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A PC(USA) congregation in Iowa communicates the gospel in word and deed

St. Andrew Presbyterian Church’s director of communications and media ministries explains how it’s done

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

IOWA CITY, Iowa — When Jesus began reading from a scroll in the synagogue, Luke’s gospel records that his text came from the book of Isaiah. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,” Jesus says, quoting Isaiah.

That’s also the work of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, Iowa, says Jeff Charis-Carlson, the church’s director of communications and media ministries, who sat for an interview last week to discuss the Matthew 25 ministry St. Andrew has been doing.

While Jesus calls us to visit those who are incarcerated, we’re also called to minister to those who are captive in other ways, including mental illness, according to Charis-Carlson. “You can’t look at someone and know what’s going on internally,” he said. “We have focused on helping people be part of this community, recognizing they have an important role to play in the body of Christ.” Those who “look at the world differently and experience the world differently than the majority of members of the congregation have a special role and things to teach us.”

“I think a lot of mental health issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said. “It spotlighted a lot of what people were already struggling with — and if not made it worse, at least let us see how we need to reach out, and, more importantly, how we need to ask for help.”

That led church leaders to focus on mental health issues for 2023. “Not to say we have the cure or the answer for things,” he said, “but just to say we can be with you while you are there, and we will come alongside you and we want to learn how you’re coping. We want to share some ideas of what we’ve learned to be able to do that.”

That approach has been employed at St. Andrew for children all the way to older adults, through mindfulness and tai chi classes and other offerings. “We want to share some ideas of what we’ve learned to be able to do that,” he said.

A welcome that helps cement relationships

Blessed with a large campus with room to grow, St. Andrew has “tried to figure out a way to invite people to use our space,” he said, “to be open and welcoming to outside groups and to be something more than a community center but still a center of community for our broader neighborhood.” That’s resulted in the formation of new relationships and “allowed us to deepen the long-term partnerships we’ve had … I can’t imagine our strength as a congregation without partnering with other people.”

St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, Iowa, is a Matthew 25 church addressing issues such as mental health, particularly in youth, and using its new property to benefit its neighborhood. (Photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

Members and friends “are often involved with multiple ministries around the community,” he said. They’re known for their “empathetic ears and generous pockets,” he said. But that’s little help “unless we are working and have strong relationships with other people in the community to be able to reach the people who need that help at the moment,” such as the tornado that struck neighboring Coralville earlier this spring.

Charis-Carlson, a longtime and respected Iowa City journalist before coming to his present position just before the pandemic, traces his own faith journey back to his parents, who were Salvation Army officers. “It’s a very different tradition, but it’s one that really took seriously the call of Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, house people who need housing, to be a sympathetic ear and to be active in the frontlines. And so that has always been in my DNA.”

“When I moved to Iowa City, I started attending St. Andrew, the church that my wife grew up in. I was a slow convert to Presbyterianism and what the church had to offer, but I also found a really welcoming community, and I found a community that helped me grow in new ways and view … my relationship with God differently.”

A little more than three years ago, Charis-Carlson, who’s also moderator of the Presbytery of East Iowa, accepted his current role on the St. Andrew staff. “I was already spending enough time in church and volunteering enough time that it wasn’t that hard of a transition to make,” he said. Having this as his day job has allowed him “to help other people have a similar experience and learn to appreciate what this church can offer the way I experienced it.”

While Matthew 25 is rich with memorable imagery, it’s the sheep and the goats “that bring it into focus. It’s the one we quote, in terms of what we are called to do,” he said. It’s not so much that we fear the punishment — but “we’re fearful of the disappointment to have come to the end of our lives and find that we didn’t do enough.”

“I have to have faith that what God is calling us to do is reach out in intentional connection with other people and be able to respond,” he said, adding, “it’s more fun to do it with other people who are like-minded and understand that there is a benefit to be had in not tooting your own horn.”

“I’d rather pool our resources and hear what other people are doing and be able to talk with them about ways to do that,” he said. “I think this is a good way to start.”

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