more cars, more fame, more girlfriends, gadgets, etc. He told her, “I’m the god of my world!  Everybody serves me!  The Bible more precious than gold?  That’s crazy, man.”  With that he left to go and get a tattoo.  His bodyguard, however, played by Pastor Smith, stayed, allowing the girl to witness to him.

We had 40 participants including 22 local children, 2 suburban children, 7 local adults and 9 suburban adults including helpers.  Lunch was included and, having learned that the Law of the Lord is sweeter than honey and more precious than silver or gold, the take-home snack comprised honeycomb cereal and chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.

The closing exercises on the following day began with singing led by Lynette Bloedow including the chorus, “The Law of the Lord is perfect. . . . .” that the children had learned the day before.

This was followed by a hilarious skit in which Miss Amy’s two puppets, Fiona and Gronk, competed in a cooking contest, the host being played by Jerusha, and the two judges being played by Michele Haag and Pastor Smith.  The winning food was the Bible, i.e., spiritual food, beating out both chocolate and honey.

Following a shortened Sunday School the worship service began with fifty-four people in attendance.  That was the largest number since we had moved in.  We had fifty seats available so the stairs came in handy!  The following is an excerpt from a Facebook page posted by Tim Bloedow, visiting from Canada with his wife, Lynette:

Wow! 30 wild inner city children of all ages making over half the congregation at today’s Atlanta RP Fellowship service. Only 10 adult supervisors/overseers. They need more than that. Big job here. The teachers and other support helpers and Pastor Frank Smith did amazing work. There were also about eight other adults, some from the local community and some other visitors who attend Free Church of Scotland and other congregations.

So much of what’s required in such situations is crowd control and people management so it can become very exhausting for some people. About 3 children needed special one-on-one attention today. I was able to work with two and Chris Myers with the other boy. It’s great to see boys who are starved for good attention change before you when you know how to give them some loving attention without being provocatively confrontational despite their behaviour. In a context like this, you can’t fight every discipline battle. Making progress on 2% of them might be a more realistic expectation. It’s remarkable that Frank can keep his presence of mind to preach his sermons in this context.

One of the boys I had to deal with was a walk-in off the street with 2 others. 7 years old. A female leader had to take him to the back of the sanctuary part way through the service. He continued to be disruptive so I took over and he kept whining that he wanted to go home. He was getting louder so I picked him up and took him outside. He continued getting louder as I told him to stop acting like a 2 year old and that he will go home but not now, etc., etc. During this time, I manhandled him a bit by pulling him to me and picking him up a couple of times.

He wouldn’t stop whining and crying then I changed approach and asked him what his name was. But he wouldn’t tell me so I started guessing. Almost immediately he stopped his fussing and said no every time I guessed. Then he eventually gave me the first letter. Then a few guesses later, I asked for the 2nd letter. Then he next gave me the rest of the letters. Then I asked about his other names. His last name was apparently Messiah but spelled Mesiy, or something like that, so I was able to tell him who the Messiah is.

The service ended by this time. We heard singing and went back to the sanctuary. He stayed close to me after that as we talked to a few people looking for a drink and a snack, and at one point standing in front of me with his back to me, he pressed into me and grabbed both my arms and pulled them around himself over his shoulders so that I was hugging him.

These are needy and unloved children who need a little bit of love from people who aren’t intimidated by their clumsy, often offensive and sinful attempts at trying to get attention. One often doesn’t have to put out much to be rewarded by affection or respect in return.

 Atlanta RP Fellowship needs more workers. Lynette Bloedow and I have been here over 2 Lord’s Days. We’re moving on Monday morning. Pray for the work here.

Tim wrote another account:

Ministry to another boy at the Atlanta RP Fellowship:

The first boy I had to deal with was threatening to hurt at least one other person, a girl who was apparently among some children who were “messin’ with” him.

‎My wife took over dealing with him from another person who wasn’t in a position to address the problem. He had been taken upstairs just prior to the service starting or soon after it had started. After my wife went up some minutes later, she heard the 12-year-old boy saying he was going to kill that girl. She brought him to the top of the stairs and called to me to come up to deal with him because he was threatening people. I was sitting at the bottom of the stairs holding a much younger boy who was sleeping, so I asked her to bring him down to me.

Once she got him close enough, I quickly reached out and grabbed the waist of his pants and pulled him down to me, and he was left with me. He was not fighting to get free but I could feel the pressure of him trying to exert a measure of resistance to me holding him, and as I questioned him, he did tell me several times to let him go ‎.

He was not responsive at first when I asked him what was going on, but after several minutes, he started to respond. Meanwhile, he kept staring in the direction of the people he wanted to hurt, who were sitting around the corner of the “L”-shaped sanctuary room from where I had him. He had also been sitting there.

‎Essentially, he told me that the other children were “messin’ with me.” I had intervened in a dispute with him the previous Sunday in which he was saying the same thing, but his teacher said he was the one messing with them, so this was a two-way conflict. That incident was helpful for perspective in dealing with this latest altercation.

After a couple of his responses, I started to make the point that people who are angry at each other can’t simply escalate conflict by reacting angrily and vengeful back and forth. I told him that somebody has to decide to turn the other cheek and respond with forgiveness, rather than revenge and resentment. I mentioned that this was the lesson from Christ and the kind of message he was in church to learn.

There was a bit of back and forth and initially a bit more of an aggressive attempt to pull away as I talked, but then all of a sudden, as I was “preaching” to him, he relaxed‎ and stopped trying to pull away. Then he said a few times, “I’m OK now.”

He then said he needed his journal and pen. He also wanted his Bible and a Psalter. ‎I went across the sanctuary to get these things from where he was sitting and we followed along the Scripture reading together. He also sang a few lines from the Psalter during the next Psalm. He then started writing in his journal as Pastor Frank preached. At one point, he got up and said he wanted to show his Sunday School teacher what he had written so I had to hold him back and suggested he wait until after the service. Soon after that, I had to leave to deal with the other boy whose account I wrote up earlier. Pastor Frank’s wife, Penny, said he continued to write, and that he was taking notes on the sermon.

I didn’t hear any reports of bad behaviour after the service during their free time so his change of heart seemed to continue then as well.

I don’t know what the Holy Spirit was doing or what was going on in his heart, but the way he responded seemed quite dramatic. He seems to be the oldest in a loosely knit family that the Fellowship has been ministering to for several years.

What a remarkable providence of the Holy Spirit to change this boy’s demeanor as He did with effective confrontation and engagement that helped to bring out some of his better side.

Here are some prayer requests:

  1. That the numerous children who are coming would learn to be reverent and respectful in church.
  2. That their parents would begin to attend, and other adults as well.
  3. That we would have more adult workers to help us; at times we feel absolutely overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, particularly dealing with all the children.  We need folks to sit with (or is it on?) the children, and we could use another driver or two with a van.
  4. That the finances would improve.  We are still in the black, but, expenses have increased with our move to the duplex, and the income has not kept up.

And as you continue to pray for us, be sure to contemplate coming to Atlanta for a visit, like the Bloedows.  Reservations are now being received at the Hidden Creek B&B (also known as our house) in order to facilitate a ministry-filled vacation.

Touch Up and Reach Out

August 2015―When Tim and Lynette Bloedow of the Russell (Ont.)  RPCNA offered to come to Atlanta to be of service to us for one week of their annual three week visit to the United States we were only too delighted to accept their kind offer and put them to work.  We did not realise, however, just how blessed we would be by their efforts.  To begin with we were unsure of what, specifically, we could ask them to do during the week but it dawned on us that they could be of great help with regard to the work we needed to do on the inside of our new building.  So we set about planning and purchasing supplies to paint as many rooms as possible in the time.  Being a handyman, Tim was also able to do some needed small repairs.

Tim (a student of RPTS), Lynette (from Trinidad and Tobago), Frank and Penny, along with Michele Haag and Rose Hillman got underway on the first day.  Over a period of three days we were able to paint the meeting room, the kitchen, the two Sunday School rooms, the upstairs hall and as much of the stairwell as we could reach.  Even the washing of the windows and the mini-blinds made a big difference.

On the evening of the first day of painting a National Night Out a was held on an empty plot of land on a corner across from Grace Store, in the back room of which the Muslin owner had allowed us to meet for several months during 2013.  To quote the National Night Out website, “it is a cohesive effort to promote involvement in crime prevention activities, police-community partnerships, neighborhood camaraderie and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back.”  It is held in many communities across the nation on the same night.  So after a few hours of painting we headed the four blocks over there and were able to meet and mingle with some of the residents and quite a few groups who are working to reduce crime in the area including city officials, the Federal Attorney’s Office, police officers and church personnel.  Tables were there not only for the hamburgers and hot dogs but also for board games.

City Councilman Ivory Lee Young addressing the crowd at the National Night Out

 

One of the speakers was Councilman Ivory Young with whom Frank, along with Pastors Camery and Anderson from Indiana had met in the Atlanta City Hall in November last year.  During that meeting Councilman Young outlined his vision for the city and prayed with the men.  He remembered Frank and was pleased to see him at the event.

 

Worship in the New Building

June 2015―We held our first worship service in our new building on Sunday, June 7th.  We were able to take possession a few days beforehand and had a number of people, including three of our teenagers help us clean up and get organized.  In preparation for the Lord’s Day we set up thirty two folding chairs which had been donated to us, with some of them in the worship space and some in each of the two Sunday school rooms, in the knowledge that they would have to be moved into the worship area between Sunday school and worship.

When we arrived for the service on Sunday, on one of the hottest days of the year so far, we discovered that the air conditioning was no longer working, and it appears as though about three feet of copper piping (valuable in the drug community) had been stolen from under the building causing the Freon to run out onto the ground.  The ceiling fan does not work well, being off-balance and having only a medium speed.  We were able to get a bit of a breeze by opening windows.  More donated chairs arrived giving us a total of 58.  In spite of the discomfort, and with Pastor Smith, very uncharacteristically, discarding his coat, we were still very excited to be in the new building.

Bursting at the Seams

April 2015―As we have reported in the past, our numbers have been growing and on one occasion, in late March, we had 62 people in attendance which resulted in having to put folding chairs up on the platform alongside the pulpit, and even then there was a small number that sat on the floor.

With the number of children attending now it is not surprising that every so often we will have young people who are disruptive, disobedient and disrespectful so we have begun a big push to get more parents to come with their children.  With an uneven ratio of children to adults it is also important to try to get more adults to come and sit under the preaching of the gospel.  Having the 12-seater van has been an enormous help to Pastor Frank who has to make several trips to pick up all the children and then more trips to pick up adults.  Amy, with her car, and a couple of our helpers, with their minivans, also help when and where they can, but another helper with another 12-seater van would be of great benefit.

We have been particularly excited that a 15 year old young man, Deon, has been showing a serious desire to grow in knowledge of the doctrines of the church. Every week Pastor Frank leads recitation of the first fourteen WCF Shorter Catechism questions by having one of the children pass out craft sticks with the numbers 1-14 on them.  Then whoever has the stick with number one on it will call out question #1 and everyone will recite the answer and so on.  Deon has memorized all fourteen answers perfectly and, because he is doing so well, we have continued him on, individually, with questions fifteen and sixteen.  Deon loves to stand at the edge of the platform as Pastor Frank is leading the singing, and on one occasion when I took a photo of him he specifically moved from where he was to stand behind the pulpit.  His current thinking with regards to a career is to be a police officer.  It had originally been to be an attorney until, as he told us, he discovered that attorneys are liars, so he doesn’t want to be one any more. We have tried to convince him that the world needs more Christian attorneys but he still doesn’t want to be associated with that profession.

We were particularly disappointed, however, with a comment made by one young lady in the young Sunday School class. On a day when Warren Jackson was teaching the young ones he read the story of the nativity and then asked the kids, who happened to be all girls (seven of them) that evening to tell him where Jesus was born and none of them could answer, so he told them.  Surprised that no-one could answer that he asked them the name of Jesus’ mother and, again, no-one could answer so he told them.  He then went out on a limb and asked them if anyone knew the name of Jesus’ earthly father and, of course, no-one did.  So for most of the rest of the lesson time he kept going over the story and asking them those three questions so that they would end up knowing at least that much.  Towards the end only one girl could remember Bethlehem.  A few remembered Mary and I don’t think that anyone remembered Joseph.   As we were taking one of those young ladies home in the car later she couldn’t remember any of the answers.  But, as striking as that was, Warren and I were floored at the answer one girl gave when Warren asked why Jesus had to come. Her answer was, “because if he hadn’t, white people would be shooting us right now”. That is a sad commentary on the mentality of many residents in the neighbourhood and one reason why we need to bring them to a fuller understanding of the Gospel.

We have had a number of health issues in the congregation over the last couple of months, not least the time that Miyani was hit by a car while playing near the apartment in which she lives.  Her leg was badly broken near the ankle and she required surgery to insert two rods into her leg.  More recently, in fact during Spring Break, she had her tonsils and adenoids removed while her brother, Jenario, had his wisdom teeth extracted and their mother, Miyoshi, was hospitalized for almost two weeks with an infection in a toe which became gangrenous and had to be amputated.  Sadly there appears to be no improvement in her eyesight following the surgery she had several months ago.

Pastor Frank has begun mid-week prayer meeting and Bible Study on Wednesday evenings in people’s homes.  Every other week he meets with adults and on alternating weeks he conducts a communicants class with the young people.  On one occasion, when he was unable to lead the adult study because of sickness, members of the group said they’d just carry on without him and they’d write down anything they didn’t understand to ask him next time.  He was very proud of them for taking this initiative.

Onward and Upward

January 2015―At the annual meeting of Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery in February 2014, Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship was adopted as an “official outreach” of the Presbytery, which is similar to a preaching station.  It had previously been under the authority of a local church session but when that church was reduced to a preaching station itself, APF came under the jurisdiction of the Southern Church Extension Committee (SOCHEX).   The Presbytery voted at a following meeting, held in June during the week of Synod, that if five qualified men could be found, a commission would be appointed instead and that it would report back to Presbytery at the spring meeting next year.  It was not until August 11th that we were informed that five qualified men had been chosen, and on November 14th we welcomed two of them, Pastors Jason Camery and Shawn Anderson, to Atlanta.  Pastor Frank had lined up a meeting with a city councilman, Ivory Young, in the city hall for the Saturday and at this meeting they discussed his vision for the English Avenue/Vine City neighbourhoods, which he represents.

The next day, November 16th, our visitors joined us for a worship service at Northminster (at which we had 28 in attendance) followed by a fellowship meal.  Later that afternoon we had a record 45 in attendance at the Atlanta service which was followed by a coat distribution.  As we had a lot fewer coats and blankets donated than last year we were unable to make the distribution available to the whole neighbourhood—only to those who came to worship.

On January 4th, we posted new record figures: 50 people in attendance including 29 children.   The following week we were down in numbers of children for a variety of reasons and we had a total of only 33 people.  Attendance has, however, been steadily climbing.  Our Atlanta ministry in its first year (2009) averaged 7.  The year we moved to the Bluff (2010), our overall average for the year was 10.  We averaged 13 in 2011; 12 in 2012; 16 in 2013; and 23 for the whole of 2014.  For the last three months of 2014, we saw a significant increase, with an average of 30.  As we have mentioned before, we are growing too big for our current facilities and are praying earnestly that the Presbytery will give us the go-ahead to be able to rent or purchase something larger.  Thankfully, a 12-passenger van has been donated to us to transport our congregation to and from Sunday School and the worship service as none of our regular attenders who live in the inner city have their own transportation.

On January 9th, 2015, we welcomed Pastor Phil Pockras and Elder John Hanson to our home for the weekend.  The following day, Saturday 10th, Pastor Frank took them into Atlanta where he had made arrangements to meet the realtor who was selling a church property that we may have been able to afford to purchase as a permanent location for the ministry.  Mr. Hanson inspected the building and found it unsuitable for our needs without very expensive repairs.  He did think, however, that there were other properties in the area that may work for us.  We have a Christian realtor who is looking for appropriate buildings on our behalf and is willing to assist us with regard to zoning issues, etc.  Pastor Pockras preached at Northminster the following afternoon, at which we had 19 people in attendance.   The two men were favorably impressed by their experience at Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship where they enjoyed meeting and interacting with the congregation.

Our Current Building

Phil Pockras Reading Scripture

We have been blessed by some of our parishioners commenting on the way that they are learning things about the Bible that they had never known before.  One such example, from a 58 year old man, is that, despite being raised in the church, he had never realised before that Jesus was God.  Pastor Frank meets with him regularly to disciple him in the faith.  Another man, in his mid-60’s, visited his previous congregation and told the pastor he was now attending “the Presbyterian church”.  He wants to go back and tell the preacher there that he ought to come to the Presbyterian church to learn how to preach!  Frank also meets with a couple who had been living together outside the bonds of matrimony but who came to realise that this was wrong and that they needed to get married.  The ceremony was conducted after the worship service on the first Lord’s Day in the New Year.  We have begun a mid-week Bible study and prayer time which is meeting every other Wednesday evening.

Following Vacation Bible Study in June, we started to be inundated with children, the older ones of whom are ministered to by Miss Amy Work, and the younger by Miss Jerusha Wheeler.  Miss Amy is very concerned about educating the young people in her Sunday School class and has prepared lessons based on J. I. Packer’s Knowing God.  Results vary, but one Lord’s Day earlier in the year as the lesson time drew to a close, she said that she wanted those in attendance that day to pray out loud.  Right away she got a volunteer to start the round of prayer and then the others volunteered to follow on.  And she was surprised and delighted at the result.  However, as the number of children has increased it has been more difficult to get them to concentrate for very long.  The seating arrangement in the church building is not conducive to large numbers being able to get into manageable groups as well as trying to coexist, given the noise that is generated.

We were blessed early in 2014 when Army Lieutenant Chris Myers and his family, including four young children, moved to the Fort Benning area from Harrisonburg, Virginia (where they are members of our RPCNA mission church) and started attending regularly.  Given the distance at which they live, they make the journey approximately every other week.  Chris, who is a licensed preacher of Presbytery of the Alleghenies, has been of enormous help, producing a very attractive website for the ministry and assisting in any way he can.

The Lord has brought us a new helper, Mr. Paul Struwe, a high-school teacher from Midway Christian School, who travels about 45 minutes every week to be a part of the ministry.  He has also substituted for Amy, teaching the older children when she has been away.

Many of you may remember that at the meeting of Synod in June 2014 the Trustees of Synod distributed cute little blue plastic piggy banks to all the organised and mission churches to encourage collection of donations for Reformed Presbyterian Missions and Ministries (RPM&M).  Even though Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship is not an organised or mission church, the project facilitator was kind enough to allow us to bring one home with us.  It has been a big success in Atlanta as it encourages both children and adults to start giving to the church.  One man folded up a bill until it was tiny enough to fit through the coin slot, saying he wanted to put it in there rather than into the tithe box!  And the children love it.  Two children, Talayla and Tranese, whom we first met as a result of VBS, attend most Lord’s Days with their mother and they sometimes bring their half-sister, Tierra.  (Together the girls are known as the three T’s!)  The mother had arranged for Talayla and Tranese to acquire candies to sell in order to have coins with which to feed the hungry pig almost every week.   One evening when Pastor Frank was reminding the congregation about the piggy bank he shook it to show how many coins were in there already and the bottom fell out, scattering coins all over the place.  Naturally this brought a lot of laughter as the children rushed up to pick them all up and feed them back into the slot.  We were able to send almost $60 to RPM&M in the fall and now, only a few months later, the pig is almost full again.  This is good training for people who have not thought about supporting a church and its ministry before.

A Glimpse Behind the Scenes

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

September  2014―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.

The Least of These

July 2014―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, 2010.

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.