Category Archives: Church News

Knox Presbyterian Church ministers amidst Buffalo shooting tragedy

 

The Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, N.Y.

Five miles north of the Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, N.Y., Knox Evangelical Presbyterian Church Pastor Justin Olivetti is comforting a community jolted by the May 14 shooting that took 10 lives.

“Everyone here is a bit shaken up,” Olivetti said. “We had some members who had relatives who worked there or some other community connections to the area and the store, but none of the casualties were among them.”

Justin Olivetti

Olivetti added that the congregation prayed in the Sunday morning worship service for the families of those involved. He also attended a multi-church prayer meeting that was held on Sunday afternoon around the block from the store.

EPC Stated Clerk Dean Weaver served as Knox EPC’s Pastor from 1995-2006. He also is a former member of the Board of Directors for Urban Christian Ministries in Buffalo, which is located a few blocks from the site of the shooting.

“I am just devastated,” Weaver said. “The security guard who was killed was a friend of one of my closest friends from our years there.”

Olivetti said he and his congregation are praying for a revival and healing.

“It was definitely designed to inflame racial tensions,” he said. “So I’ve been counseling people that our job as Christ’s ambassadors is to bring His love and grace in where others bring hate.”

Natrona Heights pastor Rick Harbaugh profiled in local media

 

Rick Harbaugh, Pastor of Natrona Heights Presbyterian Church in suburban Pittsburgh, Pa., was featured in Trib Total Media on April 18.

The article, “Faces in the Valley: New pastor of Natrona Heights Presbyterian brings experience, energy to leadership role,” profiles Harbaugh in his first pastorate following 11 years on staff with The Presbyterian Church of Portersville (Pa.). Both churches are in the Presbytery of the Alleghenies.

Trib Total Media serves Allegheny, Westmoreland, Armstrong, and Butler counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Click here to read the article.

Ohio EPC church to host nation’s largest disability ministry conference

 

Bay Presbyterian Church in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, will host Inclusion Fusion Live (IFL2022) on Friday and Saturday, April 29-30. IFL2022, the largest annual disability ministry conference in the country, is hosted by Key Ministry in collaboration with the Tim Tebow Foundation.

Topics of this year’s conference include:

  • Supporting outreach and reintegration into church of persons impacted by disability after the pandemic.
  • Finding, empowering, and resourcing individuals with disabilities and families impacted by disability to launch and lead ministry.
  • Growing mental health ministry.
  • Innovative disability ministry strategies.
  • Impacts of trauma upon disability.

IFL2022 is designed for pastors, leadership teams, care teams, and children’s/student ministry leaders. Cost is $99 per person, and EPC members are eligible for a $22 discount by using the code EPC22 at registration.

“If your church has a disability ministry—or you are praying about starting one—this event should be on your annual calendar,” said Dean Weaver, EPC Stated Clerk. “My dear friend Beth Golik leads the Special Needs Ministry at Bay Pres, and also is on staff with Key Ministry. This conference will be a blessing to many people.”

For more information about the event, see www.keyministry.org/ifl2022.

Colorado family finds hope after suicide through Cherry Hills’ Alpha ministry

 

On the first Saturday evening in September 2019, Will and Maria Bales slipped into the back of the room at an Alpha meeting at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo. They weren’t sure they really wanted to be there.

Tyler Grissom

“I noticed them sitting off by themselves,” said Tyler Grissom, Evangelism Director at Cherry Hills who leads the church’s Alpha Course—interactive discussions that explore the basics of the Christian faith in an open and informal environment. “So I went and sat with them. They slowly began to open up. Then the tears started flowing.”

Grissom learned that the eldest of the Bales’ two sons, Nick, had taken his life almost a year earlier. He was only 17.

Their grief hit close to home for Grissom, who also is the father of two boys and lost his father in a tragic accident a few years before. He went through weeks of counseling afterward to find healing.

“I was able to share my own story with them, which helped,” Grissom said. “It enabled me to connect with them in a way I could not have if I had not experienced loss myself.” Most of all, though, Grissom just listened.

Friendship evangelism

He learned that the Bales—who did not have a church home—came to the Alpha meeting at the invitation of a friend.

“I will never forget that day,” said Ashley Gonzales, who attends Cherry Hills. “There were eight of us who knew Maria from playing tennis together. When we heard about Nick all of a sudden there was this chain of phone calls and we were all there.”

The women, who came from all different backgrounds and had never even had a spiritual conversation, did the one thing they could think of to do in the moment. They joined hands and started to pray.

“After the funeral, we wanted to continue to support Maria so we decided to meet every Friday for prayer at her house,” Gonzales said. “We didn’t even really know what to do, so we’d read a devotion from Jesus Calling, then pray and see where it would lead. Sometimes we ended up having deep conversations about life and faith.”

Nick and Maria Bales. (photo courtesy of the Bales family)

The women started calling themselves “The Prayer Warriors” and soon began to grow closer to God and to each other. Occasionally Will also would come in and listen.

“That’s when I got the idea to invite Will and Maria to Alpha,” Gonzales said. “Pastor Tyler had just announced that Alpha would be starting up again. Another friend in the prayer group had been through Alpha at her church, and we both thought it was worth mentioning to them.”

Gonzales had her doubts that they would say yes. But she knew that Alpha could provide some tools that the Bales needed to work through the grief, so she was willing to take a chance.

“I remember walking in that first night of Alpha, so anxious about whether or not they would show up. I realized this was my one opportunity, so I sent a text to Maria during worship saying, ‘I hope you can come.’”

Maria said their initial experience with the Alpha group was both “a good and bad experience,” but they returned the next week. At that meeting, they asked Grissom if he would speak at the remembrance ceremony for Nick in the Bales’ back yard on Sunday, September 29, which was the anniversary of his death.

A divine appointment

At Alpha two weeks later—on the night before the ceremony—Maria raised her hand during an invitation to say “yes” to Jesus. Her hope and peace were now in Christ, strengthened by learning from a relative that Nick had opened up his heart to Jesus before he died.

“I know that I’m going to see Nick again,” Maria said. “As much as I want to have him here, I am thankful to God for taking care of him. There’s no better place to be than in heaven.”

On the day of the ceremony, Grissom pulled into the neighborhood and saw cars stretched down the block, lining both sides of the street.

“There were a lot of people,” Gonzales said. “Young kids and families all there to support the Bales. I was praying hard for Pastor Tyler. I knew he wanted to acknowledge and celebrate Nick’s life, but also use the opportunity to share the gospel.”

Grissom delivered a powerful message, and when he asked if anyone would like to receive Christ, hands shot up all across the yard.

A few weeks earlier, Maria and some friends were in the mountains west of Denver when they were suddenly surrounded by a swarm of white butterflies. Maria said she knew at the time that it was a sign from Nick, so she ordered 1,000 butterflies in individual boxes for guests to release at the end of the remembrance ceremony. As dozens of people made the decision to begin a new life in Christ, the sky above the Bales’ home filled with butterflies rising toward the heavens.

“I believe God creates miracles every day,” Maria said. “Nick had a mission here—to be a light among all of his friends. Losing him was hard, but he has brought so much hope to other kids. I know that was Nick’s purpose.”

Nick Bales

When he was 9, Nick lost a friend to suicide. Three more friends took their lives later. His own battle with anxiety and depression started in the 6th grade.

When he was a 15-year-old sophomore, he launched an apparel company called Brought to Reality (BTR). He designed the T-shirts and hoodies to send a positive message, and he donated 10 percent of his profits to mental health efforts. He shared the story of his friend’s death on his website, and wrote these words to his peers: “My message is that life is precious, and I want to live every day to the fullest by being present, being myself, and following my dreams.”

But he started to isolate himself again early in his junior year and grew increasingly agitated. He even pushed away his brother, Tyler, which broke Maria’s heart because the two had always been close. One day after a heated argument, she exclaimed, “I don’t know who you are anymore!”

The pain in Nick’s eyes told her he did not either.

“I will never forget that moment,” Maria said. “The look he gave me was one of desperation.”

She threw herself into the fight to pull her son through his illness.

“It’s like a cancer,” she said. “Their brain is lying to them. It’s real, physical, brain pain. I can’t tell you how awful it is to watch your child suffer.”

As Nick started his senior year the next fall, he seemed to have turned the corner. He was doing well academically, playing on the hockey and lacrosse teams, and planning a Spring Break trip with his friends.

Tragedy

But on Friday night, September 28, he went to a football game, then texted his mom to let her know that he would be getting home late. Maria, who normally would have texted back a quick “Thanks for letting me know. I love you!” was particularly tired that night and fell asleep without responding. A friend brought him home a few minutes later.

The next morning the Bales found Nick’s lifeless body.

“Nick was a really good kid,” Maria said. “Mindful and sweet, athletic, energetic, so full of life. He was kind to everyone, and they all loved him. He was as comfortable with adults as he was with his peers and would talk to everyone in the room. He always liked to make sure people were included.”

Grissom emphasized that the Bales’ grief journey did not end at the remembrance ceremony, and more than two years later continue to walk a difficult road. Yet he noted that the tragedy of suicide is not beyond God’s redemptive work.

“What happened at the remembrance ceremony was all about the things that Alpha is built around—prayer and dependency on the Holy Spirit,” Grissom said. “God is unfolding His plan and allowing us to be a part of it. Only He could write a story like this.”

He hopes that Alpha will continue to be a place where families like the Bales can ask honest questions and find hope in Christ.

“Jesus was asked 183 questions in the New Testament,” Grissom said, “And He only answered three directly. Even His way of ministering to people—especially those outside—was to ask questions and let people wrestle with the answer until they came to a place of receiving the truth.”

The Bales family now runs BTR as a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called the Nick Bales BTR Foundation. The Foundation continues to produce “Street Wear for a Cause” and supports teens suffering from mental health issues and aiding in the prevention of teen suicide.

“All the proceeds go to helping pay for therapies for those less fortunate,” Maria said. “We don’t ever want young adults to make a permanent decision because they could not afford therapy.”

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) is a free, 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons and those around them with support, information, and local resources.

Colonial Presbyterian Church member Sandra Revelle weaves stories of reconciliation and hope

 

Colonial Presbyterian Church (Kansas City) member Sandra Revelle shared the stories behind her tapestry art on the four Sundays in February.

Simple stitches, ragged edges, and contrasting fabrics. Wrapped from start to finish in prayer.

That’s how Sandra Revelle—artist, storyteller, and member of Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City—brings the buried narratives of former slaves to life using machine- and hand-sewn panels vividly illustrated with scenes from the past.

“I see my characters as the lesser-known stars in the vast heavens of Black history,” said Revelle, who researches Depression-era archived interviews that Federal Writers’ Project journalists conducted with former slaves and turns them into historical fiction.

Revelle then takes those stories and stitches together fabrics, textures, and patterns to illustrate scenes from the lives of her characters.

Sandra Revelle with her 29″ x 25″ piece, “If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Could Ride.” When a much younger Sandra wished for a change requiring patience and insight she did not yet possess, this quote would roll from her mother’s tongue.

“These were ordinary people, just like you and me—people who endured unimaginable hardships but kept hoping and persevering in spite of the losses,” Revelle reflected. “That’s why it’s so important to tell their stories.”

During February, Revelle shared her art exhibit with Colonial’s two campuses as part of a “Kingdom Oneness” initiative that the congregation held in conjunction with Black History Month.

“I always try to insert a character in my stories who encourages from a Christian standpoint,” Revelle said. For example, in one of her stories a young man helps ferry escaping slaves across a river—risking his life to help others find freedom. “Although that young man is not particularly spiritual, the person who encourages him to take that step of faith is a believer.”

Jim West, Colonial’s Lead Pastor, believes it’s important for the church to hear these stories.

“God’s given Sandra a gift of being able to share a difficult history in a way that doesn’t shame anyone, but rather elevates our awe and respect and reverence for what people had to endure,” he said. “How they kept their faith in God amidst great suffering and injustice is a beautiful part of Black history that is not often told.”

Jim West

West acknowledges both the history of (and the current) racial tension in the United States. He says the church cannot ignore it.

“The redemption work of God has to start in the church,” he said. “I feel it happening slowly in our church and in other churches—particularly within the EPC.”

Through the Kingdom Oneness initiative, Colonial is intentionally seeking to hear and understand each other’s stories, champion diversity, and promote unity. Church leaders are building on efforts of a group called “the Bootstraps” that started organically within the congregation.

Rosie Bettis, a Colonial Ruling Elder and founding member of the Bootstraps group, said discussing issues of equality and racial differences “goes a long way” in promoting unity.

“We have Kingdom Oneness conversations every Wednesday, and that will continue past Black History Month,” she said. “We use a curriculum based on some of Tony Evans’ race relations material, which talks about how it’s not a ‘Black thing’ or a ‘white thing’—it’s a ‘Kingdom thing.’” The group is led each week by Greg Ealey, Campus Pastor for Colonial’s South Kansas City campus.

Bettis said Colonial also promoted specific events to acknowledge Black History Month. When a local theater put on a dance production telling the history and heroics of the Underground Railroad, the church purchased tickets and encouraged church members to attend. Bettis also went on a trip with five other women from the Bootstraps group to visit the Greenwood Rising and Cultural Museum in Tulsa, which tells the story of Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. When they returned, they shared the story with the whole congregation.

Bettis says the trip was “uplifting,” “convicting,” “eye-opening,” but that the greatest benefit was the relationships forged among the women who participated. The experience had such an impact on the group that they have scheduled an overnight bus trip to the museum in April, and anyone in the church can attend.

A bumpy road

But the road to Kingdom Oneness at Colonial has not always been easy.

When Bootstraps originally launched, “Be the Bridge” groups were formed to bring people together to talk about race in light of the gospel. The meetings were so well-received that Colonial soon invited local African American congregations to join the conversation. Relationships were formed, groups grew rapidly, and the congregation seemed eager to truly “be the bridge” to racial reconciliation.

Then came the pandemic, followed by police incidents around the country that provoked racial tension. Suddenly the divide seemed wider than ever.

The rift impacted the church.

“It reached a point where you could not mention reconciliation without someone getting triggered,” West recalled. “It was so painful to my heart as a pastor.”

The 24″ x 18″ work “Sidney ‘Charity’ Still” portrays a runaway slave-mother who left two young sons in bondage. She persisted in prayer for years over her boys. Forty years later, one son came through the doors of her youngest child, William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Peter was reunited with his parents. A mother’s prayers were answered.

When Revelle joined the church and was willing to share her gifts with her new church family, it was like a breath of fresh air.

“When she starts out by saying ‘I joined Colonial in November of 2021’ it takes all of the political angst away from the conversation,” West noted. “She’s part of our family. She chose us. That’s our sister telling us about her gift and her passion and her heart for this, and it endears us to her immediately. So we hear it from a whole new perspective—from her perspective.”

Revelle says that she is still amazed at how her work has been received.

“When I first started writing and when God first impressed on me to make the themes for the panels, I started thinking, ‘Lord, who’s going to want to see this?’ But I just kept creating them. I wasn’t sure what people would think. It’s been completely from the Lord. I just stepped out in obedience.”

Her exhibit—originally planned for two Sundays in February—ended up showing on all four weekends. One participant left this comment: “Amazing doesn’t describe the gifts and talents that this Woman of God has. Thank you so much for blessing and sharing your beautiful journey with us!”

“So many people at both campuses loved her art and hearing her story and getting to know her as a person,” West said. “She’s a storyteller who captures the pain of the slaves and Black history, but she’s so full of grace. Her heart just comes out.”

A place to call home

Revelle said she knew from the first time she visited Colonial that she had found her home. Bettis had the same experience years earlier.

“I joined the church because I heard the word of God,” Bettis said. “Those beliefs are the same throughout. The word of God is final. The word of God is the benchmark.”

Both women hope the conversations around race will soon be embraced more readily.

“It’s difficult for some people to talk about,” Bettis acknowledged. “Like if we avoid the conversation, then the tension doesn’t exist. In Bootstraps we use the term Imago Dei—we are all made in the image of God. I don’t want to be defined by the color of my skin. I want my friends to say, ‘All I see is Rosie.’”

Revelle said that having her artwork on display has helped spark conversation.

“My first desire is Kingdom,” she said. “If we can all just learn to walk as Jesus walked and keep our hearts pure before the Lord, He’ll show us where we are diverging from the truth and bring us back into unity.”

For more about Revelle’s art, see www.remnantsarise.com.

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

“In All Things” podcast episode 9 features EPC inner-city church planter Brian Evans

 

Episode 9 of the EPC’s podcast, “In All Things,” features Brian Evans, Pastor of 5point7 Community Church in Detroit, Mich., and member of the EPC National Leadership Team. This week, host Dean Weaver and Evans discuss the importance of the local church in effective inner-city ministry, as well as Evans’ background growing up in the same underserved neighborhood he now serves.

Episodes are available on a variety of podcast platforms, including Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Podbean, Spotify, and others. Search “In All Things” on any of these services.

The audio recordings also are available on the EPC website at www.epc.org/inallthings.

Colorado EPC churches assist in wildfire ministry effort

 

Grass fires fueled by 100-mph winds destroyed more than 1,000 homes in the Boulder, Colo., area on December 31. Photo credit: Kyle Clark, KUSA-TV 9News (Denver).

In the aftermath of a December 31 wildfire that destroyed more than 1,000 homes in the Boulder, Colo., area, Colorado EPC congregations are helping minister to local residents.

Most of the lost homes were in the towns of Louisville and Superior, suburban communities located approximately 10 miles southeast of Boulder and 20 miles northwest of downtown Denver. There are no EPC churches in the immediate vicinity. The nearest EPC congregation is in downtown Denver, and the suburban EPC churches are in the southern part of the metro area. Three additional Colorado EPC churches serve the Loveland/Fort Collins area, roughly 40 miles north of Louisville.

Greg Daniels, Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of the West and a Ruling Elder for Parker EPC (PEPC) in Parker, Colo., said donations PEPC received were being sent to Grace Commons Church (formerly First Presbyterian Church) in Boulder and Ascent Community Church in Louisville. The congregations are affiliated with ECO (A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) and The Evangelical Covenant Church, respectively.

Doug Resler

“I know many of the leaders of both churches,” said Doug Resler, PEPC Senior Pastor. “The Pastor at Ascent was the college director at the University of Colorado for years. These are great churches doing great work in their communities.”

Resler noted that both churches have donation links on their websites.

Other EPC pastors in the region confirmed that their congregations were not affected, though many know people who were.

“We have some folks who work in the Boulder area and have co-workers now without homes,” said David Hoffelmeyer, Lead Pastor of Faith Church in Loveland.

Others who reported that their congregations emerged unscathed include Curt Brophy, Senior Pastor of Lookout Mountain Community Church in Golden, Colo., Doug Brown, Lead Pastor of Greenwood Community Church in Greenwood Springs, Colo., and Erik Ohman, Senior Pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colo.

“The fire was obviously devastating to those communities,” said Dean Weaver, EPC Stated Clerk. “But the way our Colorado EPC churches are rallying around their hurting brothers and sisters represents the best of who the EPC is. When tragedy occurs, as it too often does, to God be the glory that EPC churches embody the love of Jesus to their neighbors.”

EPC congregation suffers effects from quad-state tornado outbreak

 

The Dresden , Tenn., Fire Department suffered significant damage from the December 10-11 tornado outbreak. In the background is the damaged Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church. (Photo credit: Dresden Enterprise)

The deadly December 10-11 tornado outbreak affected at least one EPC congregation. Paul Tucker, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Greenfield, Tenn., reported on December 13 that a family in the church who lives in Dresden, Tenn., suffered “a total loss.”

“They survived in a stairwell closet,” Tucker said by email. “That’s all that I know of at this time. Dresden is our county seat, so we know many are affected.”

The Dresden Enterprise reported that the downtown area received significant damage, including total losses to City Hall and the Fire Department and Police Department buildings. Dresden is about 12 miles northeast of Greenfield, in northwestern Tennessee approximately 15 miles south of the Kentucky state line.

Other EPC churches in the affected area reported no effects from the storm.

“Though we were under a tornado watch here in southern Illinois, were passed by,” said David Fischler, Pastor of First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Anna, Ill..

Mike Wey, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Blytheville, Ark., reported no damage to the church property or any homes of the congregation. Blytheville is about 30 miles west of the Monette (Ark.) Manor nursing home, which suffered a roof collapse and the death of one resident due to the storm.

“Thanks for checking in on us,” Wey said. “Everyone in my congregation is fine. Our church is OK too.”

Several other EPC churches in the region have been contacted, but as of December 15 have not responded to requests for information. We will update this story as details emerge.

Secure online donations to help EPC churches in the affected area with identified needs can be made at www.epc.org/donate/emergencyrelief, which also includes instructions for donating by check and text-to-give.

Georgia pastor Walter Turner succumbs to COVID

 

Walter Turner

Walter Turner, Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Rome, Ga., since September 2017, has succumbed to COVID-19. In addition to serving the Covenant congregation, Turner was chairman of the Undergraduate Department of Religious Studies at Beulah Heights University in Atlanta.

Please pray for the Walter’s wife, Margaret, their two children and their families, and the congregation at Covenant Presbyterian Church.

Memorial gifts or condolences cards can be sent to the attention of Dr. Walter Turner’s family, Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1645 Cartersville Hwy. SE, Rome, GA 30161.

Hurricane Ida relief continues; EPC leaders survey recovery efforts

 

Surveying recovery efforts in Thibodaux, La., on September 13 are (left to right) Whitney Alexander, Brandon Queen, Dean Weaver, and Bill Crawford.

As recovery continues in South Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Ida’s destructive wind, rain, and storm surge, EPC Stated Clerk Weaver traveled to Thibodaux, La., to see how donations to the EPC Emergency Relief Fund are being put to work.

He joined Bill Crawford, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux and First Presbyterian Church of Houma; Brandon Queen, Ruling Elder for the Thibodaux congregation; and Whitney Alexander, Associate Pastor of Missions for First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge, La., to survey relief efforts.

“In the past three weeks we served over 550 people directly with material support that Presbyterians from all over the Gulf region provided.” Crawford said. “We’ve given out $3,000 to people in need thanks to generous giving from the EPC, churches in our Presbytery, and private individuals.”

Queen said some of the funds were used to purchase generators and portable air conditioning units.

“We provided a generator for one lady whose unit was stolen, and for another elderly woman who lives in a more damaged area of the parish,” said Queen, who serves as a Detective with the LaFourche Parish Sheriff’s Office. “Helping others is what we are called to do—serving the less fortunate.”

He said generators also were provided to other parish deputies and staff so they can continue to serve the community. Weaver noted the importance of assisting first responders so they can better serve their communities.

“I want to help the people that are helping others,” he said.

The homes of two widows from Crawford’s congregations are a total loss.

Crawford said that between his two congregations, five households—including several widows—experienced “total loss.”

“Pray for these households,” Crawford said. “Our initial focus is to get them as far forward as we can carry them. We begin by packing what remains, throwing the rest to the street, and tearing the interior to the studs. It’s a brutal process for the homeowner, but a reminder of the call to support the widows of the church. We are trying to help the most vulnerable first, but we hope to help others as well. We’ve all suffered damage and loss, but many have suffered more.”

He added that relief teams from Houma, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge have “done significant recovery work” in three homes.

“We have been able to move from relief to recovery by working through volunteer teams from all over the Gulf Coast and Baton Rouge,” he said. “These have been day trips where teams drive in, work 4-6 hours, and then drive home. Next week we are hoping to host our first multi-day volunteer team.”

“The work of the EPC has been significant,” he added. “My car is in the shop indefinitely due to the storm, so they purchased a truck so I can lead teams. The Presbytery has sent thousands of dollars of relief in the form of supplies and cash. First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge has done the same, along with sending logistical, planning, and personal support. Whitney Alexander has been down here at least a dozen times. We are coordinating with churches in the Presbytery to help rebuild homes and restart lives. We thank God for their support.”

Crawford said he expects the work to continue at least through the rest of this year.

“As we move forward into the mission field there will be opportunities for much of next year,” he noted.

Secure online donations to help with recovery efforts can be made at www.epc.org/donate/emergencyrelief, which also includes instructions for donating by check and text-to-give.

On September 12, Weaver delivered a message of encouragement from Psalm 41 to the combined Thibodaux and Houma congregations.

As Louisiana continues to recover from Hurricane Ida, Hurricane Nicholas brought additional rain and storm surge to the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts in mid-September. EPC congregations were largely unaffected by that storm.

“Compared to what Bill Crawford has been going through in Thibodaux, Nicholas is nothing,” said Alan Trafford, Pastor of Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lake Jackson, Texas. “The church is unscathed except for a few tree limbs. Neighbors were helping one another, and by lunchtime some of the more intrepid were mowing their lawns.”

Hurricane Ida leaves communities, EPC churches in state of ‘relief, recovery, rebuild’

 

by Bill Crawford
Pastor, First Presbyterian Churches of Houma, La., and Thibodaux, La.

Bill Crawford

It’s been an amazing, intense, depressing, and glorious two weeks. Sunday, August 29, will sit in a long history of devastating storms as one of the most catastrophic storms ever recorded. I know as my family and I watched from the windows of First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux. I could see the power of the storm, but I had no concept of the scope. As we woke up and walked out on the streets of Thibodaux it was like people walking into Oz. We discovered that the loud noise we heard in the night was the collapse of a brick building downtown. Eventually we traveled home to find our home surrounded by broken trees but mostly intact.

It was typical of Thibodaux that we immediately started clearing trees. We spent an hour cutting a hole through my neighbor’s driveway so he could evacuate. That began the slow process of coming to grip with the truth that it wasn’t just us. Thibodaux and Houma are at the heart of a storm that left a trail of power outages from Morgan City—35 miles west of us—to Mobile, Ala.—200 miles east of us.

Yet, to our amazement the assistance began to roll in from those who were also without power. I can’t mention every church and person who dove in and helped us, but First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge—in the person of TE Whitney Alexander—has been steadfast. We know he represents the whole staff and congregation.

The churches of the entire Gulf Coast have been amazing. Help poured in from Houston; Monroe, Covington, and New Orleans, La.; a nonprofit called Advancing the Call Together (ACT) from Ohio; the EPC Office of the General Assembly in Orlando; and from individuals from several states outside Louisiana. Pastors came with lay people like Korey Duncan organizing trips, and Nathan Edwards crawling in the dirt to fix our pipes. Will Shirley, Parks Lanier, and others came representing so many congregations. We were blessed to see brothers and sisters in the Methodist and even Catholic believers. Our cup runs over.

Damage from Hurricane Ida in Thibodaux, La. (Photo courtesy of Bill Crawford)

The last two weeks have been a joint effort of those above, a small group of volunteers from First Presbyterian Church in Thibodaux, community leaders, and—simply put—personal friends old and new. We have seen God move through the generosity of the Presbytery, local people, friends, family, and strangers from across the country.

Many individuals and congregations have made contributions for us to make sure we could meet expenses and meet needs. Thank you! By your gifts we’ve been able to do some amazing things.

We’ve paid to tarp three homes that had no available person to do it. Through a food pantry at First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux (FPCT) we have served 150 distinct households representing 554 people—in just the first 10 days after the storm. With the work of ACT we have helped serve 1,500 hot meals in Point Aux Chene (about an hour south of Thibodaux in the bayou)—where with your donations we set up a satellite relief warehouse larger than the one in Thibodaux. We’ve given food, water, and gasoline to hundreds of residents in the Point Aux Chene area, and built connections with the Dardar Indians and the local Fire Department.

I have to share one heartbreaking story. One of our deacons has an adult son with special needs. We discovered one of her son’s friends, who also has special needs, a few days ago. He was home alone with his dog, where he rode out the storm in a closet because his caretakers had abandoned him. Our deacon is currently housing both young men in her two-bedroom home, and we are providing some funds so she can buy enough groceries.

In addition to financial support, volunteers have helped clean out two houses and moved members’ furniture into First Presbyterian Church of Houma. The church facility is currently closed due to its own damage and loss of power and water, so we are using it as temporary storage.

Today (Monday, September 13) we are helping two widows pack up anything salvageable before we rip their homes to the studs. We are in a race against time with Tropical Storm Nicholas bearing down on us with the potential for heavy rain over the next few days.

Relief, Recovery, Rebuild

So what is next? The three Rs of a disaster are Relief (meet the basic needs of daily survival), Recovery (save the valuables that cannot be replaced and mitigate further damage), and Rebuild (help people rebuild their lives).

Damage from Hurricane Ida is providing an almost unlimited avenue for ministry in South Louisiana. (Photo courtesy of Bill Crawford)

We are wrapping up the relief phase, which I have never seen happen so quickly. We have more than enough water. We have more than enough food (although hot food is a value). Gasoline has gone from a one-hour wait to almost no lines in Thibodaux. But further south, those down the bayou are catching up. By your gifts we have delivered more than 200 gallons of gas into Point Aux Chene. We have used about that in Houma and Thibodaux.

Recovery is going to be a heavy lift. As we say, “We’re all in the pot.” My home is still without power, and I am living at my neighbor’s house. I put the cook team in my house this week thanks to a generator generously provided from folks in west Louisiana. I might move home next week. But literally everyone has damage. We have only two members in the two congregations who have power. Several moved home, their generators failed, and they’ve moved back out. The damage is just astounding. I can drive for three hours in one direction without leaving this zone. As I go south it just gets worse and worse.

As you try to help us, please be patient. We can likely only handle one group at a time for now. Saturdays may be the best time, but we can’t handle all of you at once! There’s plenty of work—we’re literally surrounded by it—but knowing where to point you takes time and planning. It’s a 50-mile congregational parish and we’re all in the pot!

Further out is the next phase to help rebuild several homes. We will need skilled labor for that work. It will have to be a collaborative effort and will require an entrepreneurial attitude and an adventurous spirit.

I don’t even know what else is going on in the world, but for the last two weeks we’ve been living in the eye of the storm. We are grateful that the Eye of the Lord is on the sparrow and that He watches us to the point that He knows the hairs of our heads!

This is a long report, but it is written out of a sense of amazement and joy. There is so much work to do; so many stories to tell. Each day full and each night restful. Clarity comes in the storm. What matters most is made crystal clear. But clarity comes and grows each day as we experience relief, recovery, and are rebuilt by the Holy Spirit.

God bless you all—we love you and we thank you.

TE Bill Crawford

Secure online donations to help with recovery efforts can be made at www.epc.org/donate/emergencyrelief, which also includes instructions for donating by check and text-to-give.

Prayer requested for COVID-stricken Georgia church

 

“Hear our prayers, O Lord, and raise up our brother and sister for the glory of Jesus our Lord.”

Walter Turner

Please pray for the congregation at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Rome, Ga. A member of the Session contracted COVID-19 and died last week. Covenant’s Pastor, Walter Turner, has COVID and is on a ventilator in a Rome hospital. His wife, Margaret, also has COVID and is resting at home.

Let us join hearts and voices in prayer for the congregation of Covenant Presbyterian Church, and for Walter and Margaret Turner.

Louisiana EPC church members suffer ‘total loss’ from Hurricane Ida

 

Hurricane Ida left downtown Thibodaux, La., strewn with bricks and rubble. (photo courtesy of Bill Crawford)

Reports of damage to EPC church buildings and congregation members’ homes resulting from Hurricane Ida continue to emerge in the days following the storm’s August 29 landfall in Louisiana.

Bill Crawford, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Thibodaux, La., said several families in the congregation suffered “total losses.”

“One of our losses is just crippling,” he said. “She in her 50s, uninsured, and her husband died in December. Another family lives out in the bayou and it’s really bad.”

Crawford reported that he and his family were staying in the home of a church member who had evacuated and has a generator.

“My home has two trees that have fallen over the fence and are hanging on the neighbor’s power line, so I’m leaving them alone,” he said. “My roof has shingles missing everywhere, the garage roof is leaking, and the tarp I put over the damage is leaking. Thankfully it’s only over the garage, and so many people here are dealing with much worse. Some of these folks are just beside themselves trying to figure out what’s next.”

This home of a church member suffered significant damage. (photo courtesy of Bill Crawford)

Crawford said the church building escaped major damage.

“Structurally, the church building in Thibodaux is sound. The building has always had leaking issues, but they have been mitigated and we are good there,” he reported, adding that he and his family are using the church as a makeshift relief center.

“We are set up for relief and giving out supplies in the dark—but what’s how we roll around here,” he said. “For now it’s me and my family because the members of the church are dealing with stuff too. We have received an initial load of supplies from the Presbytery, and even though we are not advertising we’ve had about 30 households come through and pick up bottled water, tarps, and other things.”

Crawford also serves as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Houma, La., about 15 miles south of Thibodaux.

Bill Crawford

“The ridge cap blew off the roof of the church building on Houma, and there are leaks all over,” he said. “Bricks are on the roof, but they are not our bricks. If I can’t get the insurance folks over I’ll have to figure something out. As for our members, everyone is just coping. For the most part, people either evacuated or are in serious trouble. The big problem we are going to face is mildew—this is South Louisiana, so we are literally in a swamp.”

He said one family who lives in a trailer home “has a hole in their roof and no tarp” while another was “completely flooded when water overtopped the levee. Another family lost everything—they are in Florida now.”

The courtyard entrance for First Presbyterian Church in Houma was littered with roofing shingles and other debris. (photo courtesy of Bill Crawford)

Amid the devastation, Crawford noted that the area is “one of the most churched places in America. There are so many good Christians here jumping in to help—we are blessed.”

Northeast flooding

The news is better in the Presbytery of the East, where the remnants of Ida delivered heavy rains, flooding, and tornadoes across a wide area of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

Glenn Marshall, Pastor of Park Avenue Community Church in Somerdale, N.J., said his congregation escaped significant damage.

“We are all fine,” Marshall reported. “We had storms all around us. One family who lives in Mantua Township had a tornado close to them, but they are thankfully unscathed.”

Mantua Township is about 4 miles from Mullica Hill, N.J., where a confirmed EF-3 tornado with 150 mph top winds destroyed numerous houses on September 1.

About 80 miles north in Kearny, N.J., Pastor Valdir Reis said the Closer to God Evangelical Presbyterian Church building’s basement flooded, but the members of the congregation fared well.

“Thankfully, so far no one has reported any loss or anything serious following the storm,” Reis reported by email on September 3. “There were members with minor leaks but that was all taken care of and everyone is healthy as far as we know.”

In the northern portion of Brooklyn, N.Y., Pastor Jamison Galt said many parishioners of Resurrection Clinton Hill had flooded basements, “but nothing worse. We are grateful.”

About 5 miles south, Brian Steadman said parishioners of his congregation had their homes elevated as part of their recovery from Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge in 2012, and only experienced minor issues. Steadman is Pastor of Resurrection Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Dean Weaver, EPC Stated Clerk, said he has been in contact with church and Presbytery leaders across the affected areas.

“Several churches in the Presbytery of the Gulf South are coordinating relief efforts and work teams,” Weaver said. “As they assess the situation and start to be able to host volunteers, we will get that information out. In the meantime, we are accepting donations to the EPC Emergency Relief Fund to help with immediate needs. We’ve been told the most pressing items are fuel, tarps, bottled water, and Gatorade.”

Secure online donations can be made at www.epc.org/donate/emergencyrelief, which also includes instructions for donating by check and text-to-give.

Back in Louisiana, Crawford said they would continue to distribute relief supplies as they are delivered and looks forward to hosting work teams as soon as they can.

“At this point, we are just chugging along and accomplishing tasks,” he said. “We are a really small congregation and it’s a bit overwhelming. I can’t imagine how those with a large group are keeping up with everyone. Just knowing our EPC friends are praying for us and that they care is a huge comfort.”

Prayers requested for Louisiana as Hurricane Ida approaches

 

As Hurricane Ida approaches Louisiana with 150 mph winds, please join EPC leadership in prayer for those in its path. Several EPC churches in Louisiana are in the path of the storm:

  • First Presbyterian Church in Thibodeaux (Pastor: Bill Crawford)
  • First Presbyterian Church in Houma (Pastor: Bill Crawford)
  • Woodland Church in New Orleans (Pastor: Joseph McDaniels)
  • Church of the Resurrection in New Orleans (Pastor: Ben Cunningham)
  • New Covenant EPC in Mandeville (Pastor: Hunter Gray)
  • Faith Presbyterian Church in Covington (Pastor: Jason Wood)
  • River Community Church in Prairieville (without a Pastor, but Whitney Alexander is Moderator of Session).
  • First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge (Pastor: Gerrit Dawson).

Pray that God’s grace and protective hand will sustain those who have not been able to evacuate. Pray also for each of these Pastors and their staff and leaders as they care for their congregations and communities today and in the days to come.

Deerfield EPC celebrates sanctuary’s 250th anniversary

 

There are only a handful of churches that can claim they worship in a sanctuary built five years before the American Revolution.

When the Jersey Sandstone building of Deerfield Presbyterian Church in Bridgeton, N.J., was constructed in 1771, the “Founding Fathers” were young men. George Washington was 39 years old. John Adams was 36. Thomas Jefferson was 28. James Madison was 20. Alexander Hamilton was 16.

As it has for the past 250 years, the building stands as a testament of its members’ faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Though Deerfield’s sanctuary was built in 1771, the church has been part of the surrounding community since its founding in 1737 by Scottish immigrants. The church—which celebrates its 284th anniversary this year—is about 50 miles south of Philadelphia, Pa.

On August 8, about 90 current and past members gathered to celebrate God’s work through the church over nearly three centuries. The occasion also marked the completion of repairs and upgrades to the building that included a laborious restoration of the sandstone exterior, a new cedar-shingle roof, lightning protection, and other projects.

Ken Larter, Deerfield’s pastor since 2002 and the church’s longest-serving minister, said the congregation originally met in a log cabin near the site of the existing sanctuary. Led by the church’s second pastor, Enoch Green, the congregation completed the sandstone sanctuary shortly before the Revolutionary War. Larter added that in addition to being a pastor, Green “was instrumental in getting the congregation behind the revolutionary cause. In a sermon that he preached from our sanctuary, he was basically recruiting men for the revolutionary army.”

Ken Larter

Larter said Green served as a chaplain with the men who were recruited.

“Unfortunately, he caught camp fever when he was with George Washington’s troops and came back ill to this area, dying fairly young.” Camp fever—or Toxoplasmosis—is an infection that usually occurs by eating undercooked, contaminated meat.

Another notable Deerfield pastor was John Brainerd, brother of celebrated missionary David Brainerd.

“David Brainerd, if you remember your Colonial church history, was a missionary to the Native American Indians,” Larter said. “Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis and died quite young in the home of Jonathan Edwards. John Brainerd, his brother, was able to carry on David’s work and was minister at Deerfield for three years before he died in 1781.”

John Brainerd, Enoch Green, and a third minister from the era, Simeon Hyde, are buried side-by-side just outside Deerfield’s sanctuary.

Larter explained that in the 1700s, a deceased minister would sometimes be laid to rest under the sanctuary. This was done for Green and Brainerd, but their remains were later reinterred on either side of Hyde just outside the church building.

“In the very oldest part of the graveyard, in the space occupied by the old log cabin church, burials go back to the early 1700s. Then, directly across the street from the sanctuary, there are graves primarily from the 19th and 20th centuries. And a tenth of a mile away, in what is called the triangle, are 20th and 21st-century burials. So the church is surrounded by those who have belonged to us in times past,” he said.

As for the present and future, Larter noted that Deerfield remains committed to the authority of Scripture and the truth of the gospel.

“I think what is important is the very fact the congregation has survived for going on 300 years. That survival is ultimately tied to its commitment to the authority of Scripture and the historic Christian gospel,” Larter said. “Churches in so many places have compromised again and again on the essentials of the faith, but the theological heritage of the church remains solidly Bible-based and evangelical. I believe that is why the Lord has allowed us to stay here for so long.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Second Presbyterian Church offers localized theological education through Memphis City Seminary

 

Carl Ellis, Provost’s Professor of Theology and Culture at Reformed Theological Seminary, teaches Minority Church History for Memphis City Seminary in February 2021 at Second Presbyterian Church.

Starting a new seminary during a pandemic would not appear to be a wise thing to do. But when the purpose and strategy of Memphis City Seminary (MCS) are taken into consideration, it makes total sense. A ministry of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, MCS launched in February 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the United States.

The organizers weren’t sure of the seminary’s immediate future at the time, recalled Taylor Tollison, MCS Director of Operations, who also serves as Domestic Outreach Coordinator for Second Presbyterian Church. Yet in looking back, he said the school’s flexible, local-oriented model—plus low tuition cost of $100 per credit hour—turned out to be “a great approach” during a time of restrictions on travel and in-person gatherings.

He explained that from the beginning, the seminary was designed to provide not only flexibility in academic preparation for ministry, but also a focus on “place-based” education. That means that MCS, training students for ministry in the urban landscape of Memphis, would ensure its students would gain an understanding of how their biblical and theological studies would be applied in their local context. Specifically, recent U.S. Census data shows that the Memphis metro area of more than 5 million is nearly 48 percent African American and only 43 percent non-Hispanic white.

Taylor Tollison

“MCS offers a distinct curriculum that is designed to prepare pastors for the Memphis context and the surrounding region,” Tollison said. “We want to learn from those voices in theological education that are often underrepresented by offering specific courses and requiring specialized reading.”

Tollison noted that a key value of MCS is that the seminary views its students as more than just “academic thinkers.”

“Our hope is that our students will receive a holistic and comprehensive theological education that equips them in four key areas: knowledge, character, skills and vision,” he said. “Our aim is not merely to transfer information to the mind, but to take part in the full-orbed formation of Christian leaders. We believe the demands of gospel ministry require the whole person to be equipped—not merely the mind.”

George Robertson

George Robertson, Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church and MCS Academic Dean, said the school’s faculty are “pastoral scholars” who integrate education with practical ministry.

“We are making our experience and the best of biblical and theological scholarship available and affordable to Christ-centered leaders in Memphis,” he said.

Brian Lewis, Second Presbyterian Church’s Director of Domestic Outreach, serves as MSC’s Executive Director. He said the seminary is “well on its way” to providing affordable, high-level education for ministers who do not want to leave Memphis to receive their theological education.

Brian Lewis

“We are attracting bivocational workers and many people of color,” Lewis said. “We strive to be very multi-cultural, which mirrors our Memphis culture. We believe we will also steadily attract students regionally and nationally, because Memphis has world-wide appeal.”

Rufus Smith, Senior Pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Memphis and a member of MCS’ Board, said that he often promotes the seminary’s “affordability, accessibility, and action-oriented training for gospel ministry in churches, non-profits, and the marketplace.”

Tollison said MCS is officially “authorized” by the State of Tennessee—which legitimatizes it as a school of higher learning—and is pursing official accreditation through the Association for Biblical Higher Education and the Association of Reformed Theological Seminaries. He hopes MSC will receive full accreditation in three to five years.

The groundwork for MSC started in 2006 when Second Presbyterian Church began to envision what an urban seminary for Memphis might look like, with the ultimate goal to offer an entire Master of Divinity degree locally. From 2006 to 2009, a venue for offering seminary education was through the Memphis Center for Urban Studies initiative. In 2009, Second Presbyterian Church began hosting a Reformed Theological Seminary extension site.

Limitations Lead to Vision

For the next 10 years, Lewis and his wife, Joanne, directed the RTS extension. Students could begin their seminary degree in Memphis, but were only eligible for a Certificate of Biblical Studies (CBS) upon the completion of 29 hours. After 29 hours students could complete an MA degree online, or for other degrees were required to transfer to a degree-granting seminary location to complete their coursework.

To bridge this gap in local seminary education, MCS was launched in November 2019 as a degree-granting seminary for both Master of Arts in Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity degrees. Twenty degree-seeking RTS students joined 30 other students to bring the initial enrollment to 50.

Spring 2021 enrollment has grown to 60 students—35 men and 25 women—with 16 of those being minority students. Local churches represented by MCS students include Downtown Church, Fellowship Memphis, First Evangelical Church, Hope Church, Second Presbyterian Church, and The Avenue Community Church.

“One of the things I love most about my job,” said Joanne Lewis, MCS Director of Enrollment, “is to see students in our classroom who have dreamed, prayed, and waited for an opportunity to pursue their theological education but until now were unable to do so.”

Braden Tyler

Braden Tyler, a teacher and soccer coach at a private Christian school in inner-city Memphis, is one of those students.

“I am 31 years old and have wanted to do seminary ever since becoming a believer [while] in college,” Tyler said. “However, college debt, getting married, and having children kept me from pursuing this. All the seminaries that I wanted to attend were too expensive and not located in the city of Memphis. I could do online seminary, but it would be too expensive for me and it would be a lonely road.”

He noted that relocating to an in-resident seminary would require quitting his job, moving to a new city, and having his wife get a job in order for him to be a full-time student.

“Unsatisfactory options like this kept putting seminary on the back burner,” Tyler said. “Then along came MCS—an affordable, flexible, and local seminary that could give me the high quality, biblical education that I wanted. I could keep my job and keep my family in our city. Christians shouldn’t have to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars and have to leave the context of their city in order to get a seminary degree. I have talked to many people and it seems that seminaries like this could be the future for the church.”

He said that after he receives a degree from MSC, his goal is to continue his education by pursuing a PhD to teach in a seminary or become a pastor.

Denny Catalano

Denny Catalano, director of Campus Outreach in Memphis, said MSC is “a great complement” to his work.

“I chose Memphis City Seminary because I wanted to grow in my knowledge of God, in my character, and in my skills to more effectively reach the lost and shepherd my team,” he said. “We serve a very broad ethnic and cultural demographic, so I was looking for something that would give me a broad and thorough understanding of God and how He has worked throughout history among all nations. I count it a great privilege to be able to learn from some of the best scholars out there while being able to collaborate and learn alongside people ministering in a broad array of contexts.”

Bradley Morrow, Second Presbyterian Church’s Recreation Coordinator, said MSC makes a seminary education financially possible for him.

Bradley Morrow

“MCS has allowed me to gain a sound theological education that is affordable and allows me to work a full-time job where I am able to apply what I am learning in class to my ministry in the city,” he said. “MCS is equipping me to read, study, and teach the Scriptures in a way that reveals Jesus and proclaims the gospel as good news to every ZIP code in the city.”

Tyler agreed, adding that is it is a “big advantage” taking seminary classes alongside people from the city where you live.

“This is very unifying for a city and for churches,” Tyler said. “The next spiritual leaders of the community are people who have been trained in the same seminary and are friends with each other. This seminary can provide classes that fit the needs of Memphis and can better train leaders to impact this city.”

For more information on Memphis City Seminary, see www.memphiscityseminary.org

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

A South Memphis matriarch’s home burned down. Her community—including the EPC’s Downtown Church—rebuilt it

 

Betty Isom’s Memphis, Tenn., home was severely damaged in a 2018 fire. With help from neighbors and church family at Downtown Church, her home was rebuilt. Photo credits: WMC5 Action News (left); Ariel Cobbert, The Commercial Appeal (right).

Betty Isom was fast asleep when the fire started.

Her grandson woke her up in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2018, alerting her to the blaze, later determined to be an electrical fire. Isom and her family were not able to douse the fire themselves; the pipes in her home had frozen. It had barely gotten to 25 degrees on New Year’s Eve in Memphis, according to weather records.

The moments after Isom and her family left the house were chaotic. Isom, who hadn’t even had time to grab shoes on her way out, tried to run back inside to get her car keys so the family could sit in the car to escape the cold. She eventually went to her neighbor’s home, but her family feared she had gone back into the house and told firefighters she might be inside.

None of the 10 people who were inside when the fire broke out were injured, but the fire made the home on Tate Street uninhabitable. The Memphis Fire Department said at the time there was at least $10,000 worth of damage to the home and $5,000 worth of damage to the contents, according to reports from WMC Action News 5 and WREG-TV.

Betty Isom sits in the new ministry room that was added when her fire-damaged home was rebuilt. Photo credit: Ariel Cobbert, The Commercial Appeal.

Isom said she had no idea what to do—almost everything in the home was destroyed. They went first to Isom’s daughter’s home, then to an apartment on Tate Street. Her pastor and his wife helped them to get some necessary items, and Isom, in an interview this week, thanked God for the help she received from family and friends.

Now, three years later, Isom’s home has been rebuilt by friends and her spiritual family at Downtown Church.

“My children, they were really upset because we lost everything. I said, ‘Don’t be upset, because one thing about it, we didn’t lose a life. Because you can’t get a life back. Material things you can always get that back,’” she said. “The Lord blessed us…whatever I lost, I regained more than I had.”

Money was donated by members of the church and a member who works in construction was able to call in favors to get the project over the finish line, Pastor Richard Rieves said.

For him and the rest of the congregation, it wasn’t even a question if a new home would be constructed for Isom.

“Because of Betty’s ministry here in the neighborhood, because of what she means to South Memphis, especially Tate Street and just this part of South Memphis, we knew that we needed to get this house rebuilt,” he said.

A matriarch of South Memphis

Isom, 68, was born in Ruleville, Miss., but moved with her family to Memphis when she was a kid. The family settled in LeMoyne Gardens, and she has lived in South Memphis ever since. In 1998, she became the first homeowner in her family when she bought a house on Tate with the assistance of a program administered by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America.

“Betty’s home became known as a haven for people in the community who were homeless, hungry, and hopeless or those who were transitioning and needed an overnight stay and a hot meal,” a church member wrote in a letter honoring Isom at the dedication of her new home.

Described as a matriarch both of her church and her neighborhood, Isom has spent her entire adult life working and volunteering for religious and social services organizations, including Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association and Emmanuel Center.

She’s hosted an anti-violence block party each year in June—except 2020, due to the pandemic— or more than 20 years. The event draws hundreds from across South Memphis; Rieves helped cook 50 pounds of catfish for the party a few years ago.

By 2016, Betty Isom had hosted the annual Tate Street anti-violence block party in South Memphis for 18 years. The community event brings hundreds of local residents and police officers together. “The mayor said to keep going and I told him I wasn’t going to ever stop,” Isom said. Photo credit: Brad Vest, The Commercial Appeal.

Isom is something of a celebrity in her neighborhood. People call out to her when she walks down the street. Many refer to her simply as “momma.” When her new home was dedicated, people from the neighborhood brought over food to help her celebrate. Naturally, she invited everyone from the neighborhood over to share.

She’s fed and housed so many people she’s lost track. People text Isom and stop by her home constantly to reminisce and thank her for what she has done for them and their families.

For her, helping others has been a source of blessings. Everyone needs help at some point, Isom said. And every situation, including the pandemic, is an opportunity to help people, to bring people together.

‘Betty just exudes love’

Isom has moved into the new, one-story house on Tate Street where she lives with extended family. The house was constructed to include a ministry room, with a separate entrance, where she’ll host her Wednesday Bible study and other gatherings.

She said she’s also concerned by an uptick of violence she’s seen in her neighborhood in recent years and hopes she can use the space to host peaceful community gatherings.

Isom credits the congregation at Downtown Church with helping her get through the past three years. Church members helped support her and her family physically and financially. She greets them every Sunday with, “Good morning, Downtown family.”

“I love Downtown Church because we’re all different. And when you go there, everyone just loves on you. It’s amazing,” she said.

Richard Rieves, (in blue vest) leads a prayer before the start of Downtown Church’s worship service at the historic Clayborn Temple. The building was home to Second Presbyterian Church from 1893 to 1949. It was sold to the A.M.E. Church and was the staging ground for the Civil Rights movement in Memphis in the 1960s, including the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. Photo credit: Jim Weber, The Commercial Appeal.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “1:00 a.m. Sunday is our most segregated hour,” referring to the lack of diversity within churches. Rieves, a native Memphian, said he founded the church after returning from Colorado with the aim of changing that, bringing together people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

He said Isom represents that spirit. She welcomes everybody into her home and the church. She cares for anyone who needs her help. Rieves said Isom constantly put herself last. She used to sleep in a chair so others would have a bed.

In creating a new home for her, the Downtown Church family was able to serve Isom the way she had served so many others.

“Betty just exudes love. Her ministry, which is really just her life, she just pours out to people in this community and she welcomes everybody. She’s the epitome of what I think Jesus calls us to be and do,” Rieves said.

by Corinne S Kennedy
This story first appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on April 21, 2021.
Reprinted by permission.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk models Revelation 7:9 with local outreach efforts

 

A beacon of hope and light sits on the top of a hill in Nassau, Bahamas. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk is a church with a rich history and tradition. It was established in 1810 to bring the rites and traditions of the Church of Scotland to Scottish immigrants—some of whom were “loyalists” banished to the Bahamas following the American Revolution nearly 30 years earlier. But the picturesque, inviting structure houses a congregation that looks very different today than it once did.

“When I arrived at the church in 2010,” said Pastor Bryn MacPhail, “There were about 40 persons attending worship and only two or three children.” He added that the congregation was predominantly white in a country where 90 percent of the population is Black.

“I really believed our church should reflect the diversity of the community around us,” he noted. “I found an orphanage nearby called Ranfurly Home for Children and started volunteering there once a week so I could build a relationship with them.”

Bryn MacPhail

MacPhail also discovered that the church bordered the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhood in the city, known as Bain and Grant’s Town. He began volunteering in a local community center, the Urban Renewal Center, and soon was bringing others from the church with him to play sports, provide tutoring, and take kids to lunch.

“It took a while for people to warm up to us,” MacPhail recalled. “But we kept going, week after week. That went on for a couple of years. Eventually the director of the center told me that most of these kids did not go to church. She suggested that maybe we could find a way to get them there.”

So St. Andrew’s hired a bus and driver, which cost $60 a week. They began driving around the neighborhoods of the inner city, inviting kids to come to church. In the first year and a half, they averaged two to four kids per week on the bus.

Their persistence paid off—eventually the bus filled up with kids from the city, and a second bus was added to bring youth from the Ranfurly Home. On any given Sunday, as many as 50-60 children and youth came for Sunday worship.

MacPhail soon realized that the influx of young people was more than the church could handle, so he asked a local missionary, Bob Mastin, to become the church’s ministry partner. In addition, a St. Andrew’s deacon who had served as Assistant Commissioner of Police stepped in as the point person to help with logistics and to make local connections.

Luncheons for area residents are just one of many ways St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk blesses its neighbors in Nassau.

Mastin, who serves with Bahamas Youth Network, already had a strong rapport with the youth and ran a parallel ministry in Nassau. He had moved to the island in 2017 after several years of visiting on short-term mission trips. As a coach and teacher, his love for youth and passion for sports were natural connection points for helping him relate to inner-city kids.

“My heart is in working with underprivileged kids,” Mastin said. “When I arrived, I was the only white guy in my neighborhood. One day I was out canvassing the streets when the police pulled me over and asked for my ID. They thought I was lost and warned me that I was in a dangerous area. I told them that this is where God had called me and my wife, and we were here to stay because we wanted to help the community in whatever way we could.”

Mastin agreed to partner with St. Andrews while maintaining his commitment to Bahamas Youth Network—which keeps him busy visiting local high schools, coaching soccer, and teaching family life classes.

“We’re all doing this together, and it really is making a huge difference and having an impact,” Mastin noted. “I recently had lunch with two guys who I have built a relationship with. One of them is schizophrenic and has been in the mental hospital 12 times trying to kick a drug habit. He told me that since I came down and brought the gospel, he has found meaning and purpose for his life. I told him that it’s not me, it’s the Lord. And he said, ‘But you are the vessel God used in my life.’”

The partnership between Mastin and St. Andrew’s is bearing fruit in the form of a Thursday night discipleship group with eight boys between the ages of 12 and 18, which started in January.

“We’re studying a curriculum that invites them to talk about painful moments in their lives,” MacPhail said. “One 14-year-old boy shared about how on his sixth birthday he watched the police come and arrest his Dad and take him away. The stories we hear are horrific.”

St. Andrew’s has a long-standing partnership with McDonald’s to provide backpacks and school supplies to children in several neighborhoods near the church in downtown Nassau. The backpacks were filled with books, pens, pencils, and other supplies. Children who received the backpacks attend the St. Andrew’s Sunday School and Big Harvest Community Sunday School.

Mastin believes that growing up in a tough environment has made them more resilient.

“They really are great kids,” he said. “You can see that they are hungry for something different, and they are growing in their faith and seeking after the Lord.”

A few of the youth have chosen to be baptized, and some of them serve on St. Andrew’s audio/visual team.

“I can’t wait to watch their stories unfold,” MacPhail said. “We told them that we will invest in them every week, and our hope is that they will grow in their faith and become deacons and leaders in the church someday. We even promised them that if any one of them feels called to be a pastor we will help with their education.”

The group already has an inspiring role model who is one of their own—Jude Vilma.

“Jude was born in Nassau and grew up in a Haitian Creole community on the island of Abaco, about 100 miles north of here),” MacPhail said. “Through a variety of influences he graduated from high school, received a scholarship to work with Bahamas Youth Network, and started attending college.”

It was around that time that Vilma—who currently is studying at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando—met MacPhail and got connected with St. Andrew’s.

“God called me to full-time ministry, and I served as a Youth Coordinator with the Bahamas Youth Network and also a pastoral intern with St. Andrew’s Kirk,” Vilma noted. “This partnership enabled me to serve in the church and work with this community organization that is big on discipleship. I was also eager to take theology classes online because of my love for God’s Word and for learning.”

Jude Vilma

MacPhail said his dream is that Vilma will one day return to the Bahamas and become the Senior Pastor at St. Andrew’s.

“God’s been gracious to me and has blessed this ministry, but a white foreigner can only do so much,” said MacPhail, who hails from Canada. “Most of our inner-city kids are from a Haitian background, and many of the adults do not even speak English. I believe the church would absolutely explode in size if Jude took over. He can speak to them in a way that I can’t.”

Vilma said that he plans to return to the Bahamas once he has completed his education and as the Lord leads.

“My hope for the church in the Bahamas,” he said, “is that there would be more pastors and leaders who proclaim sound doctrine, that there would be unity among believers, and that Christianity would be seen as a lifestyle—not just a religion or something you do on a Sunday.”

Until Vilma’s hope is realized, MacPhail said St. Andrew’s will continue to faithfully serve their neighbors in Bain and Grant’s Town, even though the pandemic has not made it easy. He said they have been unable to visit the orphanage in 13 months, and they started operating a food pantry out of MacPhail’s office just to try and meet all the needs. He reported that in the past year alone they distributed more than $50,000 worth of food.

“People occasionally ask me what the secret is, and how we have been able to succeed in the face of adversity,” MacPhail said. “I tell them one thing: Just keep showing up.”

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

RE Brandon Queen cooks up gumbo of ministry and community service in south Louisiana

 

In 2017, Brandon Queen was ordained as the first African-American elder at the 150-year-old First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux, La.

Thibodaux, La., is in the heart of Cajun country—a place where you find a mix of landscapes, cultures, people, and food. A little bit of this and a little bit of that. A gumbo. Brandon Queen’s life has been God’s own special gumbo recipe, with a mix of ingredients that includes his family, First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux, and the people who invested in his life from an early age. The resulting dish has been a blessing to all.

Queen cannot remember a time when he was not a believer. He could quote Scripture at the age of 5—before he could read. His family was mostly Baptist, with some Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and Methodist relatives. He, his 10 siblings, and some cousins were raised by his grandmother, Eunice Queen, in a small government house.

“She had a big variety of ages of kids stacked in on top of each other in that home,” remembers Betsy Magee, a member of First Presbyterian Church.

Eunice Queen did not want any of her grandchildren to go into the foster care system, so she took them all in. She signed them up with the Angel Tree program that provides Christmas gifts for underprivileged children; their names were passed on to the church. However, she didn’t want the kids to just receive gifts. She was adamant that the children be involved in the church.

Brandon Queen with his grandmother, Eunice, in 2014 when Brandon was awarded The Silver Beaver Award, the highest service medal for adult Boy Scout leaders.

“Eunice was a real kick to know,” Magee said. “She did the very best she could for those kids. They were fed. They were loved. They were cared for. But she didn’t put up with much nonsense.”

Sensing the great need for support, church members stepped into the lives of the Queen family to fill the roles left vacant by absent mothers and fathers.

Magee had three boys and owned a Suburban. She would fill her Suburban with Queen kids and take them to all the activities at the church. Her family “adopted” Brandon as one of their own, making certain he always had school supplies and other necessities.

Magee says that she didn’t have a choice.

“It was something God put in our path, taking that family under our wing,” she said. “We have been blessed, even more than Brandon, by the relationship we have with him.”

Queen said Magee “was basically my mother. She just did it, without asking.”

By the age of 11 Brandon began to understand who God is and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. He was baptized and became “entrenched” in the life of the church.

“Brandon stayed with the church and the church stayed with Brandon,” Magee noted. “We encouraged him in his faith, grades, studies, tutoring, and whatever else he needed.”

Brandon Queen with Bill Crawford, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux.

Bill Crawford, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, agreed.

“It’s not a guarantee that you feed into someone’s life, give them opportunities, share the gospel with them, and they engraft into the body of the church,” he said. “But Brandon has done that.”

Another important person in Queen’s life was Rhonda Bridier, a local scout master and church member who got Brandon involved with the Boy Scouts. He would go on to earn his Eagle Scout and The Silver Beaver Award, the highest service medal awarded to adult leaders in recognition of commitment and leadership within the organization.

Magee proudly described Brandon’s work ethic. She explained that once he was old enough to work he would ride his bike to various jobs. While working for Office Depot, he learned enough about photography to start his own business—Brandon Queen Photography—taking photos for seniors and other classmates.

After finishing school, Brandon became a correctional officer and found that he loved interacting with the inmates. He graduated from the police academy and became a patrol officer, and later, a juvenile detective with the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Becoming a police officer resulted from watching his mother battle drug addiction her entire life. He saw that people around him were “getting caught up in bad decisions and situations,” he said, adding that he learned from their mistakes.

As a juvenile detective with the LaFourche Parish Sheriff’s Office, Brandon Queen is Thibodaux’s own “Basketball Cop” often stopping his patrol to interact with local young people.

“I want to encourage other young people to stay out of trouble and do productive things with their lives,” he said. “I can relate to the kids out here today who get themselves stuck in some of the things they get themselves stuck into. I love people. God has given me the gift of loving people which has enabled me to do the things I do in this job.”

Magee also sees this in Brandon’s life. “God has used the gifts He has given Brandon—his life experiences—to be able to reach out to at-risk kids and to counsel others with his Christian values. God has put Brandon in great positions.”

In 2017, Brandon was ordained as the first black elder in the 150-year-old Thibodaux congregation. Crawford says that Queen’s ordination was the natural progression of Brandon’s journey with the church.

“We were just affirming what we already saw in him,” Crawford said. “When you meet Brandon, what you find is someone who has an enthusiasm and optimism for life, and a character where if you didn’t know the rest of his story, you would never guess it. We don’t see color in him. We see Christ.”

As if being a juvenile detective, Ruling Elder, and photographer weren’t enough, Queen also serves as an at-large member of the Advancement Committee for the Southeast Louisiana Boy Scout council and produces a podcast called “The E.A.R. (Evangelical and Reformed) Podcast” in which he and his guests discuss social, political, and cultural issues from a theological perspective.

He also is a member of the EPC Revelation 7:9 Task Force, which is studying how the EPC “can better become a denomination that faithfully embraces, worships with, and serves our neighbors from every nation (ethnicity), tribe, people, and language.” These neighbors include people of differing genders, ages, education level, and socio-economic status.

Brandon believes that Revelation 7:9 is both a descriptive and prescriptive verse, in that God—through the Apostle John—describes how Heaven will look and prescribes how the Church on earth should look.

“Our ethnicities are different for a reason, but not different enough for us to segregate ourselves purposely,” Queen explained. “The Church should put our differences and cultures to work for good. If we do, it will work the way God intended for it to work.”

Though he is quick to point out that he has faced challenges regarding race—especially in light of his career as a juvenile detective.

“I have been called a race traitor, an Uncle Tom, and even a ‘porch monkey working for the white man,’” he acknowledged. “But I know who I am in Christ, and I am doing what I do to glorify God. It doesn’t make me hate that person. It makes me want to pray for that person and to love that person.”

He knows that many African Americans may not understand why he chooses to stay in a congregation and denomination that is predominantly white. His response?

“I stay because I love the theology, the liturgy, and the fact that I am loved, supported, and never judged for the color of my skin,” he said. “In Heaven, it’s not going to matter if you are Asian, Chinese, black, white, Hispanic, or whatever. We’re all going to be a mix, standing in front of the throne, worshipping God. That right there—that’s my gumbo.”

by Kelli Lambert Gilbreath
EPConnection correspondent

Puerto Rico churches gather for virtual prayer summit

 

On January 21, the Sessions of the EPC’s three churches in Puerto Rico gathered virtually for a time of prayer and thanksgiving. Nearly 30 individuals participated in the video conference.

The congregations are Iglesia Presbiteriana Westminster (Westminster Presbyterian Church) in Bayamón, Iglesia Presbiteriana Evangélica Mayagüez (Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Mayagüez), and Iglesia Presbiteriana Evangélica en Añasco (Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Añasco). All are members of the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean.

The group, which included pastors Juan Rivera (Bayamón), Abraham Montes (Añasco), and Ariel Toro (Mayagüez) convened the prayer time to give thanks for the blessings received during 2020, and pray in the same spirit for the church, its projects, the sick, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Enid Flores, Ruling Elder for Westminster Presbyterian Church and current Moderator of the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean also participated.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to pray together, using the best tool that we have in our hands to entrust our life, our projects, and serve the island of Puerto Rico,” Enid said. “To God and God alone be the glory!

________________________

Comenzando el año 2021 las tres iglesias del Presbiterio de la Florida y el Caribe de la EPC ubicadas en Puerto Rico que son la Iglesia Presbiteriana Westminster (IPW), la Iglesia Presbiteriana en Mayaguez (IPEM) y la Iglesia Presbiteriana de Añasco (IPEA) se unieron, en un solo espíritu, en un tiempo de oración para la gloria de nuestro Señor.

Los tres Consistorios, con sus pastores, Pastor Juan Rivera, Pastor Abraham Montes y Pastor Ariel Toro lideraron el tiempo de oración con el fin de dar gracias por las bendiciones recibidas durante el 2020 y orar juntos en un mismo espíritu, por la iglesia, sus proyectos, los enfermos, Puerto Rico y los Estados Unidos en los momentos que estamos viviendo.  Los acompañó como invitada la Moderadora del Presbiterio de Florida y el Caribe, la Anc. Enid D. Flores.

Damos gracias por la oportunidad de orar juntos, utilizando la mejor herramienta que tenemos en nuestras manos para encomendar nuestra vida, nuestros proyectos, y con ello servirle a la isla. ¡A Dios y solo a Dios sea la gloria!

Kansas City congregation demonstrates exceptional generosity through pandemic-adjusted Christmas program

 


In this video, Justin Oberndorfer, Executive Director of Joy Meadows, shares a recorded video call with Jim West, Pastor of Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, in which West reveals the results of the Walk to the Manger offering.

Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City is a generous church, with numerous local ministry and mission partners they support. But in this season of COVID-19, the congregation has gone above and beyond.

In a “normal” year, Colonial hosts a December production called “Walk to the Manger Sunday.” It tells the story of Christmas through drama and music and has become a cherished tradition for the entire community.

The event also is designed to be a time for giving. In the service, after the Magi come and present their gifts to Jesus, the children are invited to bring toys to the manger. The donated toys are distributed by two of Colonial’s partner organizations to children who would not otherwise receive any Christmas presents. Baskets also are placed in the sanctuary so members can contribute to the annual mission offering.

But in 2020, with COVID-19 concerns and social distancing mandates, it looked like Walk to the Manger would have to be canceled. The church quickly came up with an alternate plan—open both campuses on the second weekend in December and have a manger scene in the sanctuaries. People were invited to come any time between noon and 6:00 p.m. for a time of private worship and remembrance. They also could bring their gifts for the Walk to the Manger offering to the sanctuary or make online donations.

A few weeks before the Advent season commenced, three members of Colonial’s staff asked Lead Pastor Jim West to support a new ministry. The trio wanted to raise money to build the first home for a development known as Joy Meadows.

Joy Meadows is an intentional neighborhood for foster and adoptive families, with the focus of keeping sibling groups together. The houses are designed to accommodate large families and the church would need to raise between $275,000 and $375,000 to accomplish the goal—on top of their regular Christmas offering.

Jim West

“I was hesitant at first,” West said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, I haven’t seen 1,000 of our members in person in over 9 months, and there was not going to be a Walk to the Manger production which typically brings in visitors. I just wasn’t sure how much gas was left in the tank for our members, especially since the church had been overwhelmingly generous in the months leading up to December.”

To fully understand how benevolent Colonial church had already been in 2020, it’s necessary to go back a few months.

In March, around the same time the entire country went into lockdown, Colonial kicked off their traditional Easter campaign known as “Bless Our City.” The original goal was $100,000 to support their mission partners. But God had other plans.

“The second week after we were forced to stop meeting in person, I preached about the loaves and fishes from the book of John,” West said. “Right in the middle of the sermon, God prompted my heart. I heard Him say, ‘If you think this season is hard for you, imagine how it is for single parents.’ I felt led to take up an additional offering and give each of the single parents in our network $1,000.”

Irrational Obedience

West approached the Session with the idea—which the elders approved without hesitation.

“When God says to do something, even if it seems irrational, you just obey,” West said. “And we did.”

In 2019, the “Bless Our City” campaign raised $50,000. In 2020, donations totaled $540,000—more than a tenfold increase. Some of the money went to an organization called “Single Moms Kansas City.” The rest went to 56 single parents in the Colonial congregation. Each family received $1,000 with a letter that told them, “We have no expectations of how you will spend the money. We would only ask that you give thanks to God…this was His idea; it’s His money; and He really does love you! So do we.”

Randall Leonard

Randall Leonard, Colonial’s Director of Impact Ministries, was one of the three staff members who asked West in November to add Joy Meadows to the Christmas effort.

“We witnessed God move in an extraordinary way on our church in the spring,” Leonard said. “So when we felt prompted to support Joy Meadows for Walk to the Manger, we believed He would do it again.”

Meganne Leighton, Colonial’s Community and Global Partnerships Coordinator, joined Leonard in the push to include Joy Meadows, as did Hannah Mabie, Colonial’s Foster Adopt Ministry Coordinator.

“We have so many families in our church who are called to foster or adopt,” said Leighton, who is an adoptive parent herself. “And so many more who volunteer their time to serve or engage in advocacy on behalf of kids in the system. Colonial is a church that is committed to family. I think that’s why this seemed like a natural fit for Walk to the Manger.”

West invited Justin and Sarah Oberndorfer, Executive Directors of Joy Meadows, to speak in one of Colonial’s Advent services.

“I kept the whole thing low-key and told the church I was not asking them to do anything if they were not convicted by the Lord to do so,” West noted.

“The effects of COVID early in 2020 made us question whether we would be able to move forward much at all,” Justin Oberndorfer told the congregation. “But instead, the unfinished 3,200-square-foot basement on the property was transformed into a Community Center within 3 months because construction companies were in desperate need of contracts. Not only was the project finished ahead of schedule, but it also became a source of provision for those workers and their families.”

Justin Oberndorfer

He reported that four therapists now work in the completed Community Center, and numerous foster children are receiving services every week.

“Obstacle after obstacle just turned into an opportunity for God to show His miraculous provision,” Oberndorfer said, noting that volunteers have served at Joy Meadows every day—including skilled craftsman and master gardeners. People of all ages have done yard work, sorted and delivered clothes, cared for animals, and picked up trash.

“This year the vision has become a reality,” he said. “As we walk the 50 acres, hear the laughter of kids on the property, see therapists working with kids in the orchard or in the barn with the animals, we see this place coming to life.”

The Oberndorfers ended their Advent message with a question: “What if God moves in our midst and we build a house that allows a sibling group who are waiting right now to stay together as a family?”

A Full House

The congregation responded with a definitive answer. On the first day alone, $171,000 was given. By the following afternoon it was up to $340,000. When the campaign ended on December 31, more than $475,000 had been raised—enough for a complete house and half of another.

“It’s all God. We give Him all the glory,” West said. “This year has been a beautiful opportunity to turn away from the things that concern and divide us and center ourselves around the things that really matter to His heart.”

Mabie, who brings licensed social worker credentials to her role as Colonial’s Foster Adopt Ministry Coordinator, said she is not surprised that Joy Meadows’ story resonates deeply with Colonial.

“We have a unique opportunity to be part of building a legacy that’s going to be here for 50 or more years,” she said. “I think that’s why people have been so captivated by this project. We’re providing a home where sibling groups can grow and thrive and be together. To have Colonial’s name on that is really special.”

For the Oberndorfers, Colonial’s response has been especially meaningful.

“It’s an affirmation that God sees the plight of the orphan and He will provide in ways that we can’t even imagine,” Justin said. “God is building Joy Meadows through His Church and His people.  We get to be just a small part of that miracle. We are not walking this sometimes difficult and lonely road of ministry alone. We have the army of Colonial Church walking beside us and helping us pave the way for this new ministry that will have a generational impact.”

Leonard said the church’s response to both the Easter and Christmas efforts affirmed for him that the congregation is embracing the church’s mission statement: “To be the light of Christ in a hurting culture, so that the lost are found, the broken are made whole, the fatherless find hope, and our city is blessed.”

“We have prayed and asked the Lord’s Holy Spirit to move in the hearts of His people as we desire to share the love of Christ with those in our spheres of influence,” Leonard said. “He is answering our prayers!”

Gifts donated by Walk to the Manger participants were delivered to Colonial Presbyterian Church’s local mission partners Freedom Fire Ministries and Mission SouthSide.

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

Moderator Glenn Meyers’ mother succumbs to COVID, Pittsburgh-area media highlights faith response

 

Glenn Meyers, Moderator of the 40th General Assembly and Pastor of Ardara United Presbyterian Church in Ardara, Pa., lost his mother, Eleanor “Jane” Meyers, to COVID-19 on October 25, 2020. She was 85.

Total Trib Media of Southwestern Pennsylvania featured Glenn’s faith response in a December 28 front-page story, “North Huntingdon pastor relied on faith as COVID claimed his mother.” The article was one in a series of how the coronavirus pandemic has affected people in the region.

Click here for the story. Glenn Meyers’ segment in the 7-minute “Portraits of the Pandemic” video below can be seen at the 2:20 mark.

Hector Reynoso and Genesis Presbyterian Church: from survival to victory

 

Members of Genesis Presbyterian Church in Mercedes, Texas, held barbecue fundraisers using mesquite wood that was removed from the land their new church facility will be built on.

Hector Reynoso is Pastor of Genesis Presbyterian Church in Mercedes, Texas. The church is located in the Rio Grande Valley, nine miles from the Mexican border. The congregation has 38 members, all Hispanic and mostly low-income. Since 2018, the congregation has suffered two devastating floods, a hurricane, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, Genesis has ambitious plans to build a $455,000 church and mission center early next year. In a recent interview, Hector described the trials he and Genesis have overcome, and how they went from “survival to victory.”

EPConnection: When your church joined the EPC eight years ago, I understand that you lost your building and bank account?

Hector: It was traumatic. We humbly requested if we could keep our property, but they said no and ordered the pastor to leave immediately. The congregation decided that to ask the pastor to leave was to ask them to leave as well. Some of our people and their relatives were present when that church had been built, and had contributed financially, physically, and with their prayers. Each family paid for their own pew and their names were written on the pews. We had to leave it all behind, including a small cemetery. In addition to all that, we came under a lot of harassment, false accusations, and rumors.

EPConnection: With no building, where did you go to worship?

Hector: When we were getting ready to leave our former denomination, I spoke with the Lutheran pastor in town and explained that we might not have a place to worship. He said, “If that happens, you have a place here with us.” As soon as we lost our building, the following Sunday we met in the Lutheran church. We’ve been here ever since.

EPConnection: It must have been a struggle just to survive.

Hector: We are a small Hispanic congregation and low-income. Our whole church budget is barely enough to pay the pastor and the rent. So how could we afford a church building? It seemed impossible.

EPConnection: Now you’re getting ready to build a church. How did you raise the money?

Hector: We began by collecting pennies—literally. We would save up our loose change in a jar and collect it every three months. I had friends who were EPC pastors and I asked them to partner with us by collecting a special offering. Genesis has done many fundraisers; in each and every one of them we invited friends, relatives, and other churches to partner with us. By 2017, we had raised enough money to buy a piece of property. We paid $110,000 for two acres of land. It is located right in front of the Mercedes Civic Center, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of people. Other likeminded churches from other denominations have also joined our fundraising efforts.

EPConnection: After you bought the land in 2017, in 2018 you began raising funds to construct a church building. How are you doing?

Hector Reynoso and his wife, Carmen, at the October 2017 dedication service for the property.

Hector: Our goal was $455,000 and we’ve actually reached it. It really is a miracle—to look at this crazy, impossible goal and now to have reached it. I thought the outbreak of COVID-19 would hurt our fundraising, but it didn’t. Since February we have received almost $100,000 in donations. We are planning to start construction early next year. To me this just confirms that this is God’s will. At a time when we are not supposed to prosper, the Lord has provided.

EPConnection: You are already planning the second phase of your building project. What will that include?

Hector: Once the church is completed, we plan to construct a second building with dormitories and more showers to accommodate future mission teams.

EPConnection: What is your vision for the church once you complete your new building?

Hector: We want to invite other churches to partner with us and come and do mission work and evangelism with us. In the Rio Grande Valley there is so much need for Christ and the gospel and a Reformed understanding of the Scriptures. There is also great financial need. We have many houses in poor condition that are falling apart, with people living in them. My goal is to host mission teams from other churches that will help our city to be renewed.

EPConnection: Your church is named Genesis, but it seems more like you’ve been through the Exodus.

Hector: Yes, it does. It feels like we’ve been in the wilderness for a long time, but we are approaching the Promised Land. We call it “our little Promised Land.”

EPConnection: In recent years you’ve suffered floods and hurricanes. What was that like?

Hector: For the past three years, we’ve had a lot of tragedy. In 2018 we were hit by a 100-year flood. In 2019, we were hit by a 500-year flood. This year, we were hit by Hurricane Hannah. Some members of our church have been flooded three or four times, and several are still repairing their homes. The EPC General Assembly and our presbytery provided emergency funding to help them rebuild and repair their homes. We are very grateful for that.

EPConnection: You told me that the floods actually turned out to be a blessing. How is that possible?

Hector: Because of these two major floods, the city fixed the drainage for the whole city and paved about 42 streets. Mercedes used to be like a third-world country, with many dirt roads, but now they are paved. So there was some good that came from it. Also, we had to change the grading and elevation of our church building. It will be three-and-a-half feet higher, so it will never flood again.

EPConnection: In the middle of these terrible floods your father was dying of cancer. How did you cope with that?

Hector: My father was a Presbyterian pastor. Since 2012 I began taking care of him. In 2019 his cancer came back, while I continued as his main caregiver. I would get him out of bed, shower him, and lift him. I hurt myself many times doing that. But every day I would picture that my Dad was Jesus himself, that I was taking care of the Lord Jesus. That really kept me going. My father died in September 2019 and I’ve had a hard time with that. He was my pastor, my colleague, and my friend.

EPConnection: How has COVID-19 impacted your church and community?

Hector: The Rio Grande Valley is composed of four counties. In those counties we have had 3,400 deaths related to the virus. Thanks to God no one that attends our congregation has contracted the virus. However, some of our members’ relatives, close friends, and neighbors have contracted the virus, and some have passed away. Our Session has decided to care for our people spiritually and physically. So right now, we are not gathering to worship in person, we are practicing family worship with weekly recorded sermons. We have gathered at our land once for worship and we will be doing this once in a while.

EPConnection: Has the issue of illegal immigration impacted your church?

Hector: Believe it or not, most people around here want a secure border; we do not want our families to live in danger. At the same time, we are in touch every day with people who are here illegally. It is part of our daily life, it is unavoidable. So many undocumented people attend Christian churches in Mercedes and the Valley; they are our friends and brothers and sisters in Christ. Most undocumented people are extremely hard workers. Of course, some are not, and we also have some that are vicious criminals. Two families from our church have suffered the violent murder of a loved one. The drug cartels are also part of life here; hidden, but nonetheless part of life. I wish for the border to be secure and at the same time I would like to see amnesty for the wonderful, hard-working people who are here illegally.

EPConnection: What has been your experience of being a minority pastor in the EPC?

Hector: I am extremely grateful to the EPC for receiving us. They have stood by us and helped us. I have been received in the EPC like never before. Something that I like about the EPC is that it is not focused on having people serve on committees just because they are minorities. The main thing is that they are faithful to Christ, not their racial or ethnic background. My presbytery has been amazing. In fact, I am the Moderator-elect of the Presbytery of the Gulf South.

EPConnection: You have deep roots in the Presbyterian Church in Mexico. Do you see a possibility of partnership between the EPC and the church in Mexico?

Hector: One thing we would like to do is provide a place where leaders from the EPC and the Presbyterian Church of Mexico can meet together. That way, we could hold meetings without having to cross the Mexican border. Our church has received a lot of help from the EPC. Now, we want for our new facilities to be an instrument for the extension of the kingdom of God in South Texas and the border area. We want to be a blessing to the whole EPC and beyond.

EPConnection: Thank you very much for taking time to tell some of your story.

Hector: Thank you!

by Peter Larson
EPConnection correspondent

At a recent Mother’s Day service, mothers in the congregation were recognized and received a gift.

Indiana pastors brave 30-degree chill to serve drive-through communion

 

With assistance from Ruling Elder Ruth Wood (right), Joyce Harris (left), Lead Pastor of First Evangelical Presbyterian Chuch in Kokomo, Ind., served the Lord’s Supper to church members Dick and Myra Sanburn.

The adage “cold hands, warm heart” rings true for Joyce Harris, Lead Pastor of First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kokomo, Ind. On December 6, Harris and Associate Pastor Jerry Van Auken weathered 30-degree temperatures to serve an outdoor, drive-in Lord’s Supper members of the central Indiana congregation.

“Our gloves were not the warm type—bummer—but they were health approved,” Harris quipped.

She said that those who viewed the 9:30 a.m. worship service online were invited to drive to the church campus for the communion service. For 30 minutes “non-stop,” she and Van Auken served the elements and prayed with each car.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be so encouraged in ministry by doing drive-by communion,” Harris said. “Members were warm in their cars, and we were masked and gloved. After a brief acknowledgement of the sermon content and partaking of the elements, we prayed with each one.”

Harris said it was “a highlight of my day” for so many people to come.

“At one point we had four cars waiting. We took our time with each one because this is their time to connect with their pastors. They are the ones who feel isolated and vulnerable, and this is a way they are willing to come to us to share in the table.”

Ministry paths converge in Orlando for Bahamas, Pennsylvania ordination candidates

 

FROM THERE; GOING THERE: Carrie and Barrett Hendrickson (left) greeted Jude and Keitra Vilma after a recent worship service at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. Jude grew up in Marsh Harbor and now serves as a pastoral resident at FPCO. The Hendricksons arrived in Marsh Harbor on November 4 to serve with the EPC’s Kirk of the Pines under the auspices of the Caribbean Youth Network.

What do Pittsburgh, Orlando, and Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas have in common? For two EPC ordination candidates and their families, Orlando is the middle link in a chain that stretches more than 1,000 miles across two countries.

On September 3, Jude and Keitra Vilma arrived in Orlando from Nassau, where he had served as a pastoral intern for St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk. He grew up in a Haitian Creole community in Marsh Harbor, has been a youth worker with the Bahamas Youth Network, and now is a pastoral resident at First Presbyterian Church in Orlando while pursuing a Master of Divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS).

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Barrett Hendrickson was in the process of transferring his status as Candidate Under Care from the Presbytery of the Alleghenies to the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. A May 2020 RTS graduate, he and his wife, Carrie, had joined the Caribbean Youth Network (CYN) to serve with EPC Teaching Elder Gabe Swing at the Kirk of the Pines in Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas. The church is a mission of the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean.

The Hendricksons staged in Florida for several months while they waited for pandemic-related restrictions in the Bahamas to be lifted. On November 4, they arrived in Marsh Harbor, which was devastated by Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

“We are extremely excited to welcome the Hendrickson family to Abaco,” Swing said. “They will provide needed support for relief efforts and help us re-engage the community through outreach and worship opportunities.”

Hendrickson said that when he was young, one of the ways his youth pastor mentored him was through preforming manual labor, such as mowing the lawns of older church members.

“I wanted to be able to do that here,” he said. “Of course sharing Jesus and discipling people, but also by providing tangible, physical needs.”

Swing said conditions in Marsh Harbor continue to be “very difficult” for residents, with many still without adequate housing, electricity, and running water.

“The reconstruction moves at a snail’s pace, and many residents have to acquire drinking water from Water Mission distribution sites,” he said. “The pandemic has frustrated recovery efforts, and food security has become a major problem. Thousands of people are relying on free food distribution from the government and NGOs.”

In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, approximately $175,000 has been disbursed to Kirk of the Pines from the EPC Emergency Relief Fund.

Swing noted that “regular giving has all but vanished” since so many church members have been displaced to other islands in the Bahamas, as well as the U.S. He said the Emergency Relief Fund donations have been used to purchase a truck to distribute relief supplies; provide food and housing for several displaced families; assist with living expenses for he and his wife, Jan; and fund pastoral visits to members of the congregation.

‘Raising up the next generation of pastoral leaders’

While Orlando was a stopping point in the Hendrickson’s journey to the Bahamas, the Vilmas are adjusting to life at FPCO and RTS. He is the recipient of the Andrew Jumper Scholarship, which is named for one of the EPC’s founders and awarded by RTS to a full-time MDiv student who demonstrates “exemplary Christian character and potential for ministry.”

David Swanson, FPCO Senior Pastor, said the Vilmas are “settling into the FPCO family beautifully” as the congregation has resumed in-person worship.

“Our commitment is to take an active role in raising up the next generation of pastoral leaders with a special eye towards greater diversity,” he said. “The Vilmas are the perfect fit for a mutually beneficial partnership. Jude is already leading in worship and will be meeting with each member of the pastoral team on a regular basis as the meat of his pastoral residency program. He will be exposed to every dimension of church life, including finance and administration, with the goal of helping him be ready theologically and practically for a fruitful future pastorate.”

Vilma said that he did not expect to be awarded the Jumper Scholarship, and when he received the news he knew he and his wife would be moving to Florida.

“I knew I was coming to Orlando,” Vilma said. “First Pres was very generous to us coming here with their love and support, so it’s really great for us. I hope to continue to grow under David Swanson, Case Thorp, and the other pastors here, and eventually to serve within the EPC itself.”

FPCO has partnered with the EPC congregations in the Bahamas “in extremely meaningful ways,” said Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Kirk. “No individual congregation has contributed more to the health and progress of St. Andrew’s and Kirk of the Pines than First Pres Orlando.”

Hendrickson said Vilma is “our great success story” from CYN.

“When we came down last August before Hurricane Dorian hit to see the opportunity with Gabe and CYN, Jude walked us through Marsh Harbor and the Haitian neighborhood where he grew up,” he said. “So to connect with him and Keitra in Orlando was wonderful. To recognize how God raised him up here—and now bringing us to Abaco—it was like God was saying to us, ‘there is opportunity to raise up more.’ That’s our long-term goal: to raise Bahamian pastors.”