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‘We have co-laborers to carry out the work’

To live out their Matthew 25 calling, three Indiana churches lean on and learn from one another

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Members of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana, pose with items they collected for Afghan refugees. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Three churches in southern Indiana have separate focuses to their Matthew 25 work. But through a thoughtful process of establishing a cohort to strengthen each of the three ministry efforts, the three congregations — First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, First Presbyterian Church in Columbus and Fairlawn Presbyterian Church in Columbus — have begun, in the words of the Rev. Kelley Jepsen, transitional associate pastor at FPC in Bloomington, “to think creatively, to dream more broadly and to find concrete ways to begin moving from learning into action.”

For years, members and friends of First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana, have journeyed to West Virginia to help construct homes. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church)

“Through this process we have found that the three tracks [building congregational vitality, eradicating systemic poverty and dismantling structural racism] weave in and out,” said the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Kirkpatrick, the pastor at Fairlawn Presbyterian Church. “We at Fairlawn are excited to be part of the Matthew 25 Cohort … to see where we can do ministry together.”

The Rev. Dr. Felipe Martinez, pastor of FPC in Columbus, said the original Myrtle Collaboration is a project funded by the Lilly Foundation and administered through Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. With a grant of up to $90,000, churches in the Columbus/Bloomington Cohort, part of the second phase of the collaboration, will “engage together in prayer, learning and action to live out their call to be vital congregations in their communities,” the three churches agreed.

The churches are in the third week of a five-week online Lenten Bible study that’s attracted about 45 participants weekly.

“I found that really encouraging,” Martinez said. “We found it helpful to talk about priorities in the context of other congregations rather than just our particular church.”

Once the Bible study is complete and the churches have celebrated Easter Sunday, members and friends from all three churches will meet on the following Saturday at the Pyoca Camp and Retreat Center to consider their next collaborative steps.

“Of course, the pastors are connected because we are leaders in our congregations,” Martinez said. “In these Bible studies it has been such a blessing to hear ruling elders and others who are just as passionate about these topics … It’s been a good way to get on the same page.”

A Black Lives Matter sign stands outside First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana. (Contributed photo)

Martinez said First Presbyterian Church in Columbus “has long understood itself as being connected and passionate about social justice issues. There is a legacy of service, and Matthew 25 has given us a good framework to think about and do that.”

“One thing I have felt particularly good about,” he said, “is that it has challenged us to think systemically.” A sermon series last summer “gave [worshipers] the image that we as a congregation are good and active at zooming in and interacting with individuals who are struggling. We have a meal every Friday.”

“But we also need to zoom out and look at the systems in place that make it challenging for a family,” Martinez said, adding that those who hold up a critical mirror to the system must themselves be ready for criticism. “Systems in our human society are set up so we need to be ready for the pushback. The system says, ‘The system is working just fine, and we don’t need you asking questions.’ … With these two other churches, it is good to be with them as we hear this pushback. I don’t know what our threshold for discomfort will be, but we will be taking small steps forward trying to learn how Jesus challenged those systems. He was saying, ‘I need to hang out with the people on the margins,’ and he got criticized for … upsetting the status quo.”

Martinez and Kirkpatrick have known one another since they attended McCormick Theological Seminary together. He said he also feels “supported and encouraged” by Jepsen. “We can share leadership for the retreat and for Bible study, and it’s nice that [grant] money is involved so that it’s not an excuse,” he said. “I feel a kinship with my two sisters in ministry.”

The Bloomington church’s focus is on dismantling structural racism, while the Fairlawn church has elected to work on building congregational vitality. “Part of our work in congregational vitality has been to engage in our community in mutual mission,” Kirkpatrick said. “We have formed partnerships with a local elementary school and our preschool.”

According to the Rev. Kelley Jepsen, Fairlawn Presbyterian Church has “done a lot of learning” in the past few months. (Photo courtesy of Fairlawn Presbyterian Church)

“Connecting the work of our congregation to the Mathew 25 umbrella offered us a toolkit with so many great resources, ideas and inspiration for the journey ahead,” Jepsen said. “We have done a lot of learning! … Even small ideas feel amplified when we think about what impact they might have on our communities together. It is inspiring to hear about one another’s call to live out a Matthew 25 invitation in our communities, and I have good hope that this cohort will continue to bolster and support one another’s ministry and the ministry we share in Jesus Christ.”

One of Martinez’ predecessors at FPC in Columbus was the Rev. William R. Laws, Jr., who in 1970 was elected Moderator of the 182nd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). “He was a very big presence in Columbus,” Martinez said. One example: Laws teamed with the CEO of Columbus’ largest employer, Cummins, to advocate for African Americans in Columbus to be able to obtain mortgages.

First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana, is a More Light church. (Contributed photo)

“That’s the legacy I lean into,” Martinez said. “I don’t have to fill [Laws’] shoes — that ain’t gonna happen — but look at the legacy we have to uphold together. That is enabling rather than paralyzing.”

As the congregation works on eradicating structural poverty, “I am holding them accountable for the things they say,” Martinez said. “We are a More Light church, but I feel we have not done enough with poverty … With Matthew 25, we as a church are asking the church to address poverty in a broader way. If people are houseless, it shines a light on the affordable housing problem in Columbus, which is significant.”

Members and friends of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana, speak with members of a nearby mosque. (Contributed photo)

“That’s the kind of congregation I help lead,” he said, “a congregation that asks questions and wants to do something about it.” FPC is a catalyst for helping to settle a half-dozen Afghan families in Columbus. “We have said from the get-go we will express our support for people who helped [U.S.] troops in Afghanistan,” Martinez said.

The biggest challenge so far, he said, is helping people to think systemically.

“That zooming out is our challenge, but it’s important,” he said. “It supports the growth of our faith. We try to have impact on the micro and macro levels, which is good for our faith journey.”

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