Month: June 2016

June 17, 2016

Youth Mission 2016 farm5Today we got to be in God’s garden and see God’s miracle workers.

I saw God through the earth while digging the potatoes for those who need at a community food bank.  It was fresh and nourishing food for people eat.

Youth Mission 2016 farmingI saw God as I learned about Medshare through the kind world healers as we sorted and packaged medical equipment.  It was wonderful to know that this  medical equipment was saving people’s lives throughout the world with all the perfectly good equipment that was being thrown away in the United States.

God’s magic had been so many places throughout this week that I can’t count. God is the light through which us youth have seen and experienced through remarkable healing, love, and transformation.

– Addie

angel memeI am shocked. And I am tired.

Early in the morning five days ago, 50 people lost their lives in a mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Early in the evening 365 days ago, nine people lost their lives in a mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

When he reflected on this latest tragedy, late-night host Stephen Colbert said, “It’s as if there’s a national script that we have learned, and I think that by accepting the script we tacitly accept that the script will end the same way every time with nothing changing, except for the loved ones and families of the victims, for whom nothing will ever be the same.”

The fact that a tragedy like this has become normal is what shocks me.

Our collective response in the wake of the Orlando shooting has been predictable–scripted, even. There are calls for restrictions on assault weapons and protestations from those who assert that the problem is not guns but the people who wield them; there is an awareness that unchecked homophobia (in the case of Orlando), or unchecked racism (in the cast of Charleston) has real and devastating consequences; there are those (many of them professing Christians, by the way) who say that the ones who died “reaped what they had sown;” and there are moments of silence and calls to action that are soon subsumed by us getting back to life as normal.

As someone who stakes my life on God’s promise–which makes me ultimately hopeful about the future–I must confess that I struggle to make sense of things like Orlando and Charleston. I am certain they are not God’s will. To suggest otherwise is, I believe, inflicting spiritual abuse. Tragedies like Orlando are not challenges that God gives us to make us stronger. They are an affront to what makes us human. This kind of senseless killing is precisely the opposite of God’s will.

Yes, I am tired.  I am not only tired of the news of another tragedy, I am tired of pretending that these tragedies are unrelated to issues that become so hotly politicized in the tragedy’s wake. Of course access to guns–especially assault weapons–is relevant to the conversation. Of course homophobia is connected to Omar Mateen’s rage. Of course terrorism and a perverted, radicalized version of Islam played a factor. To pretend otherwise–and not take action to address the problems with guns, hate, and terror–will only continue a pattern of tragedies that have made their way into the American lexicon: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, Charleston, Orlando…

I do not have words to explain nor, in this moment, comfort. In my struggle to understand, my thoughts wander, inevitably, to what it must have felt like inside that nightclub early last Sunday morning with music playing and gunshots ringing. In those fear-soaked moments, beyond the club music and the sound of terror, I pray the victims heard another song–perhaps one that they learned as children growing up in church:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.

I suspect some of the victims from last Sunday night knew that they were loved by God. I also suspect some of them didn’t, perhaps because they shunned faith, but more, I would venture, because they had been rejected by the church because of their sexuality.

We cannot save those whose lives were cut short last Sunday morning. And there is no elegant solution to protect us from events like Orlando happening again. But we can commit ourselves to communicating to everyone we meet–gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, American, or Afghani– that they are precious, made in the image of God, and loved by the one who created them.

That may sound weak when confronted by the reality of such hatred. The gospel has often been accused of being weak. “But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18)

– Pen Peery

June 15, 2016

Youth Mission 2016 homeless centerToday we went to Urban Recipe* and Gateway**.  Both of these experiences moved me.

At Urban Recipe I saw Christ when everybody was working together to get food for them, their families and other families. There were no problems and everybody respected everyone else.

At Gateway, I saw Christ in a woman’s story. She had worked there for three years and she was homeless for four weeks when she ran away from her father after he called her names from the pulpit in church. This was one of the worst things to be in their church. I respected because she was trying to help people who might be in the same position as she was in her childhood.

Then it rained and we had to run back to the church.

After today I feel like I understand that there is a story behind every person that shaped who they are and where they live.

– Ross

* Urban Recipe’s food co-ops for low income families provide a unique alternative to many traditional food-centered ministries. Under our model, each family we serve becomes a member of a 50 family food co-op that meets every other week and is convened completely by the members themselves. Because of the consistency and sense of ownership the model offers, our co-ops not only provide food security for those in need, but are a place where relationships are formed, dignity is affirmed and community is strengthened.”

** The Gateway Center is designed to serve as the “gateway” to the community continuum of care that helps individuals move out of homelessness. GWC provides over 330 places for men who enter into programs geared to address the underlying reasons for their homelessness, such as unemployment, addictions, mental illness or domestic abuse.”

June 14, 2016

Atlanta mission trip 2016 1Day 2 of Middle School Mission Trip to Atlanta With eyes wide open: I saw God in Martin Luther King Jr’s life and everything he stood for.

Martin Luther King Jr wanted freedom and respect for ALL people.  I saw God in the people that we served breakfast to. God uses every person and loves every person the same.

June 13, 2016

Sunday we traveled from Charlotte to Atlanta for the middle school youth mission trip.

Once we got to Atlanta, we got all of our luggage and put it inside the church that we were going to stay in, which is in downtown Atlanta. We had a brief meeting on what we were going to be doing this week. Then, we divided into two teams:  h2O team and sandwich team. We went out to give all of our friends who were homeless a sandwich, water, and an orange.

It was eye-opening to see how many people were in need. We had dinner, got all ready for bed, had a devotion and prayer and headed to bed, ready for the adventure that lies ahead of us.

– Elliott

June 9, 2016

welcome matWhat do most folks do these days when they visit New York City? Try to get their hands on tickets to the musical Hamilton.

What does a group from First Pres do? Go to church, of course. Specifically Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Last week, as a part of our strategic planning process, Kathryn Justis, Ward Davis and I met with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian’s Senior Pastor, Dr. Scott Black Johnston. Kathryn and Ward are co-chairs of the “Balcony Group” (the group of members who are guiding this process of taking a big-picture look into our future as an urban church). If you missed the story about this initiative in last week’s FirstNews, you can read it online.

Fifth Avenue was the first stop on a journey to five different large, growing, vibrant, and urban churches where we will ask questions of their leadership around mission and vision to understand what strategic choices they made to proclaim Christ in the middle of the city.

Home for the Roosevelts and a host of other dignitaries, Fifth Avenue is a grand church with a grand history: excellence in worship and preaching, innovative education (the idea of Sunday School, or “Sabbath School,” originated from a member of the church, Joanna Bethune, in 1816), and advocacy for the homeless. We learned a lot and gleaned a number of good ideas around our questions, yet what struck me in our visit was the importance the church placed on being invitational.

Being an invitational church was the first plank on Fifth Avenue Presbyterian’s strategic plan.

Fifth Avenue differentiates “welcome” from “invitation.” Being a welcoming church is wonderful – but it is also passive. Being welcoming doesn’t call for the congregation to move beyond the walls of the church to reach the city around them.

Being an invitational church calls for members of the church to engage: at work, at school, at the little league field in the stands.

There are lots of reasons why Fifth Avenue is a church of 2,500 members – with growing numbers and diversity and budgets and vision. Clearly, the Holy Spirit is at work.  But one particular reason why Fifth Avenue is so vibrant is that they take seriously their mission to tell the people in their neighborhood the good news of the gospel. They don’t wait for people to come in the doors and figure it out…they invite them to come in!

– Pen Peery

June 8, 2016
Chuck Williamson

Last Sunday Dr. Rodney Sadler made me squirm. I don’t like being made to squirm or feel uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what he did.

Speaking to a group of members from First Presbyterian and First United Presbyterian churches, Dr. Rodney Sadler described how the church has actually contributed to the perpetuation of racism.

This is the seventh year that Christian brothers and sisters from our two churches have engaged in joint conversations. Over the years we’ve discussed Bible passages, social issues, and a variety of subjects. But it has taken us seven years to name the elephant in the room: racism. This year’s theme, United by Faith, Divided by Race, faces it head on. While we share a common belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we have allowed racial differences to create and maintain divisions among us.

Dr. Sadler began by looking at various Bible passages that have been used in times past—even by prominent theologians and seminary presidents and Presbyterian pastors—to justify racial division. That’s when I started squirming, not because I think he’s wrong, but because I know he’s right.

There was more squirming to come. Next Dr. Sadler went to one of my core beliefs: salvation by grace. He said that this cornerstone doctrine of our Presbyterian tradition has often given people—especially people in positions of privilege and power—permission to protect the status quo and do nothing. Dr. Sadler asked us to listen to the words of Jesus. Jesus told the rich young ruler “sell all you have and give to the poor” (Luke 18:22). In Matthew 25, after telling his followers to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick, visit those in prison, Jesus says, “Whenever you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.” Jesus pushes his followers to let their faith be not only than words, but also actions.

Rev. Tony Campolo has formed an organization called “Red Letter Christians.” Perhaps the Bible you have on your nightstand has the words of Jesus written in red letters. Tony Campolo calls us to focus especially on those red-letter words of Christ. And when we do that, we hear Jesus calling us to action—to care for the poor, to reach out to those who are not like us, to move outside our comfort zones. Yes, to squirm.

Maybe squirming a little bit is what it’s going to take for us to start tearing down the walls of division that separate us and build a community that is truly united in faith.

– Chuck Williamson


(The final session of United by Faith, Divided by Race, will be on Sunday, June at 12:15 p.m. at First United Presbyterian Church, 201 E. Seventh Street, when Dr. Sadler speaks on Dream the Impossible Dream. Details here.)

June 1, 2016

pen_newIn May, I attended the first two sessions in a learning series, “United by Faith, Divided by Race,” hosted by First Presbyterian Church and one of our neighbor churches, First United Presbyterian Church, a historically African-American congregation.

I’ve been the pastor of First Presbyterian for about four years and knew my congregation has shared history with First United Presbyterian. The predecessor congregation to First United dates back to 1866 – a date that is not lost on someone who was born in the South and has relatives who served in the Confederate Army.

In May, however, I was confronted by the details that I had previously not known of the relationship between First Presbyterian and First United Presbyterian.

For years, leading up to 1866, African-Americans worshipped at First Presbyterian. Many of those African-Americans were slaves; some were free. They were baptized at our baptismal font. They attended Sunday school classes – which was against the mandate of the Presbyterian Church at the time, because those classes about the Bible also served to teach literacy to African-American children who had little other access to education. But they were always “they.”  African-Americans were not allowed to sit in the main floor of the sanctuary. They were not allowed to be officers of the church.

Eventually, the African-American group within First Presbyterian’s congregation developed a worshipping community who were told they could meet – not on Sunday – but on Monday. And they could meet not in the sanctuary, but in the basement.

Sometime during the Civil War, the Session of First Presbyterian Church voted to expel this worshipping community from the premises. After this vote, a few leaders in the African-American community met with the pastor of First Presbyterian to help them charter three new congregations: the Colored Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn Presbyterian Church, and Seventh Street Presbyterian Church. In the middle of the last century, this constellation of churches became First United Presbyterian Church.

History is a funny thing. It’s rich. It’s complicated. It’s messy. And sometimes there are parts of it that we wish we could forget. When I heard about this part of my church’s history it made me queasy. I wish that the Session of First Presbyterian Church hadn’t taken that vote, a vote that clearly violates the commandment Jesus gave us: “to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.” But I also know that that Session was a product of its time. In the mid-1800s a number of both Elders and Ministers at First Presbyterian Church owned slaves.

As a person with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in my family tree, I wonder how I would have voted if I were around that table at the Session meeting?

Being confronted by a history in which you did not participate doesn’t change the fact that history shapes the reality of the world in which you do participate. That’s the place where I so often get stuck. So in our class, it was helpful when our teacher, Dr. Julia Robinson – a history professor at UNCC and an ordained minister – encouraged us with these words: “when you know this kind of history, it is easy to allow yourself to get swallowed up in either guilt (if you are white) or anger (if you are black). Instead, as people of faith, these are the moments when we need to turn to Jesus.”


I want Jesus to walk with me…with us, actually…as First Presbyterian and First United Presbyterian continue to grapple with what our shared history means for our shared future.

– Pen Peery

(The final two sessions of “United by Faith, Divided by Race,” will be on Sundays, June 5 and 12, at 12:15 p.m. Details here.)