Category Archives: Church News

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.”

 

St. Louis church plant celebrates local church status with installation of pastor, elders

 

Members of the Church Development Committee from the Presbytery of Mid-America pray over Central West End Church’s newly installed Ruling Elders, Pete Brown (kneeling, left) and Kerry Cheung on October 11. (photos courtesy of Central West End Church)

In 2016, Central West End Church (CWE) in St. Louis, Mo., planted itself at a literal dividing line in the city: one block south of Del Mar Boulevard. The Del Mar Divide, as it is known, is a dividing line of wealth, prosperity, race, and perspective. Pastor Eric Stiller views this stark contrast as an opportunity to see the city made new spiritually, socially, and culturally by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

CWE marked its own new beginning on October 11 as it celebrated “local church” status with Stiller’s installation as Pastor and the ordination of Kerry Cheung and Pete Brown as elders. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the service was live-streamed.

The Central West End neighborhood was identified in 2008 as a potential site for a church plant and is an eclectic area with a vibrant art, food, and cultural scene. This dynamic is what drew Stiller to St. Louis from New York City in 2005, when he entered Covenant Theological Seminary.

Eric Stiller

“I came to St. Louis with the passion to do whatever ministry I was going to do in a city,” he said.

Tom Ricks, who leads the EPC’s Church Planting Team, said the committee considers the needs of an area when deciding where to plant a church. He noted that the residents of Central West End are primarily unchurched, and most would consider themselves secular progressives. Ricks estimated that more than 90 percent never attend religious events.

“Why we got excited at the national level is that there just isn’t much of a Christian community in the Central West End, period—much less a Reformed Christian one that matches up with our EPC foundation and worldview,” he said.

When Stiller heard that the area was being considered, he became excited and began to earnestly pray about it. As this seed of excitement and passion continued to grow, he began to fall more and more in love with the location.

“God didn’t really call me to church planting. He called me to a neighborhood,” Stiller said. “It’s the place I feel most passionate about.”

He added that he loves that Central West End is such a secular place.

“I have always had an interest in apologetics and reaching out to people who at best would be indifferent to faith and at worst hostile to faith.”

Stiller understands this indifference firsthand. He describes himself as “not being concerned about God” for the first 30 years of his life and wrestling with the same doubts and “allergies” that people have today. In addition, he recalled noticing the “glaring” racial segregation in the city when he first arrived. Having been a jazz musician for many years, he had always been surrounded by African-Americans and their music and culture.

“When I prepare my sermons or have conversations with people, I am always imagining the inner skeptic asking questions,” he explained.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Central West End Church held their worship services in the historic Mahler Ballroom.

CWE’s worship services are currently live-stream only, but in-person services have been held at the Mahler Ballroom, a local event space originally built as a dance studio in 1907. In addition to their worship service, the church offers community groups focused on “building friendships and community, growing faith, learning how to follow Jesus in every area of life, and supporting each other through prayer,” Stiller said.

The church hosts Alpha, a course designed for those who are curious about God. Alpha conversations delve into topics of spirituality from a biblical perspective, with no pressure to believe and no obligation to join the church. Stiller hopes that they can develop more resources for people interested in the integration of faith and work while reaching out to secular neighbors who might be interested in faith and spirituality.

Ricks believes that Stiller is the right guy for that spot.

“The EPC wants to apply the gospel to every area of life, and Eric just exudes this,” Ricks said. “God doesn’t make mistakes in his personnel choices.”

Church members helped renovate a gardening classroom at Washington Montessori Elementary School in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis.

As CWE began rooting itself in the community, Stiller and his team began a partnership with a local Montessori school as a means of engaging with their neighbors. Church members helped convert an outdoor space into a classroom with raised gardening beds, began tutoring students in math and reading, and renovated a teachers’ lounge. As the coronavirus pandemic struck a financial blow in the community, CWE raised more than $18,000 to help people associated with the school with rent, food, and supplies.

More than just physical assistance, however, Stiller said CWE seeks to fulfill the social aspect of their mission by seeking intentional and ongoing relationships with the school, the students, and their families. He emphasized that their mission is “a holistic one, not a false dichotomy that embraces spiritual work and evangelizing as opposed to social action and deeds of mercy and justice. God’s mission comprises all of this.”

For their part as Ruling Elders, Cheung and Brown see themselves as “shepherds and advocates” whom God has gifted in the areas of leadership and administration. Both are just as passionate as Stiller about the mission of the church to be a part of the renewing of the city spiritually, socially, and culturally.

Above all, CWE wants to follow Jesus as He makes all things new—especially across the dividing line.

by Kelli Lambert Gilbreath
EPConnection correspondent

Small N.C. church opens new building, embraces vision for the future

 

New Covenant EPC in Burgaw, N.C., held their first worship services in their permanent facility—a renovated former dance studio—on August 3. (photos courtesy of New Covenant EPC)

For born-again believers, there is no doubt of God’s providence in every aspect and detail of His creation—and that intricately includes His Church. That truth has vividly played out over the past several years for a small, southeastern North Carolina congregation.

New Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Burgaw, N.C., began in 1998 in the public library as a church plant of Myrtle Grove Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, about 20 miles to the south.

For its first few months, about 30 people from different denominations attended. A Methodist church in Burgaw then offered its facility on Sunday evening services, which provided space for Sunday School classes and a youth group. More moves followed, with the congregation eventually settling into retail space at a main intersection in Burgaw. At the time, they called themselves Crossroads Community Church.

In 2017 the congregation moved yet again to storefront space in the center of Burgaw, across from the county courthouse. The same year, Duke Lineberry, a Ruling Elder at Myrtle Grove EPC, accepted a call as visiting evangelist.

Duke Lineberry preaches to the New Covenant congregation on October 22, 2020.

While Lineberry admits not much outreach took place the first few years of his tenure, in March 2019 the church made a decision that has placed it “directly in line with His sovereign plan,” Lineberry said.

“We became aware of a small Mexican church that had lost their lease,” he explained. “We felt led to offer them our space for their services and to use opposite our schedule. As God so often does, we began to see some fundamental changes in our church, moving from complacency to a more focused purpose.”

In November 2019, New Covenant purchased a former dance studio and began converting it for church use. On August 2, 2020, the church held its first worship service in its new facility.

Lineberry noted that for the first time in its 22-year history, “our little church has its own premises. With our new location and resources, we believe He is preparing us to be the light in Burgaw.”

Mike and Joy Thurlow, who have attended since the church’s launch in 1998, agree that after many twists and turns along its journey, New Covenant is on a renewed path.

“There is really a new zeal after the move,” said Mike, who has served as an elder since the church started. “People are more excited. While we are still a small fellowship, we are seeing more people coming now since the relocation.”

Joy and Mike Thurlow

Joy said she has seen “God working in people’s lives” over the past several months.

“Broken people are coming into our church,” she said. “People are coming for healing—physical healing, spiritual healing, emotional healing.”

The church is starting to look into ways to better reach Burgaw’s youth, such as by teaching piano, keyboard, and guitar. The “fuel” for attracting young people comes from church member Keith White. He noted that creating an environment where youth can gather and be nurtured is an outgrowth of his experience growing up in a small Baptist congregation.

“We met every Saturday night my whole teenage years,” White said. “We would get together and have some kind of activity or play a game, have a little bit of music, and then a fellow a few years older than me preached for a little bit. I learned more in those six years than any other guidance. If it wasn’t for that six years I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. That guidance sustained me through a whole lot of life.”

He added that sees “a whole lot of young people running around Burgaw. I ask the kids what they do on weekends and they say, ‘I don’t know; nothing.’ So I say, ‘Let’s build the church up with some young people.”

Moving is an adventure

Lineberry said relocating to the new building hasn’t been without its challenges.

“The building was built in 1992 as a dance studio, and virtually every little girl in Burgaw took lessons there,” he said. “Unfortunately, the building sat unused for almost a decade before we purchased it.”

He noted that the building needed a new roof; structural repairs to the walls and floors; and a variety of upgrades to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Much of the renovation work was performed by volunteers, such as constructing interior walls to separate the entrance from the seating area.

“We purchased and installed carpet, painted the walls from its former hot pink to a warm white, and put up a temporary wall to separate the entrance from the sanctuary area,” Lineberry said, adding that they also removed some trees to make room for parking.

“All of the design, planning, and permitting was done by our leadership, and the work was done by a combination of member volunteer efforts, contract labor, and one member in particular who we paid a much-discounted rate to perform the majority of the carpentry work, rehabilitating the structure, building handicap ramps, and the like.”

As a practicing trial attorney in Wilmington, Lineberry said his time serving the Burgaw congregation as its pastor is not permanent—partially because New Covenant now has a permanent facility.

“The leadership is sincerely seeking the Lord on hiring an ordained pastor,” he said. “I’ve been asked to stand again for Session at Myrtle Grove, and the leadership at New Covenant is supportive. At this stage, I can’t see leaving New Covenant any time soon, as I know the Lord placed me there for His purposes. I plan on remaining there to support and assist the pastor the Lord has for this special little family of God in Burgaw.”

Looking back to his arrival at New Covenant in 2017, Lineberry said he was concerned then about the church’s future.

“My fear was that she would simply spend up her money and eventually close the doors,” he reflected. “Thanks be to God, a remnant handful of people have been faithful to stay, pray, and serve. Now, it seems as if New Covenant is on the cusp of something new for herself and the Burgaw community.”

Instead of being tucked in a retail space between Food Lion and Subway, the church is now on the main road into Burgaw, across from the Pender Co. Department of Social Services and down the street from many local government service offices.

Lineberry sees the church as strategically poised to minister to the sizable Spanish-speaking population in the community.

“We need only look directly across the street at DSS for innumerable mission opportunities,” Lineberry said. “The Mexican church came to us and we obeyed, and as a result God made a way for New Covenant that she’s never had before. Our prayer now is for the Lord to point us in the direction He wants us to go. With the current heart of the church, I expect we will respond rightly.”

Lineberry noted that New Covenant is not a wealthy congregation, but it is a faithful one.

“Our seniors are retirees, and our younger families struggle with hourly wages and expenses. Many others are self-employed and hurting financially from COVID. But the Lord has provided, and we anticipate that He will continue to provide for us,” Lineberry said. “We will continue to be open to any outreach the Lord will show us.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Louisiana, Texas brace for Hurricane Delta as EPC churches continue cleanup effort from Hurricane Laura

 

Blue tarps on homes in Lake Charles, La., indicate the extent of damage left by Hurricane Laura as Hurricane Delta takes aim at the region. (photo credit: Erik Stratton, KPEL965.com)

As Hurricane Delta bears down on the northern Gulf Coast, volunteers from numerous EPC churches expect to ramp up their ongoing recovery efforts since Hurricane Laura swept through southwest Louisiana in late August. Delta is expected to strengthen by the time it makes landfall on October 9.

Members of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, La., and First Presbyterian Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., have traveled to the heaviest-hit areas in the weeks since the category 4 storm made landfall August 27, causing extensive damage in Lake Charles and the surrounding area. Additional damage from Delta could further complicate what is a serious situation, according to relief effort leaders for the EPC’s Presbytery of the Gulf South.

Whitney Alexander

Whitney Alexander, Associate Pastor of Missions for First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, said recovery efforts have focused largely on removing debris from wind damage and flooding. Alexander and Kory Duncan, Associate Pastor of Missions at First Presbyterian Church in Ocean Springs, are coordinating EPC relief efforts in the region.

“The wind damage was unbelievable,” Alexander said. “More than 50 percent of trees have been knocked over or damaged for the entire western side of Louisiana. Thousands of power lines were snapped or leaning over, with 80,000-plus roofs in these three communities damaged or destroyed. In some cases, the entire home has been leveled by trees falling.”

He noted that relief efforts were underway quickly after the storm moved out of the area. Members of First Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, Miss., joined the teams from Baton Rouge and Ocean Springs with chainsaws and other tools in Alexandria, La., on September 4 and 5. The groups removed limbs from homes of members of Grace Presbyterian Church in Alexandria—approximately 100 miles north-northeast of Lake Charles and the nearest EPC congregation to Laura’s path of destruction. The following weekend, another group of 15 volunteers continued debris cleanup work in Alexandria.

Teams from Baton Rouge have continued to work in Lake Charles on Wednesdays and Saturdays, sawing downed trees and moving the debris to the curb.

“I just returned from my 12th trip,” Alexander said.

Kory Duncan (left) and volunteers from First Presbyterian Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., drove four hours to Alexandria, La., to help cleanup efforts following Hurricane Laura. (photo credit: Kory Duncan)

Duncan said students from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge joined the church teams to help clear debris in Alexandria.

“When trees fall in your yard, your insurance will cover it to get it off your house or to get it off your driveway or to get it off of any outbuildings, but the stuff that’s just lying in your yard, it’s on you,” Duncan said. “We spent an entire day working with a 90-year-old man. He was working when we got there and was working when we left—the whole time on one tree that had fallen that was probably 40 inches in diameter. We helped him—and we helped him a lot—but he still had more to do when we left.”

Alexander said he is praying there are no more injuries or property damage with Hurricane Delta.

“People are desperate,” he said. “My job is to continue loving people—that’s what I do. I’m going to continue to go to Lake Charles for a long time. We don’t need resources. We just need prayers. The supplies will be tripled and quadrupled. I’ll be there until next March, that’s how bad it is.”

He added that the 80,000 damaged and destroyed homes in the region will be rebuilt, but it will likely take several years.

“My heart hurts for those people,” Alexander said. “We’ve been through this in 2005, 2008, and 2016. Baton Rouge has been through it. I know how hard it is for these people. Gratefully, the Lord has spared us in Baton Rouge this time.”

He said his prayer for Hurricane Delta—the 25th named hurricane of the Atlantic season—is that “somehow the Holy Spirit and His mighty strength can dissipate that storm from 100 mph to like 50 when it gets on land. We know it is going to hit somebody, but we don’t want it to slam in as the last one did. The last one just annihilated everything.”

Duncan said his prayer is for more EPC churches to organize together or with other groups to train and prepare in advance to respond to future disasters.

“Thank goodness for organizations here and for the church,” Alexander said. “Without the church, I promise you they wouldn’t be this far in recovery efforts.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

New Hope EPC (Fort Myers, Fla.) volunteers live Matthew 25:36 for juvenile detention center despite COVID restrictions

 

New Hope Presbyterian Church members (from left) Cathy Fox, Helen Clapp, Eleanor Blitzer, Candy Engleman, and Gin Fisher) outside the Southwest Florida Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Myers, Fla.

“Do you wanna go to jail with me today?” Not your typical question. Then again, Candy Engleman is not your typical church lady. She is a member of the “Juvie Jail” ministry of New Hope Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Fort Myers, Fla., and her mission is to glorify God while sharing the gospel with the girls who are residents of a juvenile detention center.

The Juvie Jail ministry, as it is informally called, began in 2009 as part of a larger ministry for teenage girls. Every Monday afternoon, a group of volunteers from New Hope arrives at the Southwest Florida Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Myers with homemade cookies, lemonade, Bible lessons, and love. The volunteers spend an hour and a half each week with the girls. They share snacks, play games, read the Bible, teach a lesson on a Bible verse or story, take prayer requests, and lead the girls in prayer. And they hug, too. Big circle hugs.

The girls are not required to participate, but Monday has become a highly anticipated day in the center for everyone. Frelicia Davis, Facility Training Coordinator for the Center, explains how important the ministry is in the lives of the girls.

“These kids go through their crises during the week, but on Mondays they light up and this helps them calm down,” Davis said. “They know these ladies are coming with their hearts—not just coming to be coming.”

Typically, a girl is housed in the facility for three weeks awaiting her appearance in court.  During their first week, Davis says the girls are hesitant to participate because they want to “save face.” In the second week, the girls begin to open up and interact more within the group. By the third week, they begin praying and reaching out with questions and prayer requests. Some of these girls have never seen a Bible or started a prayer, but on Mondays they impatiently wait for the ladies from New Hope to arrive.

“We call them our ‘Jesus Christ Golden Girls!’” Davis exclaimed. “Everyone loves them. The girls love them. The staff loves them. These ladies have hearts of gold. Rain or shine, holidays…giving these girls hope.”

Ann Anderson has been involved since 2012, and noted that jail ministry is not always easy.

“You have to love the Lord,” she said. “These girls are needy, and some don’t know anything about God. Some are curious. We have to share God’s Word with them.”

Engleman agrees. While she jokes about asking people if they want to come to jail with her, the joking stops there.

“It is a blessing to be in this ministry,” she said. “It is a privilege for us to be able to do this and we want people who want to come and receive the blessing that it is.”

Permanent volunteers have to go through a detailed vetting process that includes fingerprinting and background checks. Engleman appreciates the requirements, because she only wants volunteers who are serious about serving.

“We see these girls as daughters, granddaughters, and nieces,” she explained. “We are terribly aware that we are sinners too, and so we are shoulder-to-shoulder with them and not standing in judgment.”

For privacy reasons, the volunteers are only given the girls’ first names. They also never know what offense a girl has committed. Some girls are repeat offenders. Some are runaways. Most come from dysfunctional families or foster homes. One girl was a repeat offender because being in the system was better than the alternative. A few of the girls have children of their own, despite their young ages. Sometimes their families don’t want them back. Drugs and alcohol are common threads woven into their stories. Sometimes a girl goes right back to a pimp upon release.

Engleman said the inability to follow up with girls after their release is the ministry’s only downside.

“Our job is to deliver the gospel,” she said. “Beyond that, God has not given us the okay to follow through with the girls. We share the gospel and we share our love. That is all we have been told by God to do at this point.”

The detention center leadership fully supports the ladies’ work.

“We have the utmost respect for this group, and for the church itself,” Davis said. “The love from the church—the entire church—is represented in this ministry.”

The girls aren’t the only ones being ministered to. The guards share prayer requests, ask for Bibles, grab cookies, and sometimes stay for the Bible lesson.

“Sometimes we do plays, like a Christmas pageant, and the guards take part,” Anderson noted. “They play the Wise Men or the shepherds. We try to make it fun for everyone. God is a joyful God and we want everyone to see this.”

Visitation restrictions are in place currently due to COVID-19, so the ladies have not been able to meet with the girls face-to-face. But they have not stopped going. Every week the ladies collect items and take them to the lobby to be delivered to the girls. Devotionals, word search books, adult coloring pages, and felt tip markers are passed along by the guards. The most important item the girls receive is a prayer request card. All of these cards are collected by the ministry and a volunteer sends out a visit report to more than 100 people who pray over each request every week.

Eddie Spencer, New Hope’s Senior Pastor, said the pandemic has barely slowed the ladies down.

“They cannot see the girls or fully enter the facility, but continue to visit each week to drop off discipleship lessons and sit together in the car and pray for the young women,” he said.

One of New Hope’s core values is living out the gospel by “reaching out to hurt and marginalized people.” The Juvie Jail Ministry demonstrates this by extending grace to all who live and work at the detention center. Engleman gives all the credit to God.

“God has allowed us to continue our ministry at the center despite COVID,” she said. “God is reaching out to many people there and we are privileged to be a part of His work.”

Even if it means going to jail.

by Kelli Lambert Gilbreath
EPConnection correspondent

Jacksonville (Ore.) Presbyterian Church opens sanctuary as shelter for wildfire evacuees, seeks prayer

 

Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Ore., opened its multi-purpose sanctuary for evacuees of the Alameda Fire that has burned 3,200 acres and destroyed at least 600 homes.

As wildfires ravage the West Coast destroying thousands of acres of timberland and homes —including the homes of three of his church families—an EPC pastor in southwest Oregon is requesting “prayer for wisdom and a vision” as the church seeks to minister to those amid the storm.

“It’s pretty overwhelming,” said Dustin Jernigan, Lead Pastor of Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Ore. “It’s hard not to find somewhere on the Oregon map where a community hasn’t been decimated. There are whole towns that are just gone.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 87 large wildfires are burning in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Many residents are under evacuation orders. In Oregon alone—Gov. Kate Brown said the state has never before had so many uncontained fires—more than a million acres have burned. As of September 14, at least 35 people have died as a result of nearly 100 wildfires that have scorched more than 4.7 million acres. At least four people died from the Alameda Fire, which burned 3,200 acres about 10 miles east of Jacksonville between Medford and Ashland, Ore.

Dustin Jernigan

Jernigan reported a “heavy orange haze over Jacksonville and the entire region, causing terrible air quality.” Coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted that residents are weary.

“It feels that we have already been running a marathon, and all of a sudden a bear showed up and is chasing us,” he said. “We are already exhausted. Now we have a whole different problem. Some people don’t have a place to sleep tonight. The main thing we need is prayer for wisdom, a plan, and a vision.”

The church opened its multipurpose sanctuary the weekend of September 11-13 to about a dozen families who either had lost their homes or who were fleeing the devastation of the wildfires. Following the first few days, the number of people utilizing the shelter diminished, after which people were taken into church member’s homes.

Brenda Rosch, one of those who stayed at the church, told the Wall Street Journal that she fled her mobile home near Medford with only the clothes on her back and a tablet computer. The entire mobile home park where her home was located was destroyed.

“I was resting, and the next thing I know the sheriffs are outside, there is dense smoke in the valley, really thick smoke, and the sheriffs are outside saying evacuate now, evacuate now,” Rosch said.

Wildfires have resulted in an orange haze enveloping the region around Jacksonville Presbyterian Church. The church was organized in 1857 and is the oldest Presbyterian congregation in the region.

When the evacuation order went out last week, Jernigan said he drove to the downtown area of Jacksonville to let the police know the church would be opening its doors to the displaced. While there he met a family who had driven three hours south from Eugene to the Medford area in an attempt to get away from the smoke of the fires.

“The irony was that one of our children’s directors had just left our town to drive three hours north to Eugene with the same idea in mind. To me, that is symbolic of the panic that we face. People are driving hours away and to get away from the fires. It’s a statewide problem,” he said.

Richard Evans, who serves the congregation as Associate Pastor for Missions, Discipleship, and Congregational Care, said he sees God at work in the crisis.

“I just see so many ‘God things’ in this,” he said, recounting an experience of one of the families in the church that lost everything.

“The afternoon of the day the fire ripped through—when it was nowhere near them at that point—the member went out for a hair appointment and something told them to take their dog with them. As much as they’ve lost, if they had lost their dog as well it would have been devastating,” Evans said. “It might seem like a small thing, but our lives are about everything, even small things. Yet I know a lot of people who haven’t been able to save their pets.”

Kate Hoskin, who grew up in the church and has a master’s in counseling psychology, addressed the congregation on September 13 at Jernigan’s request.

“She said that if people do not begin processing a crisis like what residents are experiencing, that in 72 hours PDSD (Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder) can set in,” Jernigan said. “But she also said the quicker that people can begin processing their trauma, the better off they are from having longtime effects.”

While the wildfire crisis is the immediate focus, Jernigan added that the pandemic has posed the greater existential threat. The church’s pre-COVID in-person attendance of 400 is now about 200, he said.

“Living here, people have a framework for wildfires. People don’t have a framework for not doing corporate worship for a year and a half. That’s more of, ‘What in the world, how do we continue operating?’”

He said the combination of the pandemic and wildfires has impacted his own family and their 5-year-old special needs son.

“I want to remind other EPC churches that COVID has been especially hard on families with special needs, because they have had to forgo in-person schooling and services like therapies,” he said. “Now for us, it’s even harder because our son can’t even go outside, he can’t go to speech therapy, physical therapy. We don’t do Sunday School like we used to, and we don’t see friends like we used to. I just want to blow that horn and say, ‘Hey pastors, if you have families with kids with special needs, they are a particularly affected group of people right now.’”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

California EPC churches minister amid wildfire destruction

 
VacavilleFire

The LNU Lightning Complex fire burns vegetation near Vacaville, Calif., on August 19. (photo credit: Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

A wildfire sparked by lightning in northern California has destroyed the property of a Ruling Elder of Covenant Community Church in Vacaville, Calif.

JuliaLeeth

Julia Leeth

“It has been a very long few days for the residents of Vacaville and surrounding areas,” Julia Leeth, pastor of Covenant Community Church, said by email on August 20. “One of our elders lost their home, barns, and cottage. It’s complete devastation.”

As of August 20, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire has burned more than 131,000 acres and forced thousands of residents in Solano, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Yolo counties to evacuate. Authorities are reporting that more than 100 structures have been destroyed, with an additional 30,000 threatened.

“Many of our congregants have been evacuated, but everyone has a place to stay,” Leeth added. “Our church property is intact, and we opened our parking lot and facilities for those who needed it. We are receiving donations to help the family who lost their home. But He is good, and we are hanging in there.”

About 90 miles northeast of Vacaville, the Jones fire forced 16 families of Sierra Presbyterian Church in Nevada City, Calif., to evacuate, said Pastor Mike Griffin.

MikeGriffin

Mike Griffin

“The church property is fine so far, and is not in the evacuation area,” Griffin wrote by email on August 19. “We have made sure that church members have found a place to stay who needed to be evacuated. We also have a few families staying in travel trailers or RVs on the church campus.”

Griffin noted that members of the congregation had set up a lemonade stand to serve first responders who are attending to the Jones fire.

EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah said he was grateful that the damage was not greater.

“I am inspired by our churches in these fire-prone areas who so many times have put aside their own needs to minister to their communities,” he said. “I also am grateful that because of the generosity of the EPC we have a healthy balance in our Emergency Relief Fund should it be needed.”

SierraLemonadeStand

Members of Sierra Presbyterian Church in Nevada City, Calif., set up a lemonade stand to serve first responders attending to the Jones fire, which as of August 20 has charred nearly 1,000 acres in Nevada County, Calif. (photo courtesy of Mike Griffin)

Hurricanes Hanna, Isaias affect EPC churches with rain, wind, flooding

 
HurricaneHannaIsaias1-MercedesTX

The home of a member of Genesis Presbyterian Church in Mercedes, Texas, was heavily damaged by Hurricane Hanna on July 25 (photo credit: Hector Reynoso).

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season—which runs from June 1 to November 30—is the first on record in which nine tropical storms formed before August 1. Two of those storms have affected EPC churches.

On July 25, Hurricane Hanna made landfall in south Texas as a category 1 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph. As it churned across the southern portion of the state west, it affected a wide area with high winds, heavy rain, and significant flooding.

HurricaneHannaIsaias2-MercedesTX

Mercedes, Texas, received significant flooding from Hurricane Hanna (photo credit: Hector Reynoso).

Genesis Presbyterian Church in Mercedes, Texas, is located in the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border, approximately 100 miles southwest of where Hanna came ashore. Pastor Hector Reynoso reported that seven families from the congregation suffered wind and water damage to their homes, including flooding; roof and ceiling damage; soaked drywall and insulation; and ruined furniture, appliances, and other belongings. In addition, the storm damaged the roof of Reynoso’s home.

In response to the need, the EPC wired nearly $30,000 from the Emergency Relief Fund to the church.

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Hector Reynoso

“Thank you on behalf of Genesis Presbyterian Church and its session for your caring and prompt response,” Reynoso said by email. “We have helped a total of 13 families—11 from Genesis and two from the community. Hurricane Hanna has caused a lot of damage to the Rio Grande Valley.”

As Hanna spun west into Mexico, Hurricane Isaias formed in the Caribbean and passed Puerto Rico on July 31, causing flooding in the western and southern parts of the island.

“In our city of Mayagüez there were severe flooding,” reported Abraham Montes, Pastor of Iglesia Presbiteriana Evangélica Mayagüez (Mayagüez Evangelical Presbyterian Church). “By the grace of God, our church was not affected.”

Isaias then brushed the Bahamas, where Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, reported that “all is good. My back fence and a tree were knocked down, but the church did not sustain any damage.”

Ken Lane, Pastor of Lucaya Presbyterian Church in Freeport, said they did not receive any negative effects.

“After Dorian last year, this one was more like a summer storm,” he said.

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A home in Oak Island, N.C., on August 4 near Hurricane Isaias’ landfall. (Photo credit: Ken Blevins, Wilmington, N.C., Star News)

Following a northerly turn and a slow trek off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, Isaias made landfall late on August 3 in southeastern North Carolina as a category 1 hurricane. The eye of the storm came ashore approximately 15 miles west of Oak Island, N.C., where Walter Taylor serves as Pastor of Oak Island Presbyterian Church.

“Church members were affected,” Taylor said by email on August 4. “Some flooded cars and property on the island, trees down everywhere. We ourselves are well, however.”

HurricaneHannaIsaias6-WalterTaylor

Walter Taylor

Other EPC pastors in the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic reported uprooted trees, power outages, and other effects from the storm.

“We have a lot of tree limbs down on the church property, but there doesn’t appear to be any real damage,” said Stacey Miller, Pastor of Myrtle Grove EPC in Wilmington, N.C. “We haven’t heard of any major impacts to members of our congregation either. Walter’s congregation down at Oak Island drew the short straw this time around.”

Keith Cobb, Pastor of Hollywood EPC in Greenville, N.C, also reported fallen tree limbs as well “some siding off houses” in the area.

“Wind blew rain in through the steeple of our church and did slight damage to the sanctuary ceiling, but probably not enough to file a claim,” he said. “One member, a farmer, lost corn to wind and some other crops are soggy. But all in all, we’ve seen worse.”

Further north, Isaias caused widespread flooding and power outages in the Northeast.

Lanah Hamrick, Assistant Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of the East (POTE), said 13 churches in the presbytery had reported power outages, downed limbs and trees, and flash flooding. Churches in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area reported the most significant effects from the storm.

Valdir Reis, Pastor of Closer to God EPC in Kearny, N.J., said several members of the congregation experienced minor damage to their homes.

“Everyone that we know of so far is doing OK,” he said. “The church building, unfortunately, did suffer damage, especially in the region of the tower. We will see about fixing the issues and getting everything up to code again, but thankfully everyone is OK and healthy.”

Barry Case, Clerk of Session for Manoa Community Church in Havertown, Pa., said the primary issue in the Philadelphia area was widespread, ongoing power outages.

HurricaneHannaIsaias5-DarbyPA

Torrential rains from Hurricane Isaias caused the Darby Creek in Delaware County, Pa., to overflow its banks. The creek is about two miles from two EPC churches in Havertown, Pa.: Bethany EPC and Manoa Community Church (photo credit: CBS3, Philadelphia).

“We had a session meeting last night, and five of the eight people present had basement water problems earlier in the day,” he said. “Most of the water issues are one-day nuisances, but one family had a malfunctioning sump pump and 10 inches of water.”

Bob Thompson, Clerk of Session for Bethany EPC in Havertown said the church facility had “some water in the lower level, but not too serious,” he said. “At present we are not aware of any other issues.”

Other POTE church leaders reported similar impact and expressed gratitude for prayers and support as they assess damage among their congregations and communities.

EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah said he was thankful for the ability to respond to storm-related financial needs quickly.

“The generosity of our EPC churches and their members over the past several years had given us a healthy balance in our Emergency Relief Fund,” Jeremiah said. “Because we have the staff and tools in place to respond quickly, we have been able to help meet identified needs efficiently and effectively. I am very grateful to be able to tell our folks in need that help is on the way.”

Reopening the church: COVID-19 surge continues to impact churches in southern-tier hotspots

 

ReopeningTheChurchFifth in a series

As the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to surge across the U.S., EPC congregations in the hotspot states of Texas, Arizona, and Florida are adjusting to the realities of how, when, and if they will be able to reopen their doors.

“We are allowed to reopen by the state, but have not,” said Lionel R. Jellins, elder and Interim Moderator at City of Refuge Church in Houston—which is located in Harris County where nearly 60,000 of the state’s 361,000 cases have been identified.

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Lionel Jellins

“We could allow our small groups to meet in person, in small groups, but have not recommended this,” he added. “Our church has a large number of medical center workers and several infectious disease doctors that we seek for counsel. They have advised us not to re-open. We will not re-open until the cases are relatively low and stable. The recent spike has materially delayed re-opening.”

Jellins said the church originally targeted June 7 as its date to reopen after closing following the onset of the pandemic, but plans to reopen currently are on hold.

“Increasing cases in Houston caused us to delay,” he said, adding that City of Refuge continues to consult their medical advisors to determine an eventual date.

Pre-closure attendance at the church was 180, and now about 85 families view the church’s live stream each week.

“We are relatively close to our pre-shutdown attendance,” Jellins said.

Doug Ashley, Lead Pastor of Longview Evangelical Presbyterian Church said East Texas has experienced a gradual uptick in cases as well—though not to the same degree that the more populous areas of the state have.

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Doug Ashley

“We are starting the see the cases rise significantly over the last few weeks,” Ashley said. “We have not had a lot of deaths so far and our recovery rate is good, but increased hospitalization could be an issue for us in the coming weeks.”

Longview EPC cautiously reopened in-person worship services on June 14—which the church dubbed The Comeback—and has remained open with social distancing and face coverings.

“Our plans have remained stable as we have had good cooperation of people attending to do so safely,” he said, adding that the Session continues to monitor the situation weekly. “We believe we still have a safe gathering space with the number of people attending services in person at this time.”

Ashley noted that their pre-shutdown attendance of between 125-170 (depending on the season) has not been greatly impacted, and the church continues to live-stream its Sunday morning service.

“We have been fortunate in that this has not significantly affected members of our congregation at this point,” he said. “But that could change any day.”

In the desert Southwest, Arizona is another COVID-19 hotspot. Grace Community Church in Surprise, Ariz., is about 45 minutes from Phoenix in Maricopa County—where 102,000 COVID cases have been identified.

Pastor Cliff Mansley quipped that the virus “has actually been good for us” despite the impact on the overall community.

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Cliff Mansley

“When things first went down we decided that we would do one of those crazy outdoor services until it got oppressively hot—and we grew during that time,” he said. “We have had 40 or so visitors, people sitting on the curb listening in and people leaning over their fences wanting to find out what is going on. We had lots of visitors come into the parking lot who had never darkened the door of the church.”

Mansley said when the church reopened its doors in early June the people who visited during the outdoor services came inside.

“You know, there is such a wonderful spirit” he said. “Right now we are just within the margin of attendance. You are allowed to have 50 people in attendance, so we are watching that carefully.”

While the number of people attending is down from the church’s pre-shutdown attendance of 150, Mansley believes a combination of creatively connecting with members of the congregation and guests via podcasts—as well as posting worship services on YouTube—has kept connectivity strong. Among the podcasts Mansley started during the shutdown are Bible studies on Gospel of John, Habakkuk, and Nehemiah.

Another podcast is “Cliff Talk,” a folksy program in which Mansley discusses a range of topics including snowbirds, the Arizona heat, wearing masks, and “becoming a bit cranky” during the crisis due to isolation before sharing spiritual truths from the Bible.

“The most fun that we’re having is called Goodness Gracious, which is anytime I can interview someone from the congregation and find out about their life,” Mansley said. “I do that for 15 to 20 minutes, which allows people who are feeling homebound to tune and learn about somebody else’s life. So our congregation is growing together in spite of it all. I think it really has helped encourage people to stay connected and to stay positive, and I think it has encouraged people to be generous in their giving.”

Despite the lower attendance numbers, Manley said giving to the church is actually ahead of last year’s pace.

“We’re tracking above all of our projections from the beginning of the year,” he said.

In Florida, which now has more than 400,000 confirmed cases, New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers reopened for public worship on June 25 with in-person services on both Thursday evening and Sunday morning.

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Eddie Spencer

Senior Pastor Eddie Spencer said the recent surge in cases will likely delay plans to restart on-campus elementary and youth ministry activities. But many positives remain, he said, including members of the congregation who continue to minister and serve despite the challenges of the pandemic.

“For years, one of our ladies has led a team of women who have weekly ministered in a local women’s jail,” he said. “Although the team cannot see the girls or fully enter the facility, the volunteers continue to visit the facility each week to drop off discipleship lessons and sit together in the car and pray for the young women.”

Spencer also noted that giving to the church “has remained excellent. I am pleased that we have been able to maintain our commitment to our employees, as well as all of our mission partners.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Reopening the church: Florida EPC congregations face statewide COVID-19 surge

 

ReopeningTheChurchFifth in a series

A recent spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida has failed to deter EPC congregations in the Sunshine State from “doing church,” albeit in unconventional ways.

City Church in Homestead, which is in the epicenter of the Miami-Dade County pandemic, suspended in-person worship services in March. Pastor Chris Coppolo said they “came close” to reopening in early June when restaurants and beaches resumed operation, but decided to continue virtual services when the number of cases began to rise again. He said that the latest spike has meant “church as unusual.”

Florida-ChrisCoppolo

Chris Coppolo

“It’s just me sharing the Word,” he said. “We really don’t have the capability to do music virtually, but our Facebook Live continues to be strong.”

Coppolo also leads a weekly virtual Wednesday evening devotional. Additionally, spontaneous virtual meetings among church groups and friends help the members of the congregation stay connected.

Despite being in a hotspot, Coppolo said no one in the church—which had a pre-shutdown average worship attendance of about 230—has contracted the virus. He said other area pastors he has talked to have reported no cases in their congregations either.

About 50 miles north of Homestead in Pembroke Pines, Pastor Evelio Vilches at Faith Presbyterian Church also continues to provide virtual worship services through the HighNote Meeting app.

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Faith Presbyterian Church in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

“We have about the same number meeting online that we had in person,” said Clerk of Session Jane Bodden, which is between 17 and 25.

Though Broward County has the second-largest number of new COVID-19 cases in Florida, Bodden said no members of the congregation have been affected.

“We’ve talked about reopening in August, but it will really depend upon how things are in our county,” she said.

Another 25 miles north in Pompano Beach, New Covenant Church—which also is in Broward County—reopened on-site worship on June 14.

Florida-AdamGreenfield

Adam Greenfield

“The recent spike has not impacted our plans,” said Lead Pastor Adam Greenfield. “We continue to meet with very specific safety measures. We are taking it week-by-week, and have considered if we should remain open. However, we do not have any plans to stop meeting at this point. The spike has certainly caused us to carefully monitor the situation.”

Greenfield said about 90 people attend campus worship, which is down from a pre-pandemic attendance of 250.

“Those who are coming onsite to worship are really thankful that we’re meeting,” he said. “It’s a mix of old and young. People need to gather in the community. Even though it looks and feels very different because of the safety measures we are taking, they need a corporate worship experience.”

For those not comfortable attending in person, “they are communicating gratitude for the ability to worship through our live stream,” Greenfield said. “We are working on ways for those at home to feel connected to the live experience. For example, we had one of our members read the sermon text via video. That way people at home still feel like they have a voice and presence.”

About 20 miles east of Tampa, GracePoint Plant City reopened June 7 but continues to maintain a policy of social distancing and wearing masks.

Senior Pastor Robert Olszewski said the pandemic has impacted the Plant City community in several ways.

Florida-RobertOlszewski

Robert Olszewski

“Mostly small businesses and new job hirings have declined,” he said. “Protests have been minimal, and the community is united with churches to address local issues such as with food.”

He added that COVID-19 has impacted other plans, such as Vacation Bible School.

“We are changing our planned VBS to either simply a night out event, or we will cancel it altogether.”

Despite the changes wrought by the situation, Olszewski said God continues to bless the congregation of about 160 people.

“God has been very faithful in encouraging our body and growing us deeper in Him while sharing the love of Christ with our neighbors,” he said. “We did an online benefit concert for our local food bank and raised over $6,000. It was a great opportunity for our congregation to invite friends and we had over 5,000 views and over 300 active viewers during the concert.”

GraceLeesburg

Grace EPC in Leesburg, Fla.

About 70 miles north in Leesburg, the numerous retirement communities in the immediate vicinity of Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church have prompted the church to “practice an abundance of caution to protect each other,” said Mandy Klee, Administrative Assistant at the church where Dave Dorst serves as Lead Pastor.

Since reopening on June 7, Grace’s leadership has continued to monitor the spike in COVID cases and taking extra precautions such as rearranging seating to ensure social distancing and having hand sanitizer and masks available.

“We are using only paper bulletins with hymn lyrics and Scripture verses, and have removed all hymnals for the time being,” Klee said. “We have been very blessed with God’s protection that our congregation has been safe and healthy throughout this challenging time.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

 

EPC churches set ‘The Table’ for worship, ministry, community

 

What’s in a name? For many, a story. Which is why four young EPC congregations, unbeknownst to one another, all ended up calling their churches “The Table.”

TheTable-LittleRock4LogoLittle Rock, Arkansas

Michael Gallup, pastor of The Table in Little Rock, Ark., said that he had no idea there were other congregations who shared the name until after they had chosen it for their church plant.

“What’s great about it is that we can have humility and learn from one another,” Gallup said. “While there are some common themes there are also some unique perspectives for each context that can help inform each other as we live into this more faithfully.”

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Prior to suspending in-person worship due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Table in Little Rock, Ark., met at a local events venue.

Gallup’s church, the youngest of the four, is very much centered on the idea of hospitality. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting nationwide shutdown, Gallup said one of their primary ministry efforts was to “throw parties in our home and invite people over.”

“We have a lot of shared meals with an open table,” he said. “People understand that metaphor. It’s familiar and comforting, and points to what type of congregation we are and aspire to be.”

Gallup also believes that fellowship around a table reflects his own understanding of discipleship, approach to mission, and sacramental theology. Every time the church comes together for worship, they partake in a meal together and also observe the Lord’s Supper.

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Michael Gallup

“I began to see the ways in which the tables that we sit at and fellowship around point to the Lord’s table,” he said. “It gives a sense of belonging, brings life and joy, speaks to the nature of what God is doing, and is a reflection of the gospel.”

Because radical hospitality is so much the core of The Table, it informs every aspect of their ministry.

“Everything we do is filtered through that lens. We do a broad swath of ministry—homeless ministry, culinary classes—but it’s all filtered through hospitality. It’s not just a transactional experience.”

Earlier this year, before shelter-in-place orders forced many churches to rethink how to reach their communities, The Table rented a Venezuelan food truck as a way to provide an enriching experience for the church and support their neighbors. The family who owned the truck shared unique food from their country and told the story of their immigration to the United States.

“Our name is a very relatable, accurate way to inform those both inside and outside the church what we’re all about,” Gallup said. “We want people to know they are welcome here.”

TheTable-Denver2LogoDenver, Colorado

Almost 1,000 miles away at the foot of the Rocky Mountains is another EPC church plant, The Table Project, led by Mark Grapengater.

Mark and his wife, Stacey, learned in September 2017 that they had been approved to plant a church. Eleven months later they packed up and moved from Atlanta, Ga., to Denver, Colo.

Both had previously worked in the hospitality industry, so they decided to name their new church “The Table Project.” The imagery of Jesus sitting and eating with people kept coming up in their personal Bible study, and that idea seemed like a natural fit.

TheTable-Denver1Grapengater

Mark Grapengater

“As Christians, we want to be known as the best party throwers out there,” Mark said. “So that’s kind of what we’ve tried to do. We have big letters on our wall that say ‘feast.’ We believe that the last image we have of the end of the story is a wedding banquet where Jesus invites everyone to the wedding banquet of the Lamb.”

However, he is quick to point out that they are not a dinner church. While they want to have a warm, welcoming atmosphere, the end goal is still to start a regular Sunday morning worship service.

“Our hope is that people will take the liturgical practices and apply them throughout the week in their everyday lives,” he noted. “When we celebrate communion, we are taking a meal with Jesus. Now go out and do that with your neighbors throughout the week. And community groups should be a place where people can go deep in relationships with one another, but also feed on the Word and get into the truth of the gospel.”

The Grapengaters have based their lives on this principle, inviting neighbors over regularly. Last fall they hosted a Labor Day party, “Friendsgiving,” and a Christmas celebration in their home.

It has not always been easy. While the Grapengaters have hosted numerous friends, few have reciprocated. Mark said people in that region tend to keep to themselves, and of course plans sometimes go awry. Prior to hosting the Thanksgiving party, their three-year-old daughter clogged the toilet, causing it to overflow. So they welcomed their guests into their home through an entryway that was being repaired due to the water damage. The renovations were still in process a few weeks later when they hosted the Christmas party.

“We’re learning to be comfortable with that,” Mark said. “We want to invite people into the mess of our lives, too, because life is just messy sometimes, right?”

One place where they have been able to make some new friends is the local elementary school that their son attends.

“We befriended some of the other parents on the auction committee, and traditionally, they give a party as the raffle prize,” Mark said. “This year they asked if we would host the party. Only God could set that up so perfectly.”

They have considered asking if their church might meet at the school. Since they will have children in there for the next ten years, it would be a perfect location for “The Table Project.”

As the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, the Grapengaters’ hope was to continue to build relationships with neighbors with a goal of launching public worship services by February 2021.

The pandemic derailed those plans.

They held their last in-person Bible study at the end of February. The Table Project then took what was supposed to be a brief hiatus as Stacey gave birth to their third child, Joshua David, on March 12. They came home from the hospital to a stay-at-home order throughout Colorado.

Mark has transitioned to holding midday prayer times through the week on Facebook Live. They also have been connecting with their neighbors on a family-by-family basis.  On Cinco de Mayo, they delivered palomas, chips, and salsa to 16 neighboring families, and they held a baptismal service in their backyard later in May with a small gathering from the community.

The Grapengaters have come to realize that a February 2021 launch may not happen, but they are still hopeful. With changes brought about by COVID-19, they have not been able to make any concrete plans but hope to know more in September. When they do begin their Sunday services, Grapengater says that they will incorporate many of the traditional aspects of worship.

“It will be liturgical,” Mark said. “With communion, confession, assurance, and modern worship music. In the area where we live, there is only one church for every 10,000 people so this is very much needed.”

TheTable-SanFrancisco4LogoSan Francisco, California

Six years ago, Troy Wilson and his family returned to the United States from Thailand, where they had been missionaries for six years. He wanted to plant a church in a non-Christian, liberal, multicultural area, so they moved to San Francisco, Calif.

Two other families felt called to join them, so together with their friends—and with the support of their mother church, Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, Calif.—they stepped out and launched The Table in downtown San Francisco.

“It was a bit challenging,” Wilson said. “It’s easier to find work in San Francisco than it is a place to live.”

But soon they were able to settle in and started meeting people through the course of their everyday lives. They invited neighbors over for dinner and social gatherings and grew to know and love the community around them.

TheTable-SanFrancisco2Troy

Troy Wilson

“Hospitality was something that was very important to my mother, and she passed her heart for people on to me,” Wilson said. “As a child, I remember our backyard being a place where everyone was loved and welcome and safe. It was okay to be yourself there. That’s how I wanted our church to feel.”

As this community of friends grew, so did the desire to continue doing life together. When the time came for the group to give this budding church a name, “The Table” seemed to be a natural choice.

“For one thing, it just fits with the culture here,” Wilson noted. “San Franciscans are a bunch of foodies. Everyone can relate to the imagery of the table—Christians, non-Christians, people from various cultures and backgrounds. A table is a place of intimacy, of friendship. It’s where people come together to be filled and satisfied, and then go out to fellowship with others. At the table, all are included and welcome.”

The Table meets in the Kanbar Performing Arts Center, home of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Wilson found the location through a running buddy, and it is the church’s second location. The Table originally launched in an art gallery, but the property was sold to a buyer who did not want the church in the facility.

“This new location is perfect for us,” Wilson said. “It’s the Table we all envisioned. It sits on the corner of three or four different neighborhoods, with very diverse populations. It’s a very multicultural area, with rich and poor, believers and non-believers, and people from all walks of life.”

TheTable-SanFrancisco1

Community Groups are a key avenue for ministry, discipleship, and outreach for The Table in San Francisco. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these groups currently meet virtually via video conference.

There also is a thriving community of artists in the area, and Wilson has connected with many of them.

“The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is just two blocks from where the church started,” Wilson said. “One day I was on my way to an appointment at a coffee shop, when I heard this amazing violin music and decided to follow it. The young man playing, whose name is Otis, was a graduate of the conservatory. After he finished his set and I threw the tip in, we just started chatting for a while. I asked him to consider coming to play for our church.”

Otis admitted that church had not really been “his thing,” and wondered if he might be disqualified. Wilson assured him that he was welcome, and Otis began attending regularly. Wilson said that Otis is still on the journey of discovering his faith and has not yet expressed faith in Christ.

“I told him he is absolutely welcome here,’ Wilson said. “He still comes and plays and is a wonderful person in our church community.”

Otis has introduced Wilson to several other musicians, many of whom have found their way to the church. Rhonel, an artist and musician who was already a believer, is one—and he has brought a gospel sound to The Table’s worship.

“Our connection with the arts community has been this fluid and organic thing,” Wilson said. “One day I started chatting with a gentleman I met in a coffee shop, and he asked me if I liked music. I told him I had just seen an amazing band called the Afro Cuban All-Stars. It turns out he was with the band and had been on stage!”

That musician ended up coming to the church and introduced Wilson to several of his friends, including Juan Perez, who now serves as the worship leader for The Table.

Wilson also works as a real estate agent in the city, and he says that being bi-vocational gives him additional touchpoints for connection in the community. But he quickly adds that he is first and foremost a missionary.

“Psalm 81:10 is a verse I keep returning to,” Wilson said. “Scripture says, ‘Open your mouth, and I will fill it.’ San Franciscans are spiritually hungry, and I know the One who can fill them.”

The Table is small numerically, but it is dynamic in what God is doing in their midst in the dry spiritual climate that is San Francisco. The Table was one of several evangelical church plants featured in a 2015 article in The Guardian, “Hipster churches in Silicon Valley: evangelicalism’s unlikely new home.”

And while some people have shown interest in the church, hundreds walk by every day and barely seem to notice. But Wilson knows that God has called him to keep setting the table and inviting his neighbors in.

“I’ll be honest. This has not been easy,” he said. “We are praying for more partners in this work. Anyone who loves San Francisco and wants to come be a bi-vocational missionary, we could certainly use them!”

California was one of the first states to issue broad shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, and as result The Table held its last public gathering on March 8. But Wilson and his team have been ministering virtually through daily FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Meet connections, and weekly churchwide prayer gatherings, group Bible studies, and worship services via Zoom and the church’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

Church members have been volunteering on Fridays to deliver food to the elderly and others in the community. They also have participated in peaceful demonstrations in small groups while wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Wilson said the immediate future looks much like the present, since San Francisco has been very cautious in plans to reopen businesses. A date to resume public worship services has not been set, but they are working with the Kanbar Performing Arts Center and hope to be able to welcome area residents back to The Table as soon as possible.

TheTable-Dallas2LogoDallas, Texas

The Table in Dallas, Texas, is the only one of the four “Tables” that did not start as an EPC church plant. Pastor Dave Wahlstedt said the congregation was originally a Pentecostal church and came into the EPC during the Willow Creek era of church growth.

“A few years ago we decided to make a missional move away from a brick and mortar church, so we sold the building and moved into a performing arts venue,” Wahlstedt said, noting that the move opened up the church to a whole new segment of the community since the building was used by artists, filmmakers, and musicians.

“We ended up needing to move from that venue, which drove us to look at what we could do with limited space. We spent weeks fasting and praying and looking at the community around us to determine what church should look like in our context,” Wahlstedt said. “We realized that there was a huge shift in the number of young professionals who had moved in from other states, and the demographic we were encountering was not interested in the established, ‘tall steeple’ kind of church. They were looking for something communal that had vitality and an inner-directed core.”

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Dave Wahlstedt

Through personality assessment tools, Wahlstedt realized that the people who were coming valued authenticity, community, self-exploration, and were comfortable with paradox. That’s when the concept of The Table began to take shape. Visitors are invited to “come hungry,” and the welcome page of their website states that “there is more to food than simply fueling our bodies. We feed our mind, body, and soul as we experience community around the table.”

The church is organized in groups of 20-25 people, each of which meets during the week or on the weekend for a shared meal and to worship, engage Scripture in an interactive way, and partake in sacraments together.

In the fourth week of each month, the entire congregation meets in a local indoor/outdoor event space called The Mill House in Lewisville, a suburb about 25 miles from downtown Dallas. The area is filled with millennials and young professionals, and they gather in the Mill House dining room, kitchen, and outdoor area in a very fluid and informal way.

As shelter-in-place orders took effect in Dallas in March, Wahlstedt transitioned to online services on March 14. The following Sunday the men’s and women’s groups and midweek service also went virtual.

TheTable-Dallas1

Like the other The Table congregations, The Table in Dallas, Texas, met for worship in a public event space prior to the COVID-19 shutdown forced a transition to online worship gatherings.

In-person gatherings resumed on June 7 but went back to virtual following a July 2 executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.

Despite the challenges that the church has faced during the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, Wahlstedt noted that the consistency and commitment of the group have been really strong.

“I believe it’s because they have a voice and ownership in the church,” he said. “I serve as more of a facilitator, or as I like to call it, ‘a holy instigator.’”

When not suspended due to COVID-19, the church also has a “Family Waffle Table” where parents are invited to participate alongside their children.

“I wanted to equip them to learn for themselves and model how they could be spiritual leaders at home,” Wahlstedt said. “God loves the sounds of families in worship.”

One of the challenges that The Table faces is that it is located in a somewhat transient area where people move in and out frequently. Partially because of that, the church does not use a traditional method of partnership or membership. At the beginning of the year, they take a pledge together and renew their commitment to one another and the church. There are presently around 75 congregants, with a core group of middle-aged attendees and a large influx of young professionals and families.

“I have learned to be comfortable with having them for a season,” Wahlstedt said. “God is transforming lives, and it’s rewarding to witness the spiritual growth.”

Tom Ricks, who leads the EPC’s church planting efforts, said he believes each of the four pastors selected “The Table” as the name for their church because they recognize the longing for friendship and community that exists in our culture.

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Tom Ricks

“They are innovators, genuine, and they love Jesus,” Ricks said. “They appreciate our ancient traditions but also look for ways to make honest connections with people. I love their heart for the lost as well as their willingness to try a variety of approaches.”

Ricks said he has devoted his ministry to investing in church planting because he wants to walk with fellow disciples who care about their neighborhoods, schools, and local businesses.

“So much of life is on the run, and we often feel like our hair is on fire,” he said. “A community church is hopefully a place of respite and worship where we connect with God and with one another.”

Ricks added that there is always room for more at the table. Or as he put it, “more The Tables,” and anyone sensing a call to engage in church planting should contact him at tom@greentreechurch.com.

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

First Presbyterian Church of Orlando makes largest-ever donation for local COVID relief efforts

 
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David Swanson, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla. (photo credit: David Whitley/Orlando Sentinel)

First Presbyterian Church of Orlando (FPCO), hoping to ease some of the pain of COVID-19′s economic devastation, has made a historic donation of more than $500,000 to non-profit agencies in Central Florida, individual families, and worldwide mission efforts. The church pooled the money from virtual collection plates, leftover funds of a capital campaign, bequests, and an annual missions drive after leaders started seeing a dramatic uptick in pleas for help.

Read the full story: Orlando Sentinel

More than $73,000 donated to EPC churches through online giving provided by Office of the General Assembly

 

As churches began to suspend in-person worship services this spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, 32 EPC churches inaugurated an online giving option provided by the Office of the General Assembly. As of June 24, parishioners have made 381 donations through the EPC’s platform totaling $73,080.59.

OnlineGiving-JeffersonEllis

Jefferson Ellis

Jefferson Ellis, Pastor of Hanover Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Pa., said the church has received online contributions “almost every week since we put it on our website. We even have some folks giving from other parts of the country who had roots or family in our church. It has been a positive thing for our small congregation.”

Oak Island Presbyterian Church in Oak Island, N.C., reopened for in-person worship services on June 14. David Paxton, Ruling Elder and Finance Committee Chairman, said providing online giving in the months that they were not able to meet was very helpful.

“Many of our congregants are retired,” Paxton said. “During this difficult period, we have been blessed by contributions exceeding our expenses. Thank you for providing this service to us.”

OnlineGiving-GradyDavidson

Grady Davidson

Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been holding drive-in services for several weeks, and the opportunity for people to give online has been “a great success.”

“Each Sunday there are a few people who make an offering which probably would not have been given without it,” said Pastor Grady Davidson. “Thank you so much.”

For many of these churches, the EPC’s platform—provided at no cost to churches—was their first time they offered online giving to their congregation.

“We have considered this in the past, but we were not motivated—primarily due to the size of our congregation,” said Bryan Little, Treasurer and Elder for Evangelical Presbyterian Stone Church in Caledonia, N.Y. “Online giving has allowed us to accept donations that would probably not be received otherwise. Members are pleased to have this option and have said the process is very easy.”

OnlineGiving-BrynMacPhail

Bryn MacPhail

Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, Bahamas, noted that “the mechanisms for online giving are not as user-friendly” in the Bahamas.

“This extended period of not gathering in person has challenged us in a number of ways,” he said. “Even more challenging is trying to receive contributions in a foreign currency. Once again, the EPC has come through for us with a helpful remedy. We are so grateful for this practical help and the ongoing support we receive from our denominational office.”

Some of the 32 churches had offered online giving previously, but with mixed results.

OnlineGiving-Guinston“Guinston had previously offered online giving through a company specializing in this type of service,” said Arlina Yates, Treasurer for Guinston Presbyterian Church in Airville, Pa. “Setting it up was laborious and communication after setup was difficult, so we decided to discontinue our contract. Because of that experience, I was hesitant to take up the offer of the EPC online giving tool, but I have found working with the EPC to be a delightful experience. The setup was so easy that I thought I must have missed some steps. Since day one, communication has been prompt, helpful, and kind. You’ve made a difference. Give yourselves a pat on the back, you deserve it and much more!”

Pat Coelho, EPC Chief Financial Officer, said the program will continue as long as it is needed.

“I know a big obstacle for many churches is trying to figure out how to choose an online giving solution and deploy it well,” Coelho said. “It feels good to be able to help like this.”

He noted that all donations are forwarded directly to the church each week.

“The Office of the General Assembly has not kept any of these funds,” Coelho added.

Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah noted that many churches faced unprecedented financial pressures as shelter-in-place orders became commonplace.

“When the shutdown started in March, none of us knew how long we would be unable to hold public worship services,” he said. “I recall many thinking we would be back by Easter, but of course that did not happen. I am thankful that we have been able to provide this financial lifeline for our churches, many of which are among our smallest congregations.”

Churches that requested the service received a page on the EPC website that included the form to make a secure donation, said Brian Smith, EPC Director of Communications.

“They can add a ‘Donate’ button to their website that links to this page,” he said. “For churches that do not have a website, they can share the address of the page on the EPC site with their congregants in all the usual ways they keep their attendees informed.”

EPC churches interested in more information about using the denomination’s online giving platform are encouraged to contact Smith at brian.smith@epc.org.

Memphis EPC churches gather for service of lament, prayer walk

 
MemphisPrayerWalk

Members of The Avenue Community Church and Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis participated in a prayer walk on June 10 in the neighborhood near The Collegiate School of Memphis, where The Avenue meets for Sunday morning worship.

In response to the EPC’s call to observe June 8 as a Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer, several EPC churches in Memphis, Tenn., gathered for a public service of lament followed by a prayer walk through the adjoining area on June 10.

MemphisLamentService-Johnson

Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson, Lead Pastor of The Avenue Community Church facilitated the service. Also participating were Lee Adams, a volunteer leader at The Avenue; Barton Kimbro, Assistant Pastor of Young Adults at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis; and Denny Catalano, Regional Director of Campus Outreach Memphis.

“Lord, we acknowledge that we are fallen and that we are led astray by our own desires,” Adams prayed. “Even our pursuit for justice can be shortsighted, but Lord, give us your eyes to help us to stay fixed on you. And Lord, give us your heart, so as we cry, ‘How long,’ that we are not forsaken.”

In addition to his prayer, Adams read passages from Habakkuk 1, Psalm 113 and Psalm 143.

Catalano prayed that God would heal broken hearts and bind up their wounds, provide comfort to the families of those who have died in recent weeks, and “bring conviction and courage to our non-African-American brothers and sisters to enter into the fight and speak truth in love and to promote unity in the family of God.”

Kimbro reminded those gathered that “only the Lord is big enough, good enough, wise enough and powerful enough to do anything about what ails people in this world.”

“Oh Lord, we long for the day to come for the new heavens and the new earth,” Kimbro prayed. “We pray for your deliverance from evil around us, particularly racism, bigotry, and systematic injustice.”

At the close of the service, Johnson asked the congregation to stand, raise their hands, and clap.

“He’s worthy of our praise!” Johnson exclaimed. “He is to be trusted. He is the solid Rock on which we stand. All other ground is sinking sand. And I’m not worshipping the God of woke-ism, I’m not worshipping the God of patriotism—I’m worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who’s coming to get me!”

The prayer walk was originally scheduled for immediately after the service but was delayed two days by rainy weather. It was designed to demonstrate love and understanding for the community amid the racial unrest of the past several weeks.

“The indictment against the Church is that they don’t care, that their love does not have feet, and that whatever they talk about—whatever they do—has no tangible impact on the world around us,” Johnson said. “The indictment is so bad, especially for me being an African-American pastor and a person of color.”

He described the part of Memphis in which The Avenue meets as an “edge” neighborhood. The area is located between Highland Terrace—which has some of most expensive real estate in the city—and a district dubbed “The Nations,” which includes the highest concentration of Hispanics, refugees, and low-income black and white families in Memphis.

“The nations are there,” Johnson said. “Our church sits in the middle of that, so we aren’t necessarily out to be a niche church for multi-ethnicity. Rather, we believe that if we preach the gospel indiscriminately up and down the street without skipping over people, that we will be diverse.”

He said the prayer walk in the neighborhood represented that belief.

“For me, the Church has got to step up and demonstrate—even if they don’t understand—that it does care about the anguish and the grief of society.”

Rob Liddon, a Ruling Elder for Second Presbyterian Church and member of the EPC National Leadership Team, said the service of lament helped meet an important need.

“For some time I have felt we need to learn to lament all that is happening, and especially so after these killings,” he said. “Our worship services are ordinarily joyful—rightfully so—but we need to do a better job of weeping with those who weep.”

During the week following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Johnson said he had reminded the church of its core values, where the church sits in the Memphis community, and how the people who make up The Avenue could be the catalyst to bring together divided communities.

“Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father is one,” Johnson said during the prayer service. “We need to pursue that like never before. It’s the biggest apologetic to the world. We have to get to know people, allow ourselves to be known, and pull together and not fracture into several different groups.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Reopening the church: Doors continue to open despite restrictions

 

ReopeningTheChurchFourth in a series

As protests and more violent demonstrations continue across the U.S.—potentially hindering economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic—a nation desperately in need of spiritual direction is seeing churches slowly reopen their doors to worshipers. In that context, EPC congregations are balancing local, state, and federal guidelines to protect parishioners who choose to return to on-campus worship services and other activities.

Chris Parnell, Pastor of Bishopville Presbyterian Church in Bishopville, S.C., said in-person worship services resumed on May 3 following a unanimous vote by the session. He reported about half of their normal Sunday attendance of 70 were present for the first service.

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Chris Parnell

“For those in attendance, and the elders, the mood was quite positive,” Parnell said. “We’d been closed except for online worship services from mid-March through April—including Easter—and the elders and I felt a positive, uplifting response to our meeting again in-person.”

He said that neither his state nor local authorities had issued any guidelines on churches reopening, “so we looked at the CDC recommendations for guidance,” he said. “We are also blessed to have several healthcare workers and doctors in our congregation to give us local guidance.”

Parnell said other activities continue to be closed—such as choir practice, on-site Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and other gatherings—and looks forward to fully reopening. He explained that navigating ministry during the pandemic included conducting a graveside-only funeral service.

“Other than the family and me, the funeral home sent two facilitators and a local musician who played and sang the Lord’s Prayer,” he said.

Following 14 years as Associate Pastor, Joyce Harris was installed as Lead Pastor of First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kokomo, Ind., on March 8 as the first cases of COVID-19 began to sweep across the nation.

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Joyce Harris

“This season has been very overwhelming to learn new ways, and the brunt of the responsibility for assuring conditions are met are on the church, session, and pastor,” she said. “We were able to meet March 15 because the state had a limit of 250 at that time, and then on the following Tuesday, we were shut down. We were not streaming before that time; we did our first live video stream on March 29.”

The church resumed in-person worship services on May 10, with attendance and social distancing restrictions as recommended by Gov. Eric J. Holcomb’s “Back on Track Indiana” guidelines.

About 60 of the regular 175 congregants attended the May 10 service, with everyone doing their part to social distance and sanitize, Harris said.

“A large part of our congregation is over 60,” she said. “I still am trying to walk the balance of respecting the choices of when someone will return, with a lot of grace and truth. It’s hard when you know someone goes to the local store, or now gym, but is not in church. And I have to be OK with that, and yet pray. The work of discipleship needs to continue in order that others may see the work of the church is essential in their life.”

Harris said the decision to reopen has been well-received.

“I’ve not been told that we were crazy to reopen,” she said. “A longtime member and doctor who has worked in Indianapolis with infectious disease and control for over 12 years was part of our session meeting, and has been available to me throughout our decision-making process. Right after announcing, people agreed that it was a reasonable plan, which gave people choices. It’s been affirming because even as I’ve seen other churches larger than us open up after us, they have basically used similar types of things.”

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Bill Crawford

Bill Crawford, pastor of two congregations in Louisiana—First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux and First Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Houma—said services at the Houma location resumed on May 17, with 25 percent capacity per state guidelines. The two churches are about 30 miles apart.

“Twenty mostly young families and some widows attended,” Crawford noted, adding the pre-shutdown attendance was about 60 for both churches.

“The mood was somber, but it lifted as we continued,” he said. “We asked participants to wear a mask and to be seated by ushers, and installed UVC lighting in the air return.”

Crawford said feedback on the reopening has been mixed, ranging from “‘I won’t come to church until masks are given out,’ to ‘This is a government conspiracy,’ to ‘Thank you, I’m coming no matter what!’”

In Ohio, where churches were exempted from Gov. Mike DeWine’s order for non-essential businesses to close, Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon reopened May 24 after relying on live streaming its worship service for eight weeks.

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Peter Larson

Senior Pastor Peter Larson said in the county where the church is located has had 340 confirmed cases and 21 deaths—but no confirmed cases in the congregation.

For the church with a typical worship attendance of 380, the plan is to reopen in phases in order to provide a safe worship environment.

“Due to social distancing, our capacity is limited to 80 people at each service,” Larsen said. “For that reason, we have encouraged people to stay home and continue to watch the livestream unless they have an urgent need to be in the church building. On the day we re-opened we had a total of 65 people in the first service and 35 at the second.”

The overall mood of the first on-campus service was “very positive and joyful, but also kind of strange,” he said. “The pews are divided by duct tape to provide social distancing. Also, the live streaming equipment stands directly in front of the pulpit for now until we can install it permanently. Clearly, these things were awkward and distracting. Nevertheless, it was great to gather in worship and to preach to actual people instead of preaching into the cold lens of a camera.”

At Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Va., almost every member of the church has told their pastor they are eager to get back to an in-person worship services, Senior Pastor David Weber told the Lynchburg News & Advance.

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David Weber

They got their wish on May 24, as the church reopened for two services on campus: an 8:00 a.m. service requiring face coverings and an 11:00 a.m. service that didn’t require masks. The sanctuary was limited to 150 people in spaced-out seating arrangements, and a pamphlet from the church lists other measures taken—such as limited singing and removal of pew hymnals and Bibles.

“Our expectation is that we’ll see a slow start to people coming back,” Weber said. “People are kind of waiting it out and seeing how it goes and slowly re-engaging.”

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Stephen Morefield

Stephen Morefield, pastor of Christ Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Leoti, Kan., said the church returned to indoor worship on May 31 with about 80 percent of its regular attendance of 115 after conducting outdoor services the previous four weeks.

He described the return to in-person worship as “jubilant and enthusiastic,” with the congregation being understanding of special considerations that had to be taken.

“Because we haven’t had a case in the county, our challenge was getting folks to take reasonable precautions, especially to honor those in the body who were deeply concerned,” Moorefield said. “We had painted boxes for family units on the church lawn, moved an offering box, and practiced communion with pre-packaged elements handed out by gloved elders.”

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Ken Chivers

Lighthouse Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Mooresville, N.C., reopened on May 17 with an outdoor service following social distancing guidelines.

Pastor Ken Chivers said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper continues to recommend that churches don’t meet inside yet, in spite of a federal judge’s ruling that churches could worship as they chose.

“Everyone understands the situation, so they were good with them for the most part,” Chivers said. “Not everyone wore masks, but most people followed our recommendations. About 60 people—roughly 75 percent of the church’s regular attendees—were at the May 17 service.

“We were very joyful and thankful,” Chivers said. “I teared up with joy when we all started saying the Lord’s Prayer together.”

by Tim Yarbrough,
EPConnection correspondent
with additional
reporting by Rachel Mahoney, The Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance