It all began with the humble vision that the community of Midtown would be transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, that there could be a church that would cross over the racial and social barriers that exist in our culture. Today that vision has become a reality at All Saints Presbyterian Church. The people of Midtown, a very ethnically and socio-economically diverse community, have become present and active in the church. In this racially charged city where churches are seemingly so segregated, we find something different happening at All Saints. That “something different” can only be described as the Holy Spirit at work in the heart of Memphis.
All Saints, an urban church plant of Second Presbyterian, launched its first Sunday service almost 8 years ago in February 2001. My husband and I began attending in the fall of 2004. Although the vision was still present, the church body lacked the diversity of Midtown. But God was at work within the church and its core leadership, preparing hearts and working in the community. Slowly, the faces in the crowd on Sundays began looking a little less the same and a little more like an accurate sampling of the diversity of Midtown. Today, as I look around at the congregation on Sunday mornings, a new face is represented in the church. That face is the true face of Midtown
Though I am not a native Memphian myself, I quickly became aware of the racial tension that exists in this city when I moved here nearly seven years ago. I noticed there were ‘white churches’ and there were ‘black churches,’ and though Christians of different color were amiable with each other, they did not typically coexist in fellowship and worship on Sunday mornings. Robbie Watson, a new member of All Saints from Portland, Oregon, had some interesting thoughts on the subject.
Robbie came from the Northwest, where racial tension is seemingly nonexistent. Biases are held against Christians and people who don’t recycle. “In Seattle, you see a guy on the street. Here, you see a black guy or a white guy on the street. I was told there were places in the city you don’t want to be. I was told ‘this is the white part, this is the black part’ – it blew me away that racism in the south, which I had only read about, actually existed here in Memphis! To go to All Saints and see white and black people worshiping together was no big deal to me.” He had no idea that this was something unique and very special in Memphis.
Not only has there been a shift in racial diversity at All Saints, but there has been a change in the socioeconomic face of the congregation as well. Robbie had great insight on this subject as well. What originally drew him to the church was how his friend described All Saints as “living out the ministry for the poor.” Attracted to this concept, Robbie observed that at All Saints, “you see someone who is off the street wearing unattractive clothes, or dirty in appearance, worshiping God next to you as just another human being created in the image of God.” At All Saints, you can truly come as you are, how you are, and experience the love of Christ Jesus through His body of believers. We are one body, with different parts, coming together in unity to worship Christ and learn more about him.
The hope to embody the diversity of Midtown within the church body would not be a simple process in such a racially tense city. It took time and patience and faith. It was not until the fall of 2007 that the face of All Saints began to change.
Rev. Waring Porter, the pastor of All Saints, describes the church as a “fellowship mercy church,” meaning that the most important aspects of All Saints are fellowship and service within the surrounding community. Rev. Porter was hired as the pastor in May 2004 after two years of the church having no pastor. In August 2005, he and the core group of leadership re-launched the mission of All Saints, emphasizing fellowship and mercy and being intentional about establishing relationships within the community.
In the fall of 2007, All Saints’ Sunday morning service was relocated to the Jay Holcomb Urban Center (Urban Young Life building), located on Poplar just past Cleveland. This move placed All Saints in one of the poorest areas of Midtown known as Crosstown. This new location provided numerous opportunities for ministry, as the streets are full of drugs, crime and prostitution. Not only did God place All Saints within a community in great need, but He also provided means for a new staff position in the church. That October, just months after relocating back to Memphis from California, Sally Powell was hired as the church’s Director of Mercy Ministries. This new position provided someone to develop and lead the Mercy Ministry for the church.
Sally immediately developed programs and partnered with various organizations in Midtown, producing an array of Mercy Ministry opportunities that are called Serve the City events. She publishes a monthly calendar of these events, which include regular weekly programs as well as unique opportunities to serve. These events include both relief and development activities that allow church members to engage with the people of the community and build lasting friendships based on Christ’s love and service.
One such weekly event, More on Mondays, takes place in the parking lot at Jefferson and Claybrook, where food bags are passed out to those who are hungry. This simple act of giving out freshly made sandwiches and other non-perishable items offers endless opportunities for cultivating new friendships. It was at this very event where Sally began her friendship with Pat Tia, a homeless member of the community who showed up that day to receive some much needed food.
Pat, who is now active at All Saints and an attendee of the New Members Class, describes her encounter with Sally that day in the parking lot as an act of God’s divine mercy. Before the food was to be served, Sally had asked for someone to say a prayer of thanksgiving. Pat eagerly volunteered and afterward began conversing with Sally who invited her to attend All Saints. In a short time, they developed a friendship, and Pat claims she began to experience something she had never experienced before in a church. At All Saints, she found true relationships and love in the church body. “I’ve never been anywhere like this,” she explains, “and I’ve been to many churches, all kinds of churches. When I hurt, the people of this church hurt with me. The prayers of my All Saints family have carried me through difficult times. I can count on these people to lift me up.” Pat describes what she found at All Saints, “I felt that I was always missing something. I always tried to fill that missing spot with drugs, or men, or food, but I found that what I was truly missing was Jesus.” Through forming relationships with the body of Christ at All Saints, she found that Christianity is not about religion; it is about experiencing Jesus through a personal relationship. Pat has finally found hope and fulfillment in Christ. She has even become active in the Mercy Ministries at All Saints because, as she explains, “I’ve been a recipient of others’ grace”. Now she gives back with what has been given to her.
Sally describes the goals of the Mercy Ministry of All Saints as focusing on relationships as opposed to programs. “We don’t have a set-in-stone system for when a homeless person asks us for help. We don’t have a big budget for that. Our process is developing relationships, bringing people from the community into the church, forming friendships.” She has spent extensive time developing relationships, such as the one with Pat Tia, within the community.
It was within months of hiring Sally Powell as the Director of Mercy Ministries that the face of All Saints began to change. People began to come from the community. The sameness of the church body began to disappear and the true diversity of Midtown started to show its face. I suddenly found myself surrounded by people who were very different than me. It was amazing and inspiring, but at the same time a little uncomfortable. As a white girl from the suburbs, I had little practice forming relationships with those different from me. I had served heaping spoonfuls of tuna casserole onto the plates of the hungry homeless at the soup kitchen, but I never sat down to eat with them and fellowship.
All Saints is not out in the community to simply serve others a meal, but to engage and cultivate relationships. I was floored to find out that one of our monthly service activities involves simply dining with residents of Door of Hope, a support center for men and women who live on the street (which is located just down the street from All Saints). This is not an event where we feed others, but one where we actually sit down and dine with them. It is an opportunity to build friendships.
As the face of All Saints began to change, I began to wonder, “How could I, a white, middle class, stay-at-home-Momform lasting relationships with people a far cry from the world I was used to?” As I looked around me one Sunday I saw a transvestite eagerly listening to the sermon. I noticed a homeless couple lining up to partake in communion. I realized that this is what church was supposed to be like. This was a place where you could truly come as you are, tired and weary and worn by this broken world.
Waring Porter said something once that stuck with me. He said, “We tend to think that the poor need us, when in fact, we need the poor.” God uses the poor to transform us as we serve. That is the beauty of the gospel and the importance of feeding his sheep.
I realized that I needed to be active in Mercy Ministry at the church. What I didn’t realize was that God would meet me in my service to sanctify me. I began participating in the weekly Prayer Walk in which All Saints members walk the streets of Crosstown, meeting people and praying for them. On my second Prayer Walk, we came upon a traffic accident where two homeless men had been struck by a van after it collided with another vehicle. The men had been rushed to the Med due to serious injuries. As we stood there with the stunned group of homeless people who had gathered around the scene, word spread that one of those men had passed away at the hospital. The grief that followed was insurmountable. It became evident that these people were family to one another. The wailing that ensued was heart wrenching.
I had recently experienced my own grief in losing my four-year-old nephew to a brain tumor just two months prior. In a way that I could have never imagined, God used my own recent experience with grief to break down a wall that had existed within my heart for a long time. I always viewed the homeless with sympathy, but I loathed being hit up by them for money. I harbored a quiet bitterness against them. But that day, as the voices around me cried out in horror, I felt their grief. I knew it well and my spirit broke for these people. I ached for them and saw them as people, not “homeless people”, not beneath me. God used my own experience to unite me in humanity with those grieving around me, and I became aware of my sin and filled with an indescribable love for these people – His people. It occurred to me that these were the people Christ died for. These people were His precious children. Christ shed His blood for them. God truly transformed my heart that day and brought me to a new understanding that we are all His children sharing the commonality of being broken and loved by Him. This truth tears down the walls we quietly build between each other.
The weekly Prayer Walk is just one of the many Serve the City events available to All Saints members. Other opportunities to serve the area include a long-standing partnership with Advance Memphis. This partnership has created an opportunity to build relationships with those in the community actively seeking jobs and a stable financial future. As a result of these new relationships, many Advance Memphis graduates are becoming involved All Saints. There is also the Manna House, where the homeless receive a shower and a new change of clothes. On a regular basis, members of All Saints volunteer, passing out toothbrushes or joining in on conversation over a cup of warm coffee in the kitchen.
Different types of Serve the City events are offered at All Saints, because the truth is not everyone is extroverted and comfortable meeting new people. We are all different parts of the body, and for those who tend to be more behind the scenes, there are plenty of opportunities to serve. Whether it’s preparing food bags for More on Mondays, or building friendships through offering rides to church for families without a car, there is always an opportunity to serve others in the community through the gifts God has given us.
1 Peter 4:10 says “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” This verse embodies the mission of All Saints Presbyterian Church. That vision that began years ago of seeing Christ at work within Midtown has become a reality. Every Sunday morning the work of the Holy Spirit is evident in the congregation that gathers to praise and worship him together. For an hour and a half, people from all different walks of life unite as the body of Christ, ministering to one another and praising God for the precious gift He offers us through His son Jesus Christ.