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.

2011 in the Bluff (Part 1)

December 31, 2011

It is now twenty months since we started ministering to the folk in the English Avenue district of downtown Atlanta, known as the Bluff.  We currently have an average of 13 in attendance each week, which includes those of us who come down from the suburbs.  Every Lord’s Day afternoon the arrival of Frank and me along with our faithful assistant, Amy Work, is anticipated by the residents.  On one occasion recently, a car was parked in “our” space and there was a small group of men on “our” steps.  As soon as they saw us approach they literally jumped up, declaring “The preacher is here, the preacher is here!”, the owner of the car called out that he would move it right away, and the steps were suddenly vacated to make room for us.  These men did not join the study, but we were touched at the respect they held for “the preacher”.  Amy enjoys her role as the teacher of the little children who attend, holding her class on the second set of steps of the burned-out church building on the corner of Kennedy and Brawley.AME Building

We were encouraged this year by the interest shown in our downtown ministry by a number of visitors from around the country.  As reported in a previous issue, in January three young men came for a weekend from Erskine College in South Carolina specifically to experience this kind of ministry.  In July Amy’s parents, Steven and Jeannie Work, came for the baptism of their new grandson in Chattanooga, and then came down to spend the evening in the Bluff with Amy.  Steven, who is pastor of the RPCNA church in Quinter, Kansas, led the Bible study that evening and then unexpectedly appeared the following Lord’s Day evening as well because they had suffered car problems and had not yet returned home.  Their support gave us a real emotional and spiritual boost.  Later in the same month, Paul Huffmaster, a member of an independent psalm-singing church in San Diego, visited his father south of Atlanta, and attended Northminster one of the three weeks he was in the area.  On the other Lord’s Days he attended his father’s church, but he joined us in the Bluff on all the Sundays he was here.  He was also a great encouragement to us as well as an enormous help with regard to ferrying children to and from the Bible study.  Then in November, Mark Sampson, from Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, who was visiting the area in order to make fundraising contacts, both worshipped with us in the morning and came into the Bluff with us in the evening.  Again, he was not only of great encouragement but also of great practical help ferrying children.

And who could forget the RP missions team comprising Stephen McCollum from Northern Ireland, Carla Quigley from Scotland, and Brenda Gladfeldter from Pennsylvania, along with Colleen Hartlaub from Wisconsin, who were here in the summer.  They, along with Amy and ourselves, held a “block party” on a vacant lot one Saturday morning.  Amy, who is a teacher in a Christian School in Marietta, had written the story of Moses and Pharaoh as a play in which the children could participate.  Stephen was brilliantly menacing in his portrayal of Pharaoh, wrapped in a purple table cloth with a gold napkin wrapped round his head pharaoh-style, waving a scepter that looked suspiciously like a curtain rod.  Carla played Aaron complete with fake beard, Brenda and Colleen dressed up as court magicians, and the children took it in turns to play Moses and, later, Aaron as well.  Besides narrating the script, Amy had even come up with games to represent the plagues. For example, a relay game involving cups of red juice illustrated the Nile turning to blood, the game of leapfrog depicted the plague of frogs, and, to portray the animal deaths, the children imitated an animal of their choice before falling down “dead”.  Unfortunately, we had only four children in attendance, but it turned out to be a great success for those who were there, with a lot of laughter and fun in addition to the learning.  Frank ended the morning on a serious note, explaining the meaning of the story, and using it to introduce Christ and explain the gospel to the children.  All four children came back the next day to the Bible study, and two who were brothers also brought their older brother.  They attended one more week, but after that we couldn’t locate them, and it turned out that they had moved.  Months later, however, we found them and they, along with a sister, started attending again.

The other two young people who came to the block party were Jenario (now 14 years old) and Miyani (now 10 years old), who have been very faithful in their attendance for over a year now, hardly ever missing a week.  We have been proud of Jenario’s efforts to memorise Bible verses and the answers to the first few Shorter Catechism questions.

In addition to the block party, the missions team also set up a prayer table on two other occasions and a number of needy people come by to ask for prayer.  Their names and prayer requests were logged, and we undertook to pray for each one for 14 days.  We still have folk from that endeavour join us occasionally at our regular Bible study.


The Following Lord’s Day

December 11, 2011

On the Lord’s Day following the events recorded in my previous article, we were, understandably, in a different frame of mind than usual as we headed back down Georgia 400 to the Bluff.  In the early days of our ministry, which had begun twenty months ago, we had gone into the area with an older black lady whose husband had been a previous drug kingpin.  She was well-known and beloved, and therefore we were immediately accepted because of our association with her.  She was, as it were, our “ticket” in.  Since then we had felt comfortable being in the area, even though this lady had stopped attending.  Now we were uncertain again, vexed by the thought that by encouraging people to come, especially the children, we might be causing them to be put in danger.  During the week, as we reflected on the events of December 4th, we wondered what lessons the Lord was teaching us.  Does he want us to make changes to the ministry?  Is he telling us that we need to change our location by moving a block or two away from the “hotspot” intersection?  Have we taken our safety for granted and not relied sufficiently on the Lord for his protection or thanked him sufficiently for his watch-care over us?  As we prayed during the week, we begged, Show us, O Lord God of Armies, Show us what your will is.

Before leaving for Atlanta, Frank always calls several of our “regulars” to remind them of the study, and this week, one such person, who had not been there last week, turned out to be very encouraging.  Fairly early in the conversation, this man mentioned that he’d heard about the shooting.  Apparently, around 11 o’clock last Sunday night, he was on the platform at the MARTA train station and he overheard folks talking about the incident, including the fact that the preacher had to be yelled at to take cover!  It would appear that news of our ministry is beginning to spread.

He said that even though there is occasional gunfire, it is not often that someone is killed.  As an example, he told Frank about what happened five weeks ago, around 1 PM on a Sunday afternoon, when a man had been shot to death around Brawley and North.  This was a fellow who, the previous Friday, had robbed six people.  He was chased by some folks, went to his car, got a gun and frightened them away.  For some reason, he came back two days later, and five bullets were pumped into his chest.  He did admit, however, that there have been incidents where people were accidentally shot, and he specifically mentioned a girl having been injured in her foot.

When Frank asked him if he knew of any animosity toward us, he said that he’s never heard anything negative said about us, only positive things.  Frank mentioned that it was his understanding that the drug kingpin likes and appreciates us, and he confirmed that.  He said that no one thinks that we’re taking pictures for the police; he said, “We trust you.”  He also said that we are accepted as part of the neighbourhood – that we don’t disturb whatever deals are going down, and that we’re there just like the rest of them: it’s just that we happen to be preaching.  He also told Frank that by being so faithful in our ministry we are giving people hope.

With this encouragement we headed south on a bleak, cold and windy afternoon.  As we entered the Bluff we drove through an area that normally has a lot of children playing, but, probably because of the chilly weather and the fact that it was beginning to get dark, there was no-one outside.  As we drove into the heart of the Bluff we passed a couple of intersections where more men than usual had congregated on the street corners and I found this a little unnerving.  Everything looked a little more menacing than it normally does, and I needed to recall memorized Bible verses to restore my strength.  After Frank parked by the steps of the burned-out church building I went round to the back of the car to take the easel and cooler out of the trunk, and I heard a gunshot coming from behind me.  My heart sank, and I thought, “O Lord, not again!”  I stopped what I was doing and went up to Amy and Linda, who had arrived ahead of us.  They had big smiles on their faces, and eagerly told Frank and me that when they arrived there had been a couple of men on the church steps and a large group gathered outside the convenience store.  But the nephew of the kingpin was one of those on the steps, and he and the other man left and shoo’d the group away from the store.  The steps were now empty and the sidewalk across the street only had a few people left.  In answer to my concern about the gunshot, Linda said that was OK – nothing to worry about!

The Bible study went well.  No unusual incidents.  Frank started the study by saying that we’d carry on where we’d left off so abruptly last week!  This brought a round of laughter.  We had eleven people in attendance, and everyone seemed to appreciate the opportunity to express reasons for thankfulness.  One young man who attends regularly gave eloquent expressions of gratitude to the Lord for protection last week.  

It was dark by the time we left the Bluff and drove home.  We knew that there were folk down there who had wondered if we would return, and we have been able to put their minds at rest.  We affirmed that, by God’s grace, we will continue to bring the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ into an area that truly needs that light.