For the past four months, Olivia Thomas has been seeking God’s call for her life. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native focused on urban studies and studio art at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, but upon graduation, she wasn’t sure where God was leading her.
Growing up Methodist, Thomas, like many college students, stepped away from church for a few years but then connected with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“I was feeling distance from my church, but much to my surprise, a Presbyterian community in Memphis sought me out and pulled me in,” she said. “That is where my fire was fueled in pursuing social justice, racial equity and finding ways to do those things through art and storytelling.”
Last summer, Thomas and Melva Lowry, a Columbia Theological Seminary graduate, were selected for the first yearlong fellowships with Hands and Feet, an initiative launched by the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA). Hands and Feet seeks to strengthen the church’s mission efforts by encouraging partnerships and mission involvement in cities hosting the General Assembly.
Since August, Thomas and Lowry have been working with The Center, a mission outreach of the Presbytery of Baltimore, which is hosting the 224th General Assembly (2020).
“When I heard about the Hands and Feet fellowship, it sounded like it was designed for me. It was the culmination of all my divergent interests in one singular position,” Thomas said. “It included art, storytelling and being in a city context and pursuing justice through church.”
Thomas says she’s spent the past few months getting her feet on the ground, getting to know Baltimore and its citizens.
“We are meeting folks, having coffee, learning about the center. That’s one of the most exciting parts of this, meeting people — the stakeholders in the communities,” she said. “A lot of coffee meetings, one-on-one times, I love that. It’s special that a large portion of my job is getting to know people.”
Thomas says she’s witnessed the homelessness and food insecurity issues of residents in the city.
“There are different estimates on the number of vacant homes in the city, some as low as 6,000 or as high as 15,000,” she said. “It’s inescapable driving down the street and 80 percent of the homes don’t have anyone in them. I see poverty most directly in the vacancies.”
Part of Thomas’ and Lowry’s job involves hosting church groups and other groups that visit The Center.
“One of the adult groups was a mission committee, and they found our conversation around the topic of reaching out to their neighbors very compelling. The youth found curriculum, focusing on what mission in the 21st century is, really challenging and compelling,” said Thomas. “Each group has a different experience and it keeps us on our toes. You can’t teach the same way or always respond in the same way because the group that comes in is unique with its own background and story.”
Thomas encourages other churches to bring groups to Baltimore, so they can learn more about their own communities.
“Visit us, meet the incredible people that live and work here and work the garden with me,” she said. “What I hope they gain is some skills around how to talk to people and discover where God is already at work and use that set of skills to cross boundaries and form relationships.”
Thomas says community organizing bolsters her hope in what the church and Christianity can be. “God is at work in special ways here and I know God is working in special ways in other cities. There are special things in Baltimore and everywhere, it’s just a matter of having the courage to poke our heads out and see what’s going on.”
Hands and Feet is an initiative that highlights and strengthens local and national efforts by the PC(USA) to facilitate change and communicate God’s love. It’s funded by Per Capita dollars and individual gifts. Click here to receive an e-newsletter. More information is available at handsandfeet.pcusa.org.