Sleeping Bags for All God’s People

This winter is going to be extremely difficult and cold for our community, please consider a donation of cold weather gear; learn how you can help.

This week was cold–numb-your-extremities, 28-degrees-at-night, people-die-in-this-kind-of-weather cold. Any other year, this week would have been a week that our winter night shelter (a joint venture between Mercy and our partners at St. John’s Lutheran Church) would have been bustling and busy. Volunteers would be cooking and dropping off hot soups for an evening meal, community members would be distributing and sharing warm blankets and mats, your pastors would be working round the clock, and 50-60 beloved and valuable human beings would find a little bit of warmth and safety in a cramped and cozy fellowship hall. 

Winter during a pandemic

As if you haven’t heard this phrase enough—this year is different. Despite many brainstorming sessions and creative thinking, we did not know how to open our freeze shelter as in years past without significantly increasing our community’s risk to Covid19. Though our church community has continued gathering throughout the pandemic (always weighing the cost of multiple health crises at play), it has been with extreme caution. Many of our community members are elderly, others have health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable—and we have already lost someone to the virus. As a church community we are committed to protecting and caring for one another as best as we are able–we know we have to be exceedingly careful with one another. So then what were we to do when we didn’t feel safe coming indoors overnight, but also did not want our beloved friends and neighbors to freeze to death when temperatures drop this winter?

Our solution isn’t perfect and it definitely doesn’t feel like enough for the people we love, but what we decided to do was to equip our community members as best we could with warm winter clothes and sleeping bags rated for sleeping outside in 0 degrees. While the city is providing some emergency shelter indoors, this information is not always well-shared to those who actually need it. When announcements come out online, we try to inform the people we are with day in and day out so that they know what is available. But the truth is many people will still sleep outside. There is not enough shelter this winter to keep everyone safe. As a church, we have a responsibility to do what simple things we can to care for our beloved community. It isn’t the warm indoors—but proper winter gear can help people survive. Our friends at St. John’s Lutheran helped us purchase our first big haul of winter-rated sleeping bags, many of which we passed out this week. While we haven’t been able to gather inside, we’ve also purchased outdoor heaters and have been trying to help people stay warm with extra hot meals and coffee in the early mornings (which is often the coldest time of the day).  

Encouraged by generosity

While our storage space was full of sleeping bags, coats, gloves, and hand warmers earlier this week, I already see our stash diminishing after one week of winter weather, and every day new people show up, having heard that the lawn of St. John’s was someplace to get something to keep you warm. I am encouraged to know that many other churches and individuals continue to collect sleeping bags and warm clothes for us to share—we’ll need them.  

The response from the community has been one of grace. According to our members the sleeping bags work surprisingly well at keeping people warm enough through the night. Despite our limitations this year, the community has been understanding and even grateful. Every winter I am reminded just how much I love my church community and its radical commitment to Christian hospitality. For in the most difficult, longest, coldest nights, we manage to do what we can for one another—simply put, because we love one another. And if you love someone, you want them to be well and warm enough. What we do surely doesn’t ever feel like enough, but we’ll keep showing up to be present to those we love however we can.  I am thankful for that, as well as all the many people who make what we do possible.

A Meditation on the Life and Death of the Beloved Frederick Baker

By: Rev. Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

I can say with confidence that Frederick Baker was someone who knew joy.  One of my first memories of Frederick is of him loudly and unabashedly singing praise to God during worship, proclaiming Hallelujah over and again, with hands raised, eyes closed, and an open-mouthed smile spread across his face. Frederick also liked to dance. Sometimes when our community was making music together, Frederick would stand and sway, and snap and sing along to the beat—a perfect exclamation of joy and praise. Frederick was like that—it was almost as if grace just burst forth from him and you might even have some land on you by accident. Most conversations I had with Frederick usually began with his exuberant drawn-out ‘heeeey, guuuurl!’ followed by some sincere compliment of my new hair or nail color or how beautiful my daughter was growing up to be. Frederick noticed things and was never ashamed to share a warm affirmation or offer a gesture of affection. Frederick could always make you feel genuinely good about yourself.

Despite his kind and often joyful demeanor, Frederick did not have an easy life. He struggled with long-term serious health issues and did not always receive or even seek the care he desperately needed. He was often in and out of the hospital. Alongside my pleasant memories of a cheerful Frederick are other memories of him wasting away before my eyes, wheelchair-bound, weak, and still sleeping on the streets. I have an image of Frederick I cannot erase from my mind, small and shivering, sitting in our old basement space, using my phone to make call after call. He was desperate, fatigued, and confused. Frederick had loving family members and friends who cared about his well-being. Over the years he had a number of case workers and health care providers who sought wellness for him too. I believe it is true that while many an individual cared after Frederick, it is also true that our systems are not designed to watch out for him or care for him in his particular vulnerabilities.

Despite the sobering truth that Frederick did not always have his basic needs met—the basic needs that should be afforded to any and every human being bearing the image of God—I find some small comfort in knowing that Frederick experienced a life of joy, companionship, and love. Frederick was not only loved by his creator and his family, but also by many others. There was seldom a time that I saw Frederick without his long-time partner (and often care-giver) John ‘Rambo.’ John almost exclusively referred to Frederick as ‘Sweetie’ and would light up at any opportunity to share a funny anecdote about their relationship. John also did the faithful and difficult every-day work of loving and caring for Frederick.

Frederick ‘Sweetie’ Baker was loved and will be deeply missed by our community. His life mattered. Like all of us, Frederick was a beautifully complex human being, and it was only in community that I was blessed to know him as such. That is one of the graces of community. Community allows us to see one another, value one another, and love one another, not by the measures of this world, but as we truly are—beloved. What an honor it is that Frederick found hospitality and home among our little community—we were blessed to know him and I trust that he is singing his exuberant Hallelujahs with Christ even now.

Frederick and John together at Mercy Church

Make Me a Christian in my Heart: A Meditation on the Life and Death of Bobby Lee, Child of God

Make Me a Christian in my Heart:
A Meditation on the Life and Death of Bobby Lee, Child of God
By: Chad Hyatt

Every single human life matters, and no life should be treated as though a gift so precious is disposable. This is the truth of Christianity. 

Alas, if we were only truly Christian.

We are not called to work a calculus that weighs some against others. We are not servants of the greater good. It is not our job to see the bigger picture but to look compassionately upon the human face in front of our own. Our systems are deeply broken—and perhaps worse than broken, if we tell the truth. 

Who is more at risk in this pandemic but those in our community who are already the most vulnerable? And the risk isn’t random. This disease disproportionately affects the elderly, the poor, and people of color. Our national sins of racism and greed and indifference are deeply entrenched in all of our systems and institutions, largely abandoning those who have already been marginalized.

Some suggest that opening the economy is worth a few deaths. It isn’t. This is the same twisted logic that makes two white men presume that they can shoot a black man jogging down a neighborhood street with impunity. I suspect those men did not think that they would be held accountable—because our broken systems accord more value to the lives of some than others. Such diabolical logic is deeply anti-Christian.

I may be a preacher, but I am not holier-than-thou. Probably I’m less holy than most. If I was only truly Christian, I have to confess. But my prayer for us in these troubled times can be found in the words of an old song: Lord, make me a Christian in my heart. 

Bobby Lee showed me how to be a Christian in my heart.

Bobby sat in the back, like a lot of us do in church. But he was always out front when it came to serving others. He would forever try to hide his face when we were taking photos in the community, preferring obscurity to the bright flash of the camera’s glare. But Bobby shone like a radiant light through his unassuming, steady presence with us and his quiet, humble work for God. Bobby Lee showed me how to be a Christian in my heart.

His sister called and asked what I thought his favorite church song was. I suggested the one that talks about waking up every morning with a mind ‘stayed on Jesus.’ Bobby lived his life that way. He was always the first to lift his hands in prayer. He would pray for us to keep the ‘doors of the church open’ so that those of us ‘outside’ would have a welcome and safe place to go. And even through this pandemic, we have kept those doors that Bobby prayed for open. Bobby Lee showed me how to be a Christian in my heart.

Bobby also knew that keeping your mind ‘stayed on Jesus’ meant not just ‘talking the talk’ but ‘walking the walk.’ And Bobby lived his life like that, too. Every day that we went down the street taking a meal to share with our sisters and brothers, Bobby would go with us, pushing a cart of hot soup or home-made sandwiches. He even went faithfully with our partners from Oak Grove UMC who serve the meal each Friday. Bobby had housing of his own. But on the coldest nights, he would still spend the night with his community in our emergency shelter. Bobby understood the integral connection between loving Jesus and loving human bodies, especially if they were sick or cold or hungry. He not only talked about Jesus. Bobby walked like Jesus walked, loving and giving himself for the well-being of his neighbors. Bobby Lee showed me how to be a Christian in my heart.

Bobby was also honest. ‘People can just be so aggravating, you know? I can’t stand all that aggravation,’ he said on more than one occasion. His favorite expression after sharing a prayer or a comment in a Bible study was ‘I just wanted to get that off my chest.’ This man who touched so many lives through his prayer and works of mercy nonetheless didn’t like to be physically touched. He could occasionally get his hackles up when someone was ‘getting on his nerves,’ and we might have to step in to calm things down. But human beings are wonderfully complex and unique. That is how God made us. And we are just as beloved on our bad days as we are on our good days. Those good days are the ones where the image of God within us shines through our humanity most clearly and grants us a gracious glimpse of the loving God whose likeness we bear. It wasn’t hard to see God in Bobby. Bobby Lee showed me how to be a Christian in my heart.

Bobby always reminded us of our own mortality and that our lives on this earth draw inevitably toward a close, breath by precious breath. It is ironic that we refuse to talk about death, even though we live in a culture full of violence and death—especially for the poorest among us. But Bobby wasn’t ashamed to talk about death. It is hard to write now, but he would often say, ‘One day, I’m going to be six-feet under. I want to be looking up, not down. I want to be with the Man Upstairs.’ And he is—of that I have no doubt. As fully as he lived it, Bobby knew this life wasn’t all that we could count on. He knew that the God who values every single human life valued his too and claimed him as a child of God beyond the grip of death. Even to the end, Bobby Lee showed me how to be a Christian in my heart.

So rest in peace, child of God, and breathe easy, Bobby Lee, in the glorious light of the Lord. Your work here is done, my brother, but the light of your love for Jesus and for each one of us continues to illumine our way in this world.

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.