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.

Vacation Bible School

June 2014―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 14 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.

Eleven 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.


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.