My heart sank on December 29, while celebrating the holidays with family, when I received an email from the principal of Westerly Hills Academy with the subject line “one of our own.”
She was referring to a student who had been killed in a hit and run accident.
I had seen the story on the news a couple of nights before. I searched for the accident online. It wasn’t hard to find the details. Amari, 11 years old, was riding his bike at 5:40 p.m., when he was struck by a vehicle. The car didn’t even slow down at first, then took off, leaving the child on the street. As the driver fled the scene, Amari’s bicycle was dragged under the car onto Interstate 85. The details left me horrified.
I didn’t know Amari. He wasn’t a scholar in our BellXcel summer program. He wasn’t one of the students we tutored or sent to camp. But I did recognize him. His face was one I had seen over and over again at Westerly Hills. I have learned more about Amari since he was killed.
I learned he lived in a hotel with his mother and younger sister, who has special needs. I learned his nickname was Tank and he loved video games and was very protective of his sister. I learned that he helped her get ready for school each morning.
Amari wasn’t just a “juvenile killed in a hit-and-run accident” as the news stated. Amari was a fun-loving, protective, caring child of God.
I have thought a lot about Amari’s mom and sister since the accident. With the day-to-day challenges they face, how do they begin to deal with this tragedy? Father Gregory Boyle, who will be with us on March 15 as our 2020 Willard Lecturer, says we are to seek compassion that “can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry.” I wonder if I would have the strength to endure that many hard things. I know I couldn’t do it alone.
As we learned in the documentary Resilience this fall, the harmful effects of trauma can be offset by community and support. Westerly Hills Academy has surrounded mom and sister with a great deal of support, including connecting them with housing and counseling resources. We have supported the family with food and clothing, and we are collecting donations to provide bus passes for Amari’s family to go to counseling regularly, as they do not have transportation. (To contribute, send a check to the church with “bus passes” in the memo line or donate online in the Tickets & Signups section of the Now@First page on the church website. Look for Bus Passes for Amari’s Family.
As a church, we are called to share love, light and hope to the world. As Christians, we are asked to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). My hope is that Amari’s family is able to feel our love and our prayers, and that we can shine a little light into this dark time for them.
– Heather Herring, Child & Family Partnership Coordinator
As we approach Global Mission Sunday on January 12, this week’s blog takes a look back at the 2016 mission trip to visit our partners at Hope Baptist Church in Ryazan. Below are excerpts take from blog posts written during and after that trip, as well as links to their full blog posts if you want to read more.
You can also enjoy a photo from 2016 when construction on their building was just beginning and compare it to a current photo—the progress has been remarkable! Seeing all that they’ve accomplished may inspire you to contact Mary Elizabeth Coley about joining the group going to Russia this summer.
Katelyn Gordon: Our intrepid group . . . arrived safely to Moscow on Saturday afternoon and discovered that our bags hadn’t made the trip quite as smoothly as we did.
After meeting up with Ellen Smith, our PC(USA) missionary partner, at the airport, we took a train from Moscow to Ryazan and got our first glimpses of the Russian countryside.It was beautiful, and seeing Pavel and Olga waiting for us on the train platform in Ryazan was the best welcome!
. . . After we checked into the hotel, Pavel and Olga drove us to Hope Baptist for dinner. When I walked in the dining room of the church and saw the table set for us with dishes of pasta, chicken, rice, fresh vegetables, and bread, I couldn’t help but cry . . . it was humbling, grace-filled, and delicious.
The hospitality of our Russian sisters and brothers has been incredible. They’ve welcomed us in their worship, fed us homemade meals, prayed for us, and literally give us their clothes to wear while we are waiting (hoping! praying!) to hear something about our luggage . . . God’s steadfast care comes to us in all kinds of forms—a late-night dinner with new friends . . . a bag of clean clothes offered from those same new friends, a patient teacher helping us learn to sing “Happy Birthday in Russian so we could celebrate our dinner hostess, and the embodied reminder that we are all one in Christ. Slava Bogu! Praise God!
Rich Neidinger: We have been traveling around the state seeing town churches that cooperate together with Hope Baptist. So far, we have visited 4, all with different interesting and moving stories. We also saw a newly purchased camp and retreat site on beautiful land with a pond, wildflowers and a forest edge . . . The churches do struggle with discrimination, so that they need their own land and building to do much ministry. One home church, dating from the days of true persecution, just constructed a good-size two-story building from ground to roof all done by Christian brothers from around the state in one season!
. . . One older woman sums up the attitudes, saying, “We trust the Lord; in the face of evil, we respond with good.”
Mary Elizabeth Coley: Since our partnership with Hope Baptist began in 2003, we have seen improvements and additions to the worship space. The kitchen and office have been in multiple locations in the building, each one better than the last, and the sanctuary has been expanded. With the support of First Presbyterian, Hope Baptist purchased their worship space and gained greater stability.
. . . Baptists are viewed as a dangerous cult in Russia, and having a space that looks like a church lends the congregation greater legitimacy and the ability to design their space to accommodate their growing programs. They have also struggled with current neighbors who are suspicious and harass the congregation.
We have been privileged to witness the next exciting stage of their church life. Hope Baptist had purchased land and drawn up plans for a three-story building. The basement will house the kitchen and a fellowship space for conferences, wedding receptions, and other celebrations. The ground floor is reserved for the sanctuary, and the Sunday school spaces and offices will be on the second floor.
First Presbyterian has supported this project financially and will continue to send funds through the Global Mission committee… This morning, we got to tour the foundation. It is so easy to look at the foundation and imagine the completed building, full of life and joy and grace. There are 160 members and children. It is undoubtedly a group that will fill the sanctuary with singing, prayer, and community.
Our trip to Russia has been filled with many, many blessings, but seeing the future home of Hope Baptist is one of the highlights. Scripture tells us that space to worship God and celebrate baptisms, marriages, and deaths is important. It is a joy to be part of Hope Baptist’s journey to build their new home.
Barb Neidinger: Our last two days have been full and our hosts extremely gracious. On Wednesday, they showed us a bit of the Ryazan area, with a tour of a 19th century poet’s village and a picnic on the bluffs of the Oka River. Later, Tamara, one of the leaders in the church, invited us to dine in her garden, under the cherry trees. Two meals outside in idyllic settings!
On Thursday, we traveled to Ryaszhk to visit our fifth small rural Baptist church. The missionary, Sasha, with his wife and four children greeted us and we all shared our motivations and goals in mission. We drank Russian tea and ate sweets (a common practice each day, whether standalone or after dinner). Tonight we participated in the women’s fellowship at Hope Baptist, hearing a message about how parents and grandparents can teach their children about God and Jesus. The Russian Christians we have met have been so welcoming to us, but we can see that they lead difficult lives. Neighbors avoid them (Sasha said none of his neighbors spoke to him for three years, until one of them finally did); they are viewed with suspicion; and in some towns the authorities can put obstacles in their way, or shut down their plans. We must pray for them, as they do for us.
Final reflections from Katelyn: . . . For me, the trip to Russia was a practice of not being in control. Complications and hiccups in our travel became the norm: Our luggage was lost, the daily schedules and meals were set and made by other people, and the Russian-English language barrier required a translator for most conversations. (The entirety of my Russian vocabulary now includes ten words, one of which is the very helpful and useful Russian word for “napkin.”)
As foreign as all of that felt, it reminded me that I’m not meant to be in control. God is the Creator, and I’m the creature; Jesus is the teacher, and I’m the disciple; the Spirit moves as she will, and I am to pay attention.
Our Russian sisters and brothers at Hope Baptist understand this ordering of the world differently—maybe even better—than we do. They live in a community that doesn’t welcome or understand them and doesn’t really want to either . . . They share stories of their lives—stories of sick children and uncertain finances, stories of alcoholic relatives and lost jobs, stories of new homes and new church members . . . What our Russian friends seem to trust more readily than I often do is the truth that life is uncertain but God is not.
We spent the last few days of our time in Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg . . . It was eye-opening (and frustrating) to see the incredible wealth of palaces where the royals had lived, knowing how poor the majority of the country had been. It was the giant gold crucifix in the cathedral at the Hermitage that really got me. That crucifix seemed to be such an obvious indicator that Russian royalty, while calling themselves Christian and even attending worship services, didn’t get the heart of the Gospel, which is so much about the poor and the oppressed.
I think Jesus would’ve been disappointed by that gold crucifix, knowing that there were and are people who go hungry every day in that country.
Life in Russia is complex. Faith in Russia is complex. The same is true in the United States where it’s very easy to call yourself a Christian. What a gift it is, then, that we’ve been called into this relationship with Russian sisters and brothers in Christ who challenge and encourage us as people who call Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Want to help members and visitors feel welcome on Sunday mornings? The Usher Ministry Team is seeking members to join existing teams. The commitment begins about 20 minutes before worship and ends 5 to 10 minutes after the service. Contact Erin Guinan, 704.560.0373.
Rehearsals for all choirs resume on Wednesday, January 8, at various times. Wednesday dinners also resume in Wood Fellowship Hall at 5 p.m.
If you did not participate in the Sanctuary Choir this fall and wish to participate for the new semester, email Will Young . If your child wishes to participate in choirs or handbells, register online via Realm now.
Walk with, support and have fellowship with the students and faculty at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, during our trip March 20-26. We will be building and strengthening this new relationship.
The estimated cost for the trip is $1600-1900 and a Visa for travel is required. Elizabeth Little (firstname.lastname@example.org, 252.723.8653) will arrange travel visas and will need your passport information by December 31.
With Haiti experiencing increased violence, shortages of electricity, food and running water, the shutdown of travel, businesses and banks, First Presbyterian Church’s Global Missions Committee recently designated $5000 in emergency relief funds to our mission partners in Bayonnais as a response to our concern about the escalating violence and unrest in Haiti this year.
Current unrest was caused when when it was revealed that employees of the government have misappropriated more than $3 billion donated by the Venezuelan government through discounts on fuel imports. This revelation has created an unstable environment in the greater Port-au-Prince area—an instability that now extends into smaller surrounding towns on the 90-mile travel route to Bayonnais.
Crime is rising throughout much of the country, including an increase in incidents on the main highway we travel. Food and fuel are scarce, schools are closed and banks do not have money to open. (The emergency funds we designated can be held by our mission partner FOFCB until banks can make funds available.) Businesses are closed and there is little electricity or running water. Churches from the Charlotte and surrounding areas have cancelled all mission trips this fall.
Despite these dire hardships, mission partner Actionnel Fluerisma writes often to express his hope and declare his faith. This week, he wrote the following to the Ministry Team via email to Glenna Cook:
“Good morning, Nurse Glenna! Thank you so much for such a big action on behalf of the Bayonnais community! It is huge. Not a small thing at all. The spirit which is behind it goes way over $5,000.00. If anyone can count the depths of love and admiration, we can also calculate the depths of what the leadership of your church has done. Thank you for the message and immense thanks to the whole leadership of First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, North Carolina! Actionnel”
Although the school in Bayonnais is temporarily closed, the clinic is open and continues to see patients as supplies allow. Please continue to:
Pray for children and families in Bayonnais
Sponsor school children through World of God (contact Sherri Buzzard at email@example.com)
Contribute to financially support the mission through the Alternative Gift Market 2019 FPC Historic Lobby
Contribute to the food supply for maternity patients at the clinic (contact Glenna Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The First Presbyterian Church Haiti Ministry Team is grateful to the many members who have expressed concern about the escalating violence and unrest in Haiti this year. Our travel may be suspended for a time but our mission can thrive until such time as we can resume travel.
Do you know the most urgent need of Westerly Hills students experiencing homelessness? Food, shelter and transportation?
I learned this recently from the Communities in Schools counselor responsible for students who are homeless. Her information brought to mind for me Maslow’s hierarchy, and the fact that education will never be the top priority for these children until their needs for food, shelter and transportation are met.
As Communities in Schools works with partners in the school and community to navigate these stressful circumstances, we can show our love and make the lives of these students little easier by offering food and transportation support.
In our discussion, I learned that 21 children at Westerly Hills Academy have been identified so far as either homeless or displaced. Efforts are being made to reconcile the community’s work with that of the school, to ensure all affected families are included. Challenges such as poor student attendance and changing contact information unfortunately impede the process and create delays. While recent news has been focused on the Lake Arbor situation, it is important to remember that other families at the school are struggling with eviction and homelessness due to the lack of affordable housing in our city; therefore, we have decided to include them in our efforts, as well.
We are fortunate to work with partners at the school who know the families and children affected. They are able to assess needs and distribute items to families and children as emergencies arise. Some families are living at shelters, some in cars, some in hotels and others with friends or families who could fit them into a spare room. With the varying circumstances, the needs are different due primarily to storage and transportation limitations.
FPC has decided to respond in the following manner: to address immediate needs, our youth provided large care packages of food, toiletries and blankets to families in cars and temporary housing, as well as gas cards for families who would benefit from them. For families with limited storage and/or no transportation, FPC has provided emergency food bags and toiletry bags that can be sent home with students as needed.
We will conduct a special collection for the most urgent needs of food and transportation gift cards, which you can access here. For families living in their cars or who have found temporary housing outside of the school district, gas cards are helpful for getting children to and from school. (CMS will ultimately provide transportation as required through the McKinney Vento Act, but the transition takes time. Gas cards prevent a lapse in school attendance.) For families with no transportation, bus vouchers and Uber gift cards are best.
FPC’s new program, Shop to Share, is a monthly opportunity to support children, families and staff at our partners, Westerly Hills Academy and Lakewood Preschool. Through this program, we will work to build and maintain a supply of seasonal needed items. The current signup includes coats, winter uniforms and toiletry items that will also benefit Lake Arbor/homeless families at the school.
Temporary affordable housing is still the most critical need. If you or someone you know is in a position to help, please reach out to Shantiqua Neely, our Director of Outreach and Mission. Please remember these families in your prayers!
~Heather Herring, Child & Family Partnership Coordinator
The forecast says this winter will be a bitter one. The projected number of men, women and even children who will experiencing homelessness during those months is equally grim. Sign up today to offer hospitality and shelter from the storm as part of our Room in the Inn Ministry Team. And plan to attend dinner and orientation on Wednesday, November 13, at 6:15 p.m.
First Presbyterian has been opening its doors to our neighbors who need shelter two nights a week during the winter since 1996. It takes a lot of people to make that happen. We hope you’ll want to scope out what happens during Room in the Inn and how you can be part of offering safety, food and a deeper connection for some of our most vulnerable neighbors this winter.
Contact Ministry Team Coordinator Flo Bryan if you have questions or want to learn more at the orientation before signing up.
Our neighbors in west Charlotte are experiencing firsthand the impact of our city’s lack of affordable housing. The condemnation of Lake Arbor apartments has left 171 families searching for a new place to live, with some families living in motels or cars as they search for a solution. The documentary Resilience, which many of us viewed together on a Sunday evening last month, showed us the impact of toxic stress on children, and housing instability is certainly a source of incredible stress.
You may learn more online about this situation, as well as our decision to provide financial support in a collaborative effort of Charlotte nonprofits to secure housing for affected families. Right now, based on what we know, there are two ways you can help:
support financially via the United Way, who is overseeing the collaborative nonprofit effort and
identify (or provide) affordable rental housing. If you are able to offer a housing solution, please contact Shantiqua Neely.
FPC staff is working with school counselors and the school’s Communities in Schools site coordinator to determine how best to support affected Westerly Hills families. As we know more we will keep the congregation updated so that we may respond.
Resilience is a skill needed not just by those who experience poverty and housing instability. Of the 73 who responded to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey at the September 22 movie showing, 67% had one or more ACEs, and 24% had 4 or more ACEs. In fact, everyone has some form of stress and has good reason to build resilience.
There are many ways to offset the effects of toxic stress. The experts who were part of the Resilience event offered ways to support others and yourself. Below is their contact information: