Has It Really Been Ten Years Since We Were Dodging Bullets on the Church Steps?

It was a little over a decade ago, on December 4th, 2011, that we experienced first-hand what many of our parishioners know all too well—the outbreak of violence and the threat of death. It was on that date when a gunfight broke out at the intersection of Kennedy and Brawley, one of the most dangerous intersections in the South—the place where since April 2010 Pastor Frank had been conducting our weekly Bible study at 5 o’clock on Sunday evenings.  The shots weren’t aimed at our little group, sitting on the steps of a derelict church building, or at Pastor Frank, standing out on the sidewalk with his whiteboard.  It was obviously a drug turf war.  The first round of shots was a little unsettling, but the second round resulted in all of us except Pastor Frank hitting the ground, lying flat and praying.  Our brave leader stood his ground as he dialed 911.  None of us was hurt, and we all praised the Lord for his protection of us.

That event, in which the Lord clearly was watching over us, was ten years ago. That doesn’t seem possible—how swiftly time flies. But, on the other hand, so much has happened since then. Sometimes, it seems like it’s all a dream . . . .

For another year after that shooting incident, we continued to meet at that same street corner, in all kinds of weather and circumstances. We enjoyed the interaction with people who would come by and who would sit for a spell on the steps—there was something exciting about being in that environment, outdoors, on the tree-lined street, with a feel of street preaching.  But by late 2012, after two and a half years on that corner, it was clear that we needed to take the next step toward becoming a church plant.

In December 2012, we started weekly worship services. And we were able at long last to meet indoors, as a result of the kindness of a Muslim convenience store owner who allowed us to use a room at the back of the store.  This was very awkward as there was no electricity, so we moved, in mid-2013, to the basement of a local church.  From that facility we were able to increase our outreach into the community by holding two very successful coat drives in the parking lot, giving away literally hundreds of coats and blankets.  At the end of that year, we moved into a very small building, basically a one-room Baptist church, from where, for the first time, we held a Vacation Bible School in a nearby park.  We stayed in that building for a year and a half before moving to one side of a duplex in June 2015.

By moving to the duplex, we then had a building that we could use at any time of the day, and on any day of the week.  We were no longer confined to a few hours on the Lord’s Day. And our Sunday school teachers were particularly thrilled as they had their own rooms that they could decorate, and in which they could store their teaching materials.  We made use of our new flexibility by holding a “Family Fling”, similar to a VBS but including adults, organised by one of our Sunday School teachers, Miss Amy Work.

Of course, not all was a bed of roses. For instance, the occupants of the other half of the duplex turned out to be your friendly neighbourhood crooks. Indeed, on one occasion we discovered that they had broken through the shared attic wall in order to get into our side of the building so as to run an electric cable and steal electricity from us!

But despite various ongoing challenges, our being in that duplex marked a transition for our ministry. Our group started to enjoy a stability that we had not had before.

Another important development came in 2017, when Miss Amy, the Sunday school teacher of our older children, started God’s Girls Group, specifically designed to disciple two young ladies.  They have been meeting at her apartment once a month, doing something fun and interesting, and Miss Amy has been showing them how to cook while introducing them to healthy foods.  She also tries to impress upon them the importance of cleaning up after themselves, which seems to have been a foreign concept to them.  This is followed by a study time, in which the girls have been learning what it means to live as Christians.  Although one of the girls is no longer attending, the other is showing promising signs of the Spirit’s work.

There were other helps, too, including mission teams, such as those from our Columbus, Indiana, congregation, which came in 2016 and 2018 to assist us for a week.

But the most important factor in enabling us to mature as a group was when, in March 2019, Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery voted unanimously to constitute Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship as a mission church of the presbytery. Our name changed to Atlanta Reformed Presbyterian Church. We could now offer church membership and start observing the sacraments.  Frank accepted the call to be the organizing pastor, and the installation service was held in the duplex on May 10th, 2019, with the Temporary Governing Body conducting the proceedings.  We were gratified to have a large number of people in attendance, including representatives from the PCA, OPC, ARP, and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).  With 55 people there, we were at maximum capacity.

Unfortunately, while Pastor Frank was driving the church van in order to pick up people for that service, he ran into a car that had failed to yield at a stop sign.  After having to wait a long time for the police to arrive, he finally was able to arrive back at the church. The service started about an hour late, but it went well.

A few weeks later, on the way home from Bible study, Pastor Frank and I were involved in a car accident.  It was a miracle that no other car was involved, and that we both received only minor injuries. However, both Frank and I had to miss church the following Sunday, and I missed the four Sundays after that as well.

Having been told by the owners of the duplex that we needed to vacate the building so that they could turn it into an Airbnb, Frank had been looking furiously to find somewhere else to rent, and, at the beginning of October 2019, we moved into a building that had originally been a broom factory.  About twenty years earlier, it had been purchased by a church, but the number of elderly members was dwindling, and they had been thinking about disbanding and selling the building.  So, we raised a goodly sum of money through the generosity of many people; and, in June 2020, were able to put a down payment on a mortgage provided by our Synod.

Our having our own facility—and especially one in such a strategic location—has also marked a significant transition for our congregation. We are still learning what it means to have a place we can call our own, and figuring out how to make the most use of it. But our acquisition of this property is another obvious signal of the Lord’s providential care for this ministry.

Ten years—ten years have passed since that gun battle just yards away from us. So much has happened since then. We have had people come and people go. Chris Myers and his family served for a couple of years, before moving away. Chris eventually was called as pastor of our Phoenix, Arizona, congregation. As soon as the Myers family left, Sean and Anne McPherson moved to the area from Pennsylvania and served for three years. And then, just as the McPhersons were moving back to their home state, TJ and Nancy Pattillo and their children Hannah and Sawyer started attending. TJ, an ordained Ruling Elder, is our talented ministerial intern and is also now a ministerial candidate in the RPCNA.

We’ve had others who have left us by means of death. I remember Rose, a sweet, illiterate woman, who, we believe, did come to faith in Christ; Bill, a man who was able to profess faith and be baptised; and Andrew, who professed his faith and was baptised and then, sadly, was killed in a freak accident four months later.

And I think also of those who have recently joined the congregation. One man who comes to mind in particular is a fellow who had spent many years in prison doing hard time for crimes such as grand theft auto. He had been coming to church for several years on an irregular basis.  In July 2021 we heard that he had become very sick.  When we first visited him in hospice, he was unable to communicate very well. About a week and a half later, he sent word through his sister that he wanted the pastor to visit him. When Frank went in the next time, he was very alert and expressed his disappointment that he had not been able to complete the membership course. Two days later, the elders were able to conduct a meeting with him via Zoom, in order to hear his profession of faith and admit him to membership. We never expected him to be able to attend a service. Well, the next thing we knew, he had checked himself out of hospice, walked to the bus stop, taken the bus and then the MARTA train to near his apartment from where his daughter picked him up.  When he can, he makes it to church, and, at a wonderful time of prayer following a day of prayer and fasting back in October, he prayed wonderful prayers of gratitude and appreciation to God for having forgiven his sins and saved him.

We have come a long way over the last decade—since that shooting incident on the old church steps on a December evening. A lot has changed. A lot has happened. A lot has stayed the same. And what has particularly remained the same is God’s covenant faithfulness to us individually and as a group of believers—pilgrims passing through this world on our way to the Celestial City.

Has it really been ten years?

 


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