Category

Being an Urban Church

August 7, 2017

Sixty precious scholars left our church campus a few weeks ago, and we are missing them! They brought such joy, energy and light into our church this summer.

I have volunteered with BELL in the past with my children. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the program and how it benefits the families with whom we partner at Westerly Hills. I know now that I didn’t have a clue. What I learned this summer blew my mind and made me so very proud to be a part of this program and our church.

First Presbyterian Church began hosting BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) six years ago. BELL is a national program, headquartered in Boston and started in 1992 by students at Harvard Law School. The program seeks to serve children in under-resourced communities by providing summer instruction and enrichment.

Each class of 20 scholars (rising K-3rd, so 60 total) begins the day with a hot breakfast, then participates in community time, where they learn about the BELL core values (learning, collaboration, respect and excellence.) Each class receives literacy and math instruction from certified teachers for the first half of the day, reinforced by First Presbyterian member tutors and speech therapists from Charlotte Speech and Hearing. After lunch and playground time, the scholars participate in enrichment activities, such as dance, Legos and science, coding, yola (language-based yoga practice), Reading with Rover, music, cooking, recreation, character education, art and swim lessons. Every Friday is reserved for education-based field trips. This year the scholars went to Dan Nicholas park, Carolinas Aviation Museum, the Charlotte Raptor Center, the play James and the Giant Peach, the Nature Museum and a performance by a magician.

Distracted by all the fun, the children seem to forget they are attending a little bit of school when they are at BELL.

Parent involvement in BELL is also a huge part of the program. Attendance is critical for success, so each family pays a $20 goodwill deposit that is refunded if the scholar misses no more than 3 days. Parents are also responsible for attending an open house and participating in a scholar showcase, where they visit the classrooms, attend an active reading workshop and eat lunch with their scholar. This year 37 families attended the scholar showcase. The scholars were SO excited to read with their parents, and the parents were hilarious pretending to be kids during the active reading workshop. We all know how important parent involvement and commitment are for a child’s success at school, and programs such as BELL help build that vital commitment.

Did you know the lack of learning during the summer causes up to 2/3 of the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers? According to statistics published by Read Charlotte (learn more at www.readcharlotte.org) 96% of third graders reading at grade level go on to graduate high school on time; third graders reading below grade level are four times more likely to drop out of school. At the end of 2016, 72.5% of Westerly Hills’s third graders were reading below grade level, the worst reading scores in all of CMS. 

Last year, our BELL scholars gained reading proficiency rather than backsliding during the summer. This year, our scholars gained again. Clearly, literacy is critical to the success of our city’s children, and this program is a way our church is having a direct, positive impact on the children of Westerly Hills.

Periodically, our BELL program receives a visit from the national Quality Assurance team to be observed and evaluated. Our program remains one of the best in the country, if not the best.  The QA team raved about the standards we set for our program and the amazing enrichment and field trips we offer. The wonderful BELL staff sets the same expectations for the scholars, and they rise to the occasion again and again.

This program requires significant time, money and commitment from our church, but it is so absolutely worth it.  If you have contributed to this amazing program, thank you! I hope you know how valuable that contribution is.  If you haven’t yet contributed, please consider doing so. It costs $1,500 per child to run this program, and we still need to raise money to cover the cost for this summer’s program. Any and every contribution helps to change the life of a child.

I saw just how much every little contribution matters this summer.

– Heather Herring, Child & Family Partnership Coordinator

July 21, 2017

Are you part of one of the many FPC Ministry Teams that are involved in outreach to our neighbors?

If not, let member Michael White give you a quick look at just one of these teams, the FPC Moving Ministry, which helps with the Crisis Assistance Ministry’s Furniture Bank and Relocation program. As Michael says, just a couple of hours on a Saturday morning once a moth means we help “put their stuff in their place and put smiles on their faces” for people who are transitioning from having no place to live to having their own place to live.

 

 

March 24, 2017

For many months now, our Balcony Group has listened for the Holy Spirit in developing a strategic plan for the next three to five years. This group has listened through conversations with our officers; for the wisdom of our past efforts in strategic and long-range planning; during visits to other vital, center-city churches around the country; and during lots and lots of meetings.

The strategic plan they are drafting will be built on our existing shared vision—taking what we do well and enhancing/expanding it so that it moves us into the future.

The draft the Balcony Group is working on now will recommend specific, aspirational, yet attainable initiatives that flow from four objectives, or planks: Welcome, Serving our City, Life Together and Stewardship. As they aim for finishing that draft in April, here’s how the Balcony Group is defining those planks.

Welcome: In a time when there is a trend for people to choose spirituality over religion, our efforts in Christian hospitality matter more than ever. That welcome extends from our worship, to our physical campus, to our use of media and tools for communication.

Serving our City: We will always continue to reach beyond Charlotte—with mission to the world and cities other than our own. But now seems to be a time to pay special attention to being agents of transformation in the center of the city where we were established as a church for this community. To be effective agents of God’s transformation, we have to grapple with and seek to understand what Charlotte’s issues are. One providential piece of timing is that the Economic Opportunity Task Force is set to release its report, which will highlight particular areas of focus in our city that are in need of transformation. We imagine some of our initiatives under this objective will align with part of what the Task Force recommends.

Life Together: Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called Life Together, which describes what the family of faith looks like when we recognize the gift of Christian community. It is a stark difference from the frenetic, polarized, shallow existence that so often exists without the grounding of Christ’s presence. Initiatives under this objective will help encourage and affirm our life together as a community of every age and stage.

Stewardship: Stewardship is a spiritual practice that must be taught and valued. It does not happen by accident. Stewardship asks us to invest in a future that we do not get to see.  Initiatives in this area will develop strategies to deepen our commitments and diversify our approach.

This plan and this impact begin soon—this year. And our implementation of this plan will set a trajectory that will lead us into our third century of ministry, which begins in 2021. The Balcony Group’s work on the strategic plan will certainly be what the congregation and our neighborhood feel first.  It will energize, focus, and deepen our mission to be for Christ in the Heart of Charlotte.

Watch for a recap of my comments about God’s call to us from the March 12 Town Hall in the April issue of FirstNEWS, which will be available beginning March 26 in the historic lobby and on the website beginning Monday, March 27.

– Pen Peery

March 17, 2017

O Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:1-2)

We’ve watched so much change from our corner of center city. And we are all so aware that change will continue. Yet, from generation to generation and through every way Charlotte has changed, we have offered a faithful witness to Christ. As we’ve embarked on strategic planning for the next 3-5 years and an exploration of what God is calling us to do with the asset and responsibility that is our Poplar Street parking lot, the big question both the Balcony Group and the West Campus Visioning Committee keep coming back to is this:

How will God use our church as an instrument for proclaiming Good News in our city?

The next step is for the Balcony Group to complete its draft of a strategic plan. That work is in progress. We might expect to have a look at that draft in April. One thing I can say with certainty is that welcome and hospitality will be part of that plan.

Regarding the Poplar Street parking lot, we are still in the process of asking that question, and your feedback continues to inform that process of seeking clarity. In other words, we are several steps away from having concrete initiatives in mind. And timing for any implementation of a plan with implications for the parking lot property may be years away and will be thoroughly evaluated by Session before any action occurs.

Watch for a recap of the four planks of the strategic plan being written by the Balcony Group in next week’s blog, which you can also access from the Now@FPC page on the website. A third follow-up from the Town Hall meeting will be in the April FirstNEWS, available in the historic lobby on March 26.

As these conversations about our future continue, I ask for you to pray for God’s wisdom and for our continued faithfulness in following God’s call to be a witness to Christ in the center of Charlotte.

– Pen Peery

January 12, 2017

Pen mug 7-16How hard is it to talk about racism?

Fifty pastors and leaders from Presbyterian congregations in Charlotte are finding out today and tomorrow here at First Presbyterian.  Some of us are white, some of us are people of color.  I know from experience this conversation will be uncomfortable at times.

All 50 us have been given the ministry of reconciliation by Christ (2 Corinthians 5) – and we are all called to pursue that ministry in a city whose need for reconciliation is painfully obvious, as evidenced by the protests around the shooting of Keith LaMonte Scott last September.

So we are gathering to learn – to grow – and to talk honestly about race and racism.  The two-day workshop we are taking is called “Dismantling Racism.”  It is a facilitated conversation that takes an honest look at how we arrived at the place where we are – taking seriously our American history and tracing the thread of race through it all.

I’ve experienced this workshop previously. That’s why I wanted our church to host this for other pastors. I have experienced the value of the uncomfortable conversations we’ll be having. I know we will have to confront some inconvenient truths.  But I also know that facing our racial history together – as sisters and brothers in Christ – is a necessary step to witnessing the power of the gospel to transform this broken world into the kingdom that we know is to come.

– Pen Peery

Want to step outside your comfort zone and participate in dismantling racism? The Charlotte Observer offered a list of events and conversations  taking place in houses of worship in our area in the weeks ahead. Check out their list and make plans to witness the power of the gospel to transform our broken world.

September 29, 2016

Pen mug 7-16Last week, in the wake of the protests in uptown Charlotte, I’ve never been so clear that our church’s geography plays a big part in our mission. God planted us here in the center of town 195 years ago for a reason.

God needs First Presbyterian Church to be a place of healing and reconciliation. We must be a place where there is honest speech about brokenness and pain. We are called to demonstrate what the good news of the gospel looks like by the ways that we worship with, serve, learn from and provide welcome to all of those who are seeking to connect to God in Jesus Christ.

Many times last week I was uncomfortable. I attended gatherings with other clergy and was uncomfortable with some of the anger I heard and experienced. I met a group of clergy uptown Thursday night to pray at the site where Justin Carr was shot the previous night. The protests were peaceful, but I felt unsettled as I walked the streets that are usually filled with cars and commerce. I was asked by community organizers to open our church up for a city-wide prayer vigil, as well as to provide access to our campus overnight for protestors to rest and re-group. This was a request I declined – it made me uncomfortable to do so, but not as uncomfortable as leaving our church home vulnerable.

Since last week I have both asked and been asked the question “what can we do?” A lot of my discomfort this past week has been not knowing exactly how to answer that question. I am built to try to find quick solutions. Yet the pain we saw on display in our streets last week is not a result of a one-time incident with a police officer and an African American man, nor is it solvable by a few concrete action steps.

Perhaps what we can “do” for the moment is feel uncomfortable. Maybe our discomfort is the soil from which transformation can grow.

One of the reasons I am confident God is at work among us – providing for us, loving us, challenging us – is because a host of events and experiences had already been planned before last week happened. These events will engage us in conversation about race, or difference. They are experiences that connect us with our neighborhood and our community. You can read more about these opportunities online and in this week’s eFirstNEWS.

My invitation to you is to show up at two or three of these events and see how they affect the discomfort you may be feeling at the moment. I suspect that God will use these next few weeks to transform all of our hearts – hopefully to the point that we will be ready to hear where God calls us to go next.

– Pen Peery

September 23, 2016

welcome-sign-croppedAs a church family whose home is in the heart of Charlotte, this has been a heartbreaking week. All of us have hurt and wept and prayed while seeking to understand how God would have us stand for Christ while violence disrupts the streets of our neighborhood.

So many things are unclear, and may continue to be for some time to come.  But this much is clear: The events of the week serve as evidence that there is much for us to do as a church in the center of our city.

Your clergy and staff want you to know that all is well here at the corner of Trade and Church streets. We want you to know that we are eager to gather as a family on Sunday morning, to take comfort in music, to find hope in the liturgy, and to glimpse healing in the warm welcome we always experience from one another.

After our services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., we will take time in the chapel for prayer for our city and for our neighbors as we all seek wisdom in answering God’s call to reconcile.

We hope to see you in worship on Sunday.

– Pen Peery, Katherine Kerr, Erika Funk, Katelyn Gordon, Chuck Williamson

August 24, 2016
Nick Kepp cropped
Nick Kepp Chef, Eat@First

As a professional cook, my focus when I’m in the kitchen is constantly changing.

In the beginning, my focus was very narrow, almost as if my white jacket and the bandana I used to wear before I cut my hair so short had come with a pair of blinders. Those blinders directed my view to a very specific spot. Let’s call it the Don’t Screw Up and Get Yelled At spot. I suppose a lot of us focus on that spot early on, no matter what career we’re in.

Once cooks get that down, our focus begins to change as we think about creating new flavors and dishes, being different, having our own style.

Then, as we gain more control over that area, our focus broadens more. The focus may evolve into creating a great experience as a whole, understanding now that the bigger picture includes more than food on a plate. The bigger picture involves how a server interacts with guests, the timing of food coming to the table, the ambiance of the dining room, the music, the temperature and so much more.

After that is locked down, the focus broadens even more. Cooks who really get the power of food begin to focus on how food impacts their community, outside the walls of the kitchen, the dining room, the business.

This is where I am at now. I feel I skipped a few steps as a technician of food because cooking here at First Presbyterian Church challenged me very quickly to broaden my viewpoint and mindset beyond just the food on the plate.  Today I view food as a catalyst to provide fellowship, to help establish relationships with those in need, to support a community, and (most importantly) bring people together.

The impact I wish to make has more to do with people and their stories than it does items on a menu.  My focus as a cook is to use my gift to bring people together, to break bread together, and to impact each other’s lives through our interactions around the table.

I have been passionate about food for many years now.  It has taken this long for me to mature enough to realize that what is on the plate isn’t the most important thing about being a cook; what’s most important is how the food acts as a catalyst to have impact on the community.

– Nick Kepp

August 16, 2016

Pen mug 7-16Most afternoons, on my drive home from church, I witness a scene that has been gnawing at me since I arrived at First Presbyterian four years ago. It’s a bus stop where some of the people whom I have met over the past few years are settling down to sleep for the night, their belongings stuffed into bags that they hold close.  Other people at that bus stop aren’t there to sleep, but they look tired. I can see the stress of being overworked in their eyes and in their posture. They are on their way home after a long day and, even though they have spent their day surrounded by people, I see loneliness in their faces.

Seeing these people, day after day, suggests to me that there is more work God calls the church to do.

These two groups of people need different things. Some need food, access to healthcare, and a place to lay their head. Others need community, an opportunity to interact in ways that go beyond a transaction, and a place where they can have the space to explore the things that really matter.

Charlotte has a lot going for it, but we are still a city in need. We need more affordable housing. We need better economic mobility and access to opportunity. We need more early childhood education. We also need deeper faith, and places to be vulnerable, and an increased awareness of the holy.

In the heart of all this is our church home, with its mission to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote to God’s people who found themselves in an urban environment, surrounded by need.  “Seek the welfare of the city,” Jeremiah wrote, “for in its welfare you will find your own…” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Over the past six to nine months I have been spending time with some leaders in our church thinking about the ways we might let Jeremiah’s words inform our actions. In the near-term we are considering God’s call for us in 2017, as we prepare for stewardship season this fall. In the mid-term, a committee called the Balcony Group is working to develop a strategic plan to guide the Session and the church for the next 3-5 years. In the long-term, members of the West Campus Visioning Committee are continuing their work to discern God’s call for the incredible asset that is our parking lot, a vision we expect to impact this church and how it serves the needs of our city well into our third century here in the center city.

I believe God’s purpose for us as a church is bound up in our willingness to seek the welfare of our city. That’s why we were founded almost 200 years ago, and it needs to be why we exist 100 years from now.

There is great work being done to embrace this particular calling for our church. In the coming months, you will be invited to contribute your voice to this planning effort—through surveys, focus groups, and neighborhood gatherings.

This is an exciting time to be a part of First Presbyterian Church. The need for our witness and ministry has never been more urgent. And as we look into the future, God’s providence and promise to be with us in our life together has never been more sure.

What if the people I pass each afternoon at that bus stop experienced First Presbyterian Church as a place of welcome, a source of strength and a community where they could deepen their faith?  If they knew us that way, I think we would be fulfilling our vision as the body of Christ that God sent into the world to save.

– Pen Peery

July 21, 2016

bell scholar 5Our 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.