Thanks to Matthew 25, Light of Hope congregation in Marietta becomes a people of action
by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Edwin Gonzalez-Gertz at Light of Hope Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia, says the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation has given the congregation language to articulate what they’ve been doing for a while — out of necessity.
Before it became Light of Hope, three older, white congregations were in decline. Realizing they needed to make a radical change, all three churches in Cherokee Presbytery closed. Dissolving their congregations, they started something new together, a worshiping community — and now PC(USA) chartered congregation — that is 50 percent people of color and 50 percent white.
Matthew 25 invites congregations work on at least one of these three priorities: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty. Gonzalez-Gertz said Light of Hope is primarily focused congregational vitality, which Gonzalez-Gertz describes as, “the embodiment of love — faith in action.”
But when people from the community, which is 60 percent people of color, started coming to Light of Hope, their focus was on race, because there wasn’t much acceptance of each other. Gonzalez-Gertz said many of the older members in the new faith community were embarrassed to have a Hispanic pastor. A native of Puerto Rico, he was told on several occasions that he was not invited to funerals of those who had passed, even though they were members of the congregation.
So, Gonzalez-Gertz began to talk about racism. If he perceived there was a struggle in the church related to him being Hispanic, it became part of the conversation on Light of Hope’s leadership team. It was there that he discovered the practice of white silence — that many white people will not speak when they see injustice being done to somebody who doesn’t look like them.
“I experienced it here walking through our campus,” he said. “I asked one of the wonderful matriarchs here, ‘What is that?” After she told him, they had a conversation. The woman said growing up that they were taught not say anything, as a way of being polite. When Gonzalez-Gertz asked her, “Polite to whom?” he said it was as if a whole new insight came to her, and something fell off her eyes. “Oh my gosh,” she said.
In addition to having these kind of conversations, Gonzalez-Gertz brought in resources of understanding to help build cross-cultural, multi-cultural, and intercultural relationships. And he kept telling Light of Hope that the minute they became a multi-ethnic congregation, everyone lost the right not to find out about each other’s lives.
“Why is my Black sister worried about Black Lives Matter? Why are Hispanics afraid to go into public now?” he said.
Pam Jones was a member of the Pastor Nominating Committee that called Gonzalez-Gertz to serve the new congregation in 2013. She said Light of Hope made her realize a lot of things about herself that she didn’t know existed.
“Racism?” she said. “I’m not racist.”
But as leaders of the congregation continued to meet and talk through difficulties — and as Light of Hope grew into a multi-ethnic congregation — Jones realized she couldn’t say that anymore.
“Things I had absorbed, you know just absorbed, were racist,” she said. “It’s amazing to me, about me, the difference that has made in my attitude towards a lot of things.”
Over time, Shirley Hamilton, who is a ruling elder at Light of Hope, said the church has become one of a few churches — if not the only one she’s attended — that doesn’t care whether a person is Black, white, or brown.
“It doesn’t matter whether you have money of don’t have money,” she said. “It treats everyone the same.”
Last year, Light of Hope started hosting a monthly meal for its community. At first there was no preaching or singing — just praying for the food. When leaders decided to transform it into a dinner service, Gonzalez-Gertz said the people loved it. Diverse racially and economically — able-bodied and those experiencing disability — attendees were all were eating, singing and having communion together.
“What vibrancy, what vitality is that, but the body of Christ in action,” he said. “Congregational vitality and Matthew 25 moves people to action. It is no longer what we believe, but this is who we are. This is what we do.”
For resources addressing congregational vitality, visit pcusa.org/Matthew25.
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