The Church is Not a Building…but buildings sure are nice for sheltering the poor among us in a pandemic.

By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

I get it: our defiantly hopeful need as Christians to remind ourselves this year as our church buildings sit empty through the Easter season that the church of Jesus Christ is not, nor ever has been, the building in which we worship. And theologically, I agree whole-heartedly with this bold and true assertion: the body of Jesus Christ is made up of beloved human beings and cannot be reduced to any one place where those humans gather. From the day the once-mourning women stumbled from an empty tomb, to the early days of our faith when scared yet defiant followers met in catacombs, homes, and upper rooms, it is markedly “Christian” to experience worship outside an immaculately decorated sanctuary. The tomb is empty, the sanctuary is empty—we’re being faithful in this unprecedented time. I get it.

I get it, and yet if I am bold enough to be honest, something about these prolific church-is-not-a-building assertions rang a little hollow for me this Easter season. This probably sounds absurd coming from a pastor whose congregation rents our space and doesn’t even own a building of our own, but I did not find comfort in this particular self-reassurance. Because, yes, while the assertion is true, buildings sure are nice when you believe the work of the church is to shelter the poor and homeless, cook food for the hungry, and care for the sick and hurting.

To be the church that does what Jesus taught us to do is to have room to spread out—bathrooms, a stove, a fridge, a storage freezer, and busy working hands. This church is incarnational, embodied, and it takes up and uses space. The church may not be a building, but Jesus sure did teach us how we might utilize one. So, what are we to do when the faithful way to protect some of us is to shut those buildings’ doors? The answer cannot be to merely assure ourselves with Facebook proclamations, “well, the church wasn’t the building anyway!”

 For those of us at Mercy Church this process has been an exhausting and ongoing journey of discernment. Hear me say, I know it has been difficult for all of us and ranking congregational struggles is not a competition in which I would willingly partake. But I do believe our community was faced with some unique and specific challenges when the resounding word became “stay home.” Because, you see, the majority of our congregation does not have a home. 

 As a church congregation (not a separate mission or service organization—but as the church itself) our community serves one another nine meals a week. We share clean and dry clothing with one another. We give access to space that allows some of us the only place in the neighborhood where we can go to the restroom and wash up indoors. Our worship space is used to shelter from the rain, heat, and chill—the only place to be indoors for a little while to get some rest without being told to move along. Our “sanctuary” can be a place to charge your phone or if you do not have one, the only place to connect with others who have information about what is happening around you. We not only disseminate nourishment, but vital information about how to stay safe and well.

 As more knowledge about the severity of the virus became available and “flatten the curve” joined the collective vernacular, for us, each day became an intense brainstorming session about how to best keep our community safe, fed, well, and informed. Every day we were troubleshooting and creating new “best practices.” Every day we were reaching out to our medical professional partners begging them for recommendations and information. We had to ask ourselves and others we trusted “how do we keep our community safest?”  How do we keep our community safest, not just from the virus, but from hunger, misinformation, violence, the elements, and ostracization? How do we safely cope with our growing numbers as other services for the homeless grind to a halt or shut down? Is the city doing anything to respond to these concerns? What must we do in the meantime for those we claim as our brothers and sisters in Christ?

 If I can once again be so bold as to be brutally honest, the process of daily discerning, researching, and seeking advice not only made me exhausted, but sometimes it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Every time I got online, I saw the active, vibrant conversations of my colleagues in ministry about Zoom calls and online worship—new opportunities for exciting creativity, partnership, and collaboration—and for a time I felt alone in our work. Important though those conversations were, few of them seemed relevant to meeting my congregation’s needs. For us it was never as simple as imagining worship in a new way or staying connected on a different platform (important as those things are), it was about how to keep our congregation connected to essential resources they depend on and need to survive. I became exceedingly frustrated with comfortably middle-class friends’ “stay home if you’re a good Christian” Facebook posts (flavored with the predictable amount of ‘I’m woker-and-more-intelligent-than-thou’ judgment). And while yes, for many of us, staying home is the faithful response, let us not be decidedly oblivious to all the poor people out there for whom “staying home” is not a moral prerogative.

 Fortunately, God only ever tolerates my self-righteous bitter thinking for so long, before revealing the gifts of grace and inspiration that surround me. Something I have long believed about Mercy Church is that we do not do the work we do alone, and that has been revealed now more than ever. First and foremost, what we do is by the grace of God, but it is also through an abundance of faithful partners and friends. Though our challenges felt unique and scary, others were there to faithfully help. Countless friends and volunteers stepped up to say, “what do you need?” sending cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, paper products and canned goods, making us food and sewing us masks, praying for us, and supporting us monetarily. My pastor friends reached out and asked, “how is your community doing? What can we do to help?” Our longtime friends at Druid Hills Presbyterian Church opened up even more of their space to us, allowing us to serve more food and give access to bathrooms safely, and helped us partner with Love Beyond Walls to get an outdoor sink on their property. Our friends at St. John’s Lutheran Church gave us an open invitation to use their kitchen and other space for any of our needs in the current crisis. Maurice Lattimore from Feet on the Streets Ministry showed up each morning to help us serve and clean and sanitize. Together, and yes, with a lot of tireless work and commitment on our own part, we could do this: we could safely care for our community even in a pandemic.

I soon learned of other individuals and ministries creatively answering Jesus’ call to be present to those on the margins—to remember those without homes in which to shelter—and I felt reinvigorated and even hopeful in the work we do together as the church. The church is not a building, no, but I’m exceedingly grateful to Druid Hills Presbyterian and St John’s Lutheran, who share theirs with the poor. The church is not a building, but it does take up space: it needs a place for its people to wash hands, to sleep, to eat, and to shelter. The church is not a building, but buildings sure are nice for sheltering and caring for people in a pandemic. So, I give thanks. I give thanks for the spaces we can still safely utilize for cooking, cleaning, caring, and distributing. I give thanks for the incarnational acts of human bodies sharing goods, makings masks, cooking soups, and bending knees in prayer for the poor among them. I give thanks and I pray that our beautiful and diverse body of Christ will continue to creatively seek God’s guidance on how most faithfully to use our sacred spaces long after this pandemic has passed. I pray that when all our doors are joyfully and safely reopened, we will not take for granted the physical spaces we are blessed with and will share them with the poor with gratitude and abandon. Maybe one day God will even see fit for Mercy to have its own building to share—more miraculous things have happened. But in the meantime, I’ll be thankful for embodied grace, for creative resilience, for community in the many forms it can take, for knowledgeable and generous partners, for weary and loving pastors masked and gloved, for the tireless work of so many Christ-followers, and for buildings… when they’re empty and when they’re graciously shared.

Easter Sunday, April 12th

By: Chad Hyatt
John 20:1-18
Reflection—v. 18 ‘I have seen the Lord’

The resurrection changes everything. It’s earth-shattering, world-upending, and cosmostransforming. But in that oddly paradoxical way that the gospel holds truth together, it is also human-sized. It fits in our hands. It guides our feet. It opens our eyes. In John’s telling, the ‘other disciple’ who outran Peter sees an empty tomb and discarded grave clothes, and he somehow ‘believes.’ But John is quick to add that as yet the community did not ‘understand the scripture’ that a crucified messiah should rise from the dead. Everything changes because the resurrection empowers faith even as we stand at the door of a tomb and look at nothing but emptiness. The resurrection makes it possible for us to believe even when we do not yet understand. That doesn’t mean resurrection faith is unthinking or uncritical, refusing to reckon with our all too often wretched reality. Just ask Mary Magdalene. Her faithfulness brought her from the cross to the tomb, but she wasn’t looking for anything like the resurrection. Her faithfulness simply wouldn’t allow her to abandon Jesus, either in suffering or death—regardless of the very real risk to her own life of such open solidarity with an executed revolutionary. Even after Peter and the other disciple have come and gone from the tomb, she is still there, still grieving in her faith. And it is then, when the one she supposes a gardener and suspects a thief speaks her name, that her grief-stricken faithfulness becomes overjoyed faith full-ness. Last at the cross and first at the tomb, Mary Magdalene becomes the persistent preacher of a resurrection that changes everything. If the dead can be raised, is it really so hard for us to believe that the world could be changed, too?

Prayer Alleluia, sisters and brothers! Rejoice! Jesus is risen—he is risen indeed!

Holy Saturday, April 11th

By: Holly Reimer
Matthew 27:57-66
Reflection—v. 61 ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.’

They sit and wait. I don’t know about you, but I am not a patient person. I HATE waiting and as a result am in constant motion. But there is nothing to do on Holy Saturday but wait. We can remember the promises we have been told by Jesus himself, trusting in who he is, waiting for him to return, but we still must wait. And so we wait in our sadness, in moments of despair–waiting. Outside of pastoring at Mercy, I spend my extra time in the hospital serving as a chaplain to those who have lost loved ones. This is the very image that comes to mind – family members and friends sitting at the bedside. The loved one has passed, all efforts for revival have been attempted and it is finished–so they sit, paralyzed by sadness. Parents wait until the very last moment with their dead child. And so we also sit with one another in our community. We sit and wait for test results in the hospital. We sit opposite one another when a beloved member expresses feeling lost, distanced or even oppressed at the hands of God. We sit. In the pain and grief there is often nothing we can do to ‘fix’ the things that afflict, but being present in that very moment is valuable. In moments like these, we sit in the darkness and we wait. There is no pressure to move forward.

Prayer O Lord, we sit and wait for you. Let us be faithful as you have and forever will be.

Good Friday Urban Stations of the Cross Digital Service

Blessed Good Friday, community. Today is usually a day that our community gathers to take to the streets and worship together with song, prayer, and the breaking of bread. While we cannot be together this year, we hope you’ll enjoy this digital version of our Urban Stations of the Cross service. It includes meditations, songs, prayers, images of our vibrant community, and a video message from Pastor Holly.

As a part of your Good Friday reflection today we hope you’ll read and listen along, holding us in prayer.

Here is a link that will allow you to view the service online

Here is a downloadable PDF version

Good Friday, April 10th

By: Holly Reimer
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Reflection—v. 3 ‘He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity’

This is probably one of my favorite days of Holy Week because it honors the suffering that Jesus experienced as well as the pain that we also experience. Pain and suffering are real. Jesus experienced the physical and emotional vulnerabilities associated with being human. His body was susceptible to thirst on the cross, and he felt the pain of sharp objects piercing his flesh. Jesus also experienced the hurt of being rejected by folks who never really saw him as valuable. His disciples fell asleep on him and denied him as he was being questioned by the authorities. He died the dehumanizing death of a criminal. We too feel alone, isolated, and rejected throughout our lives and in moments and seasons of suffering. In our pain we ask questions similar to the Pharisees and High Priests, ‘Why would you let this happen God?’ As this passage intimates, suffering isn’t simply a physical loss–it can be when we feel alone and isolated, it is when we’re struggling with the loss or changing of relationships, it can be a change in our health and the realization that we don’t have what we need in order to recover. It can be heartbreaking, and that is okay. Let us not feel like we must move too quickly from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, because the pain is real.

Prayer Lord, may we find space for suffering and companions willing to journey with us.

Maundy Thursday, April 9th

By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
Reflection—v. 15 ‘For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’

At Mercy, every Maundy Thursday we hold a foot washing service. Surprisingly, though I had been a part of the community for some years, I had never attended one of these services until my first year as a pastor to the church. The reaction I had to the experience of washing the feet of my community members was a bit overwhelming. Pastor Chad and I took turns washing each person’s feet, all the while gently speaking to them affirmations of their sacred belovedness and value to the community. Tears of gratitude pooled in my eyes and streaked down my cheeks as the water ran through my fingers and I thought about how blessed I was to know each person–how thankful I was that this community had trusted me with the responsibility of being their pastor. After everyone who desired to participate had their feet washed and dried someone from the community volunteered to wash mine. I remember how calming it felt as they toweled my feet, whispering back affirmations for me too. In that simple yet intimate moment I believed the truth of my belovedness. God came to be with us as a human being, an embodied example of the truest love. If ever we forget the truth of God’s great love for each and every one of us, all we must do is look to this example and do as the Christ we follow does—we humbly and graciously care for, serve, and love one another, and let ourselves be cared for, served, and loved in return.

Prayer Servant Lord, whenever we doubt our belovedness or the value of others, may we look to your example.

Wednesday, April 8th

By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Reflection—v. 7 ‘I know that I shall not be put to shame’

Shame is something we talk about a lot in our community. While it often seems that healthy foods, affordable housing, and adequate healthcare are scarce, shame comes in abundance out here on the streets. Homelessness, joblessness, mental health, severed relationships, poverty, addiction—they can all carry shame, and the false narratives our society spews only serve to bolster the case that we are failing or that we’ve done something wrong, when really there are larger more systematic problems at play here. Shame can keep us from seeking wellness for ourselves or from forming healthy community. Shame can even keep some of us from learning and growing when we become immobile with fear, not wanting to say or do the ‘wrong’ thing. My firm belief is that God desires to set us free from such shame. When we study scripture together as a community at Mercy, we remind ourselves of this liberating truth. We remind ourselves that though the world may spit at us, strike us, and insult us, God will not put us to shame. God created us, loves us, and desires for us life and well-being, and not the shame that inhibits our thriving. In our community we have a variety of ways of proclaiming how our relationship with God is ‘mess-up safe,’ so there’s no shame. In the moments that I find myself carting around my shame like an unwanted carry-on, I’m thankful for a community that reminds me that my relationship with God, and with them, is safe.

Prayer Loving God, set us free from the shame that inhibits our thriving in community.

Tuesday, April 7th

By: Ivan Cooley
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Reflection—v. 7 ‘I know that I shall not be put to shame’

I want to be proactive about seeing my family. I chose to give up being around my family because I felt like I was bringing shame to them, and I felt like I wasn’t going to change anytime soon. I would like to say that my decision was some kind of noble decision, but it wasn’t. It was a decision that was made out of shame and guilt. Believe me, I’ve felt the ramifications of that. Even though in a sense you could say I gave up on them, they never gave up on me. Even in my worst times my father would write me letters and tell me ‘Son, you’re smart. You’re going to make it. We love you. The door’s always open.’ You see, that’s the way God is too. And if God hadn’t left his door open for me, then I wouldn’t be in the process of trying to see my parents again. I haven’t given up my parents. As much as it doesn’t look like it, I do love them. I don’t just want to satisfy my own needs and alleviate my own shame and guilt–it’s something that I want for them too. I want to see my father and mother smile. I want to reunite with my family, because, you see, that’s what we all are in this whole world–one big family. It’s my wish and my prayer that everybody can reunite with their loved ones. God did the ultimate–God looked at humankind as his family. Even when we stray away, and maybe not pray or even think about God for a little while, let us not forget that we are a member of God’s family.

Prayer: God our parent, when we feel alone, help us to remember we are yours.

Monday, April 6th

By: Ivan Cooley
Matthew 21:1-11
Reflection—v. 9 ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

When the people saw the king coming, they spread cloaks on the ground and broke off palm branches and laid them on the ground. They also waved the palm branches in the air to symbolize victory. The people were greeting the king in homage and shouted Hosanna. Hosanna is another way of saying savior, rescue me, or save me. On the king’s advent into town there was bedlam. The whole city was asking “who is this?” This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. That my friends, is the only humanitarian king I can think of. He lived a sinless life. He gave his sinless, blemish free life, so that we can be forgiven. He lived his life with love for humankind. A living, breathing human example of what we should strive for in our spiritual lives. I can tell people a king died so that I can live. In this way he conquered sin. He rose from the dead conquering sine and death. He demanded nothing and compassionately asked us to remember, follow, and believe in him. I certainly do, unquestionably. I wasn’t alarmed because the youth pastors and the youth group knew the same thing I knew. He is the only king worthy to be worshiped in prayer, and it sure is not a human one unless his name is Jesus Christ for he is truly the King of Kings—he has the victory over the enemies of our soul. He wants to see us all flourish like a palm tree in victory.

Prayer Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

Palm Sunday, April 5th

By: Ivan Cooley
Matthew 21:1-11
Reflection—v. 5 ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble’

A youth group attended Mercy one day. I was asked to pray at the conclusion of the phenomenal time we had spent together. I ended the prayer with the words “All praise and glory and honor to our King” then I hesitated. In two seconds of hesitation, closed eyes opened, bowed heads raised, trusting eyes became dubious gazes. When I clarified myself by naming Jesus Christ, happiness and good cheer were restored. I found no reason to be alarmed. In all my discussions concerning emperors and kings, about the only thing that can be said that’s satisfactory about them is that some may have been refined in the art of war. In other words, they are excellent at disturbing the peace and balance of humankind through violence and oppression. Real quick! Name one czar, emperor, or king who is remembered for being a humanitarian. I can name only one. He lived roughly two thousand years ago. He traveled all through the land preparing people for life not death. He preached, he taught, he blessed, he healed, he fed, and he clothed- -and these acts were considered miracles. The people of Israel were eagerly awaiting their king. The one who would free them from tyranny and oppression from the Roman Empire. He told two of his lieutenants to go into the village and find him a donkey. The donkey symbolizes serving, suffering, peace, and humility. The king lived his life serving and suffering with the peace and humility of a man who knew his destiny. Befitting a king, the lieutenants covered the donkey with their cloaks. When the King arrived in town, prophecy was fulfilled. “Look, your king is coming to you humble and mounted on a donkey.”