A holy and wholly different experience
Atlanta church emphasizes community, creativity
July 21, 2014
Pastor Maggie Leonard likes to throw water around, especially baptismal water.
As she writes in her church newsletter, “It is no mistake when the water poured into our baptismal font gathers energy and sloshes over the sides onto the floor. God is there, right in the middle of the mess of our relationships.” Worshippers at Atlanta’s Mercy Community Church, which is nested in the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church, where Leonard serves, find the spray from the water a bit surprising, but Leonard hopes all will come to accept it as “a delicious drop of grace on our skin.”
Being at Mercy Community Church is like entering into baptism as one finds oneself immersed in a holy and wholly different experience — homeless people eat breakfast, serving each other, anxious to share about all that is being done in the community. Instead of the housed serving the homeless, one finds the homeless serving each other and the housed. Following breakfast, the participants immerse themselves in fellowship, worship and the Word.
Each of the five weekly services, occurring on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, incorporates a different creative enrichment program: writing, small group counseling sessions, drawing and painting. Also on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, worshipers prepare food and serve it on the streets. On Sundays, Mercy feasts at the Lord’s Table and, then holds a common meal.
This schedule sounds like a full plate for the two-full time pastors — Leonard and Chad Hyatt —both of whom are serving without compensation except for the few donations Leonard gets from friends and family. Hyatt and his wife derive their income from her work at a local university.
This decision came after several years of serving as a full-time staff member of a Pentecostal church. Hyatt experienced a transformative experience in Jamaica when he traveled there to do mission work with the Roman Catholic order Missionaries of the Poor. He helped monks trying to rescue a man from a stoning and then ministered to him in his dying moments. Hyatt referred to this experience as a baptism that led him and his wife to move closer to the margins of ministry.
Leonard got involved in Mercy while working as a chaplain at an Atlanta hospital. She went with a friend and couldn’t stop going. When her first call came up, she felt committed to the community and followed that call, receiving validation through the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She was ordained by the presbytery at a service at Mercy. Those who can’t afford a full-time pastor need pastoral care just as much as those who can, Leonard said.
It is an odd mix for a church to have a Presbyterian pastor working with a Pentecostal pastor who studied at a Methodist school of theology. But Hyatt and Leonard celebrate their different styles of worship just as they celebrate the diversity of Mercy, which includes members of all ages and of Anglo, African American and Latino backgrounds.
The diversity is also celebrated by music ranging from rock ‘n’ roll to quietly meditative. The singing is accompanied by guitars, an African Djembe drum, a vase with glass stick, a soup pot, coffee cups, tambourines and a gourd shaker.
While Mercy is made up of mostly people who are homeless, other members have homes of varying degrees of stability. Mercy regularly prays for those who are incarcerated or dealing with mental or physical illness. Bible studies deal honestly with the issue of addictions and other “sinful” behaviors.
Who are the members? Hyatt replied as Leonard nodded agreement, “Those who come. Traditional models of membership can exclude and we want to include.” Some who are highly engaged with Mercy are members of other churches. In this, and other respects, Mercy is unlike most churches as Kevin Bowden, who shared his gift of music during worship, said, “I have found God, love, grace and home here at Mercy.”
Also, unlike many churches, Mercy is not insular — it touches the lives of the more than 250 people it counts as its community. Part of Mercy’s ministry is keeping track of those who are serving prison sentences, thereby maintaining their connection to the community.
Three days a week, Mercy immerses itself in the city by loading grocery carts with soup, water, sandwiches and coffee and pushing them to two locations to share food on the street. At each place, they pause and bless the food that it may bless the lives of those who eat it and thereby continue the circle of baptism by which we promise to nurture God’s children with faithfulness.
Parrish Jones is an ordained minister member of St. Augustine Presbytery and teaches philosophy at St. Johns River State College and writes for PNS and other media outlets. He has recently published Presbyterians on the Frontier: A Story of Presbyterian Border Ministry 1984 to 2014. You can purchase his book and learn more about his work at www.presbyteriansonthefrontier.net.
- Agency: Presbyterian Mission Agency