Church feels called to life of service
By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service | Photos by Paul Seebeck
LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Edwin Gonzalez Gertz says Light of Hope Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia, didn’t hesitate to become a Matthew 25 church. It provided them the language to articulate who they are.
When he began an 8-week series of sermons on Matthew 25, church members were energized and began to see their mission purpose in new ways. They didn’t hesitate to share it with their pastor. At a recent service, for the invitation and moment of confession, they used this:
“All: God of the people, you have called us to walk humbly before You and to share in the struggle with the least of these, yet we have failed to live up to this call.
“Today, we come to You asking Your Spirit to empower us to be agents of transformation for the world. Make us a vessel from which all the oppressed can find food and the living waters of God, who calls us to live a life of service with a tender and compassionate heart. In Christ our Lord and Savior, Amen!”
One Church member wrote Gonzalez Gertz later to share his reflection. “ ‘God, who calls us to live a life of service.’ That just hit me so strongly. I went back and read the whole thing again and again. And saw all of it. That’s why I love our pastor. I’m ready to be part of a Matthew 25 church.”
“After the foundational message, we began to talk about how we are going to act, what is our posture, what is our stance,” said Gonzalez Gertz. “I take the answer from Philippians 2 to have a tender and compassionate heart as we serve others. And to consider others more valuable than ourselves. It’s difficult, but that is the stance that Jesus took when he talks about helping others.”
This congregation, which has not yet reached 100 members, believes the ways they serve their community embodies the three areas of emphasis that PMA has identified: eliminating poverty, fighting structural racism and congregation vitality.
“In church vitality, we have developed an M&M worship,” he said. (Yes, there really are M&Ms in the offering plate.) “Our worship style is meaningful, memorable, inclusive, participatory and inspiring. In dealing with racism, we dialogue, invite guests, read books and are learning to understand others rather than to seek to be understood. In dealing with poverty, we provide a 9-week academic summer camp for children. We have a cleaning supply pantry, food cards for our homeless community and advocate for senior homelessness.”
The church created a “Breakfast in a Bag” program for the low-income and immigrant neighborhoods within their community that they deliver on Saturday morning along with free books. They also created a SPIN program (service to people in need), directed by one of the elders who is a licensed clinical therapist, and two registered nurses.
“This program takes many forms and continues to expand,” said Gonzalez Gertz. “For instance, we will go to an apartment complex and see if the management feels their tenants might benefit from a class in parenting, budgeting, or how to get a job in this country. We do it in their community rooms. In addition to helping, it has brought several new families into the church.”
Gonzalez Gertz says this church is always reforming. And that began well before they became a New Worshiping Community on March 23, 2013. “The committee came together and asked themselves, “What does God want to do with us? Do we close, or is there something else we can do to be a witness in the community?”
Marietta is a suburb of Atlanta, mostly white in the beginning, but the neighborhood began to become much more multicultural. Three congregations were looking at closing, but before they made the decision, they appointed a combined visioning team with representatives from each church. They came together to develop a brand-new church that is multicultural, with an emphasis on not only serving their community but exploring how church will work for the next generation.
Today, Light of Hope has changed with the community. The neighborhood is now 40 percent white and 60 percent African, African American and Hispanic. “But we are more than racially diverse,” said Gonzalez Gertz. “We are economically and generationally diverse, and we are welcoming to people who are multicultural in their abilities, as well.”
The sanctuary has a concrete, acid-washed floor with a platform in the middle lined with chairs and tables in the back. No pews. The focus is a large, wooden cross at the side of the room, but the pastor conducts his services from the middle of the room.
When Gonzalez Gertz arrived at the church, the plan was to offer both a traditional and a contemporary service. “Personally, I have moved beyond those categories in my previous congregation experimenting with a blended service where we do it all — and now we do,” he said.
The church also makes a conscious effort to be welcoming and accepting to people who may suffer from disabilities. For instance, people who suffer from anxiety can sit at a table in the back that is filled with word games, puzzles and toys to make them feel more comfortable.
He has seen a difference.
“There is a lady who attends with her daughter, who has developmental disabilities and is very introverted. They would sit at a table in the back, but that did not stop church members from going to the table and welcoming them each Sunday. The mother told me that in every other church, her daughter was ignored. Just this last week at the community meal, the daughter, on her own, chose to get her own plate and sit down at one of the community tables. She feels very safe here. During the passing of the peace, last Sunday she got up and was greeting people on her own.”
Gonzalez Gertz said the enthusiasm for mission beyond the church walls continues to grow. Is he concerned about burnout? “My only problem is getting them to slow down.”
Light of Hope Presbyterian is located at 1507 Hurt Road S.W. in Marietta. Everyone is welcome.
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