Our BELL Summer School Camp for 60 rising first through third graders from some of Charlotte’s most fragile neighborhoods concludes next Wednesday afternoon. I hope you can join us to celebrate this fifth year of partnering with BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life).
Before I tell you what to expect at our celebration, I want to tell you about the minds that were opened this summer, thanks to your contributions.
These energetic and enthusiastic youngsters have excelled in their morning studies, which centered around reading and math.
They’ve experienced yoga, science, Legos, cooking, art, music, character education and swimming lessons at the Dowd YMCA.
On Fridays, they’ve enjoyed field trips to Stowe Botanical Gardens, Concord Aquarium, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Knight’s Stadium, a play at Central Piedmont Community College and bowling.
What a rich summer you’ve made possible for these children!
I want you to know that these children weren’t the only ones who have had their minds opened this summer. In addition to volunteer tutors from our congregation, this program brings together Speech and Hearing therapists, certified teachers and classroom assistants. If they are like me, they’ve had their minds and hearts opened during our six weeks with our BELL scholars. We’ve been blessed by their smiles, their laughter, their spontaneous hugs, and the light in their eyes as they’ve had experiences that some of us might take for granted in our own children’s lives.
I’d love for you to experience a fraction of what I’ve experienced from being around these children this summer. So please consider joining the scholars and staff for a celebration in the Wood Fellowship Hall from 1:00 – 2:15 pm on Wednesday, July 27. Each class will perform a song or skit and we’ll show a video capturing our summer. Awards will be given and ice cream will conclude the event.
Thank you for your participation, prayers and financial contributions. The lives of the most fragile in our city were made abundantly richer! And if you join us for the closing ceremony, I can pretty much guarantee that your life will be made richer, too.
~ Lisa Dillard, Community Engagement Coordinator
Look for more photos from our BELL Summer Scholars in this week’s issue of FirstNEWS in the mail or on information tables at church on Sunday.
Reading everything that’s been done and said about last week’s events has been hard. Everywhere I’ve looked, people were discussing the hard topics of racial inequality, police violence, and hate-filled retaliation.
Being a member of a now multi-racial family, I struggled with my own assessment of these topics, mixed along with the idea of white privilege and how it relates to my life. All of this led me to also assess my effectiveness in being a good witness through my presence with and feeding of our BELL campers, who are here to keep learning throughout the summer. How, I wondered, was I perceived by these children?
Needless to say, by Friday afternoon these thoughts left me a little deflated, a little drained, as serious thought tends to do.
Then something happened that filled me back up.
While I was standing at the front desk having a conversation about finances with a coworker, one of our campers walked by to go to the restroom. She walked right up to me and spontaneously hugged my leg. This reminded me that our actions truly do have an impact when they are motivated with love. We need to fill each other up with love in these difficult times.
We need more hugs.
– Nick Kepp
P.S. A high-five (see below) isn’t a bad option, either.
The apostle Paul asks, “what then are we to say about these things?” (Romans 8:31)
The truth is that sometimes I am not sure what to say about these things.
It’s not just that I fail to understand our addiction to violence that makes taking a life too easy, or that I fail to understand unbridled hate (in the case of the five Dallas law enforcement officials who lost their lives to a man filled with rage).
What this latest chapter in our country’s unfolding series of tragic events has taught me is that as a white man in a “white collar” job in America, I will never understand what it feels like to be black or to wear blue.
That may sound obvious, but I think the events of this week may, finally, begin to disabuse many of us of our need to understand and explain away these kinds of tragedies.
For too long, people (like me) have heard, discussed, commented, debated, and—in many cases—judged these compounding American tragedies as if we had the perspective to offer wisdom. People—like me—who will never know what it is to teach our children how the color of their skin might impact the way they are viewed by the police, or what it is like for a law enforcement officer to see every encounter as a potential for danger.
What we were really doing is exposing our privilege.
Maybe instead of feeling the need to say something about these things we might try to listen.
If we are white, maybe we might ask a friend who is a person of color what these things are like for them. Or ask a police officer how these things impact their oath to protect and serve.
And then we might remember that Paul’s question isn’t really an invitation for us to fill the space with our feeble words. For it is God who speaks the answers to the questions that arise from things like these. And that answer is found in the person of Jesus, who knows what it is to suffer, and to love.
Our last two days (Wednesday and Thursday, July 6-7) 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.
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.
Even with all of the remodeling and ownership of the space, the dream has always been to have a church building. 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. Hope Baptist is very grateful for our partnership. Church members have also all pledged money for the church. During worship on Sunday, they took up two collections, one for the regular offering and one for the building. Additionally, church members are giving their time and energy to help build the structure. Our support is greatly appreciated, but this project’s heart is found in the investment of resources, energy, and sweat from the members.
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.
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.
I could write paragraphs about each church but I’ll try to hit a few highlights.
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!
Another church just starting to grow had their donated space destroyed by fire one month ago. They have purchased land in the town center but need prayers to help them overcome problems with commercial pipelines on the property.
One older woman sums up the attitudes, saying, “We trust the Lord; in the face of evil, we respond with good.”
“And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” – Matthew 6:28-29
Monday, July 4
It has been a full three days in Russia!Our intrepid group (as Erika has described us) of me, Mary Elizabeth Coley, Barb and Rich Neidinger 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!
It had been a long day (days, really) of planes and car rides and trains, and 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.Such a feast prepared for us — three of us strangers to the church but all of us sisters and brothers in Christ — 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 given us their clothes to wear while we are waiting (hoping! praying!) to hear something about our luggage.
In these first few days, it would be easy to get caught up in the fact that we are suitcase-less, and I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been some moments of frustration about that.But the bigger takeaway from the luggage debacle is the reminder that we are not in control.God is, though, and God is good.God’s steadfast care comes to us in all kinds of forms — a late night dinner with new friends in the back room of a church, a bag of clean clothes offered from those same new friends so you don’t have to wear the same shirt for four days in a row, 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!
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world…in the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)
If you want to see what church looks like when we are really being church, come to the campus of First Presbyterian the first six weeks of the summer.
We are about halfway through hosting the BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) program – a tutoring initiative that provides experiences in the classroom and the uptown community for 60 students from the K-8th grade Westerly Hills Academy, with whom our church has a partnership.
These six weeks our campus is buzzing: in the courtyard at drop-off, in the Wood Fellowship Hall for breakfast, on the third floor for classes, and through the hallways as children make this church their home.
Additionally, in the summer our church also makes a commitment to send children to Camp Grier for a total of 65 camper weeks.
Our summer program is one of the finest examples of where our faith and our stewardship become salt and light in our community. These programs make an impact. Reading scores go up. Parents are more plugged in. Children grow in confidence. And God is glorified.
While the reunion of the 1974 youth mission trip to Haiti received attention last Sunday, a more quiet reunion was also taking place—a reunion that contributed to the selection of one anthem the choir will sing during worship on July 3.
Former choir member Amy Gray, who left for seminary in Washington, D.C., in 2009, was back in the choir loft last Sunday for the first time in eight years. While in Charlotte, Amy also visited with Director of Music Ministries Will Young to tell him her history with the hand-painted harpsichord in the Lema Howerton Room.
A graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design, Amy’s passion for art had been sidelined when she injured her drawing hand during her senior year. She had turned her attention to music, another gift she had practiced since childhood. She moved to Charlotte, started singing in the choir at First Pres and took up the harp in 2003. At the choir Christmas party that year, then-choir director Bob Ivey approached Amy with news that an anonymous donor had given funds to build a harpsichord for the church.
He wondered if Amy would be interested in hand-decorating the harpsichord.
Amy had been seeking clarity in her prayers about whether it was time for her to take up art again, despite her fears of re-injuring her hand. This request, she thought, might be the answer to her prayers.
The donor had requested that Psalm 150 be incorporated into the design, so Amy used language from the psalm along the exterior of the harpsichord: Praise God in His sanctuary with the lute and harp. On the interior, she included an image from her favorite psalm, Psalm 84: Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself.
“Working on the harpsichord was my first experience practicing art as conscious prayer,” said Amy, who is completing her MFA, with a focus on making art as a spiritual practice.
During their conversation, Will and Amy discovered that her favorite arrangement of Psalm 84 was the very arrangement Will had come across a few hours earlier when searching for music for this Sunday’s service—Psalm 84/Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Faure, arranged by Hal Hopson. Amy finished the conversation happy to recognize a small bit of synchronicity at First Presbyterian, where her spiritual journey had blossomed.
“The Cantique was the reason I didn’t leave the choir loft at times in my life when I was struggling,” Amy said as her visit to the church drew to an end on Monday afternoon. “The hardest part of leaving Charlotte was walking away from First Presbyterian Church. Every time I’m here, there is connectivity, synchronicity. This place is magical for me.”
This Sunday during worship, we’ll recognize a dozen people from around the country who were part of the first international mission trip for youth in 1974—a trip to Haiti so profound that participants have traveled from across the country for a reunion during worship here on Sunday.
“It was eye-opening,” said Ben Williams, who celebrated his sixteenth birthday during that mission trip. “Our senses came alive to the plight of this poverty-stricken island.”
You can watch video from that trip more than 40 years ago, a mission trip that continues to echo for Ben and the other participants who are gathered in Charlotte this weekend, including Nel Hobbie (Hill), Eve Baker (Bennett), Elizabeth Barefoot (Vinson), Betsy Barry (Dreier), Charlie Durham, Jeff Gaines, Tom Higgins, Kathrine Horn (Coggins), Amy Petris (Capps), Dick Ridenhour, Ken Roberts and Kay Sullivan (Johnston). Dorathy Stewart (Link) will be unable to attend.