As I pulled onto Sydney Street this morning and parallel parked my car, I decided to stay seated for a moment before going in to the church. I took a breath and looked around. The green hills of Grant Park sprawled out in front of me. Joggers doing their thing, moms with strollers headed to the pool. I looked in the rear-view mirror. The hustle and bustle of Boulevard during rush hour surged behind me, sprinkled with leathery men holding signs that read of their need.
Finally, I got out of the car. I began walking toward the large brick staircase that serves as an entryway to Park Avenue Baptist Church (Park Ave), the neighborhood-church where I have been serving this summer. Before I even reached the building, Eddie, a developmentally challenged man who recently moved into the neighborhood, stopped me. He needed to use our phone. Oh, and while he was here, could I help him with his GA Food Stamps Review online? “Of course I can help!” I said.
After spending time with Eddie, I went to work on the bulletin for Sunday morning. Scripture Readers? Announcements? Sermon title? I hadn’t gotten very far when Linda walked in. Linda is probably only in her fifties, but her frail body and worn skin make her look much older. Linda is chronically homeless and is dying of AIDS. Park Ave has offered to be Linda’s payee so that she can receive her Social Security benefits and have a bit of security in the last few years of her life. Today, Linda was looking for some cash to help pay for her medicine, and bus-fare so that she could make it to her doctor’s appointment downtown. I talked with Linda, prayed with her, and tracked down the resourced she needed. When she left, I went back to the work on the bulletin.
The rest of the afternoon was a conglomeration of disparate activities. I helped prepare plates of dino-nuggets and applesauce for the Literacy Camp students that fill our halls during the month of July. I prepared a lesson on Centering Prayer for the Spiritual Practices small group I would facilitating that evening. I spent time in conversation with two college-aged camp staffers who were worn out and in need of a little TLC. And I read Amelia Bedelia with my reading buddy, an eight-year-old named Zykeria. Talk about wearing many hats.
I have learned a multitude of things about ministry during my summer at Park Ave. From how to write and preach a co-sermon, to how to create a multimedia Scriptural meditation for Sunday services, I have explored new challenges and developed new skills. But perhaps the most important thing I have learned, and simultaneously the biggest joy of my summer, has been how to wear the many hats required at a neighborhood-congregation.
Serving a neighborhood church requires a commitment not only to serve one’s parish, but also to serve one’s community with open arms and open doors. This often makes life complicated and involves additional tasks that other pastors may not frequently encounter. Sometimes, my role is that of a social worker—I have had to learn how to navigate the Georgia COMPASS website and keep a mental list of the resources around our community that are available to those who come in off the streets. Sometimes, I am a service-learning director, helping the camp staff to find resonances between their life of faith and their service work. Other times, I am a secretary, doing what must be done to keep the church going, completing the bulletin or counting the offering monies. It can be complicated to get traditional pastoral tasks accomplished, like returning emails or writing a sermon, with frequent community events and residents requiring attention.
Yet, serving at a neighborhood church also offers a diverse array of opportunities that traditional pastoral roles do not. It is a joy to pray with folks off the street and to use our resources to meet their needs. It is a welcome break from the day to sit down with a child who is learning to read, or to listen to the story of a mother who is struggling to make ends meet. This sort of community investment requires discernment and healthy boundaries, but brings life and reality into the walls of church that can so often be tainted by false happiness and pretenses. I have been inspired this summer, by a church whose doors really are open to all people. And I have grown more aware of the responsibilities this entails, and the ethical dilemmas one may encounter on this journey.
– Meg Lacy
Meg Lacy is entering her third year of Emory/Candler’s MDiv program. She is a native of Nashville, TN, and a graduate of Samford University. Meg spent a recent summer as a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Fellow at Bread for the World in Washington, DC.