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Lupe Gonzalo understands all too well the hardscrabble life of a farmworker. Having worked for 12 years in Florida’s tomato industry — in addition to traveling to other states to pick sweet potatoes, apples and blueberries — Gonzalo often had to wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to travel to a local farm, where she was handed a bucket and told to fill that bucket as many times as humanly possible during the day.
Recently, a pastor confessed, “My congregation doesn’t see me as human.” That’s not a strange comment considering the years clergy have had — having to work harder and adapting to the challenges of being the church in a pandemic that entangled many in a wired and wireless world.
“Turbulent” is how one New Jersey minister, who wished to remain anonymous, describes the past year and a half. Several of his church members with Covid sought prayers but didn’t want the congregation to know they had it. “Some thought Covid-19 was a joke or a political ploy, and there was no Covid-19 here,” he said.
Whenever they step into their pulpits to preach, the Rev. Erika Rembert Smith, pastor of Washington Shores Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida; the Rev. Dr. Alice Ridgill, previously the pastor of New Faith Presbyterian Church, the first and only African American Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, South Carolina, and now the associate general presbyter for the Presbytery of Charlotte in North Carolina; and the Rev. Amantha Barbee, formerly pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, and now the pastor of Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church in Charlotte are challenging calcified notions about women in ministry.
The sun was setting as cars pulled into the church parking lot. I walked toward the glowing embers that were being coaxed into flames in a rusty fire pit outside the church doors. It was a welcome sight on a chilly spring night.
As much as I wanted to stay close to the fire’s warmth, as more people gathered, I edged to the back of the circle that was forming. I felt awkward and shy. I was not a member of the church. I was a stranger to them as they were to me. But the biggest “stranger” of all was the worship service itself at this Episcopal church. I was a Presbyterian at a Paschal Vigil, and I had no idea what to expect.
Inside St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania, are more than 20 murals painted by Croatian immigrant Maxo Vanka in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Many of the paintings depict the immigrant experience in America. There is one of St. Francis, though, that shows Vanka’s love of animals, especially his fondness of birds. In the painting, exotic birds can be seen encircling the patron saint of animals.
The pastor glumly ordered a salad with dressing on the side. Her lunch companion wondered whether her friend would rather have had a greasy hamburger instead. The pastor’s sour mood, though, wasn’t about healthy food choices. It was about the choice her session had made to lock the doors during Sunday morning worship.
After two decades of guiding the congregation to be welcoming to its community — one that elders had noticed becoming riddled with drugs and crime — the soon-to-retire pastor felt defeated. She wondered about the message that locked doors would send.
For many years, Presbyterians Today has been the flagship publication of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Now, PMA staff are taking a “Sacred Pause” to step back, listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit and dream up what a new publication might look like. During this reimagining process, they’re looking for input from former Presbyterians Today readers and potential new readers too.
Ministry candidates talk about them. Moderators share them with session members during meetings. Pastors do sermon series on them. “They” are the Great Ends of the Church — statements crafted in the early 20th century to guide the vision and mission of the Presbyterian Church. But who can recite all six Great Ends? (Be honest.) And what do these Great Ends look like when lived out? Presbyterians Today explores how congregations embrace these guiding principles in ways that show their communities the power of love in action.
As the Rev. Brent Raska finishes up another order from customers in the states he distributes beer to, he remembers how he felt on Dec. 31, 2017. How he wept after preaching a final sermon at the small church he’d served for five years, which was down to 12 people. “I couldn’t help but think I was a failure,” he said, “even though I knew I wasn’t.”
Whether the trauma was caused by a human being or nature, what kind of faith do we need for “after the storm?”