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Presbyterian Mission Agency staff make good neighbors

APCE marketplace booth interprets Matthew 25 for an ecumenical audience

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

APCE annual event goers found friendly faces like that of the Rev. Carlton Johnson impossible to ignore. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The ministry areas of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and offices of the PC(USA) practiced being good neighbors in the marketplace at this week’s Association of Partners in Christian Education event. APCE’s Marketplace, which features a bookstore and informational resources from various denominations, seminaries, and church-adjacent non-profits, is a major attraction at the annual event.

This year, the Office of Theology, Formation and Evangelism worked to create a booth envisioned as a neighborhood celebrating the message of cooperation, connection and care by the beloved Presbyterian minister, television host Fred Rogers. According to the Presbyterian Planning Calendar, this year, Mister Rogers Day, which focuses on knowing and serving our neighbors, falls on March 20. The offices of Christian Formation and the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program have posted resources to help churches honor the legacy of Mister Rogers, the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and a Presbyterian pastor.

“This was a group process,” said Stephanie Fritz, director of the Office of Christian Formation, who described how her colleagues representing Vital Congregations, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Theology and Worship, the Young Adult Volunteer program, World Mission and Compassion, Peace & Justice came together to envision a way to communicate the many ways to answer the simple question, “Who is your neighbor?” They brainstormed how to display the many resources that the PMA has developed over the years to connect and serve their neighbors near and far. “APCE is an ecumenical event,” said Miatta Wilson, mission associate for Christian Formation. “We wanted a way to translate our Matthew 25 priorities regarding congregational vitality, dismantling racism and eliminating poverty.”

Popular activities at the APCE Marketplace included this coloring table. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

The team was able to reserve prime real estate in the first corner lot of the exhibit hall, which the team set up in a triangular shape marked by park benches, a coloring station and a border of display tables. Each section was designated by a banner with different themes: “In your backyard,” “In your faith communities,” “In your neighborhood” and “In the world.” At the entrance, a team of three Mission Engagement and Support staff greeted passersby. Lauren Rogers, a ministry engagement advisor, explained MES’s special role in hospitality at the booth and within the PC(USA). “We are here to make connections for folks: What is Matthew 25? How can they connect with missions around the world or in their neighborhood?”

Fritz pointed out that PMA’s ministry areas like Compassion, Peace and Justice, which houses programs including the Presbyterian Hunger Program, has resources that serve neighbors in one’s backyard, community and world. Christian Formation materials fit in the congregation but also the neighborhood, and she demonstrated the benefits to using a disability and inclusion tool kit and a resource for interracial church partnerships when engaging the areas surrounding a church.

Stephanie Caudill from World Mission explained how their various mission tool kits for short-term mission planning or mission committees assessing old and new initiatives were the most popular items picked up at APCE. Both offered ways congregations could partner abroad and locally in mission. “Our Muslim-Christian relations tool kit was gone in two days,” said Caudill, adding   that all resources are available for download on the PMA website.

Destini Hodges, left, and Stephanie Caudill take a moment away from welcoming visitors to their corner of the APCE Marketplace. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Young Adult Volunteer Coordinator Destini Hodges said the YAV program spreads between neighborhood and world. This year, the program has seven national sites and five international sites. In 2021, a move to offer virtual sites allowing people to serve where they were during the Covid pandemic saw an increase in participation in both male young adults and people of color. She pointed out the trendsetting nature of YAVs. “We’ve been around 35+ years doing congregational vitality, dismantling racism and eliminating poverty before Matthew 25 was a thing,” Hodges said. During the APCE conference, visitors stopped by to pick up collectible YAV lip balm, which changes in color and flavor each year. “One woman showed me her collection,” Hodges said. “YAV [lip balm] is the equivalent of Disney World’s collectible pens.”

The Rev. Michael Gehrling of 1001 New Worshiping Communities was among Presbyterian Mission Agency staff offering “Neighborhood” tours. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Before the end of the second evening, all the booklights and first aid kits from the Office of Vital Congregations were “gobbled up,” according to the Rev. Carlton Johnson, Vital Congregations coordinator, who pointed out that it’s the surrounding community that determines whether one’s ministry and offerings are vital. “A church’s vitality is integral and defined by the community,” he said.

Johnson, who’s also associate director of TFE, shared the good news of the weekend’s practice of being good neighbors, which he pointed out expanded past the corner lot and its Mister Rogers-themed banners across the aisle to the adjacent booths of the Office of the General Assembly and Presbyterian Youth Triennium as well. “It’s a foretaste for our working together. When folks contact our ‘main office,’ they don’t think of us in all the different ways we are doing work as separate areas in our ‘main office’ in Louisville. They just want support for the ways God is doing work with them where they are,” Johnson said. “They say, ‘call Louisville.’ We should care how do we work together to get them what they need to serve their communities.”

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