This past summer I accompanied our teens to Atlanta to spend a week working with 7 Bridges Ministry.
7 Bridges Ministry is unique. First of all, it is a church whose founding pastor, named Seven, ministers from an experience with God that led him out of prison, violence, and addiction into a life of service and love. Secondly, 7 Bridges is a discipling ministry of several men who live and minister with Seven for a period of two years. Third, the ministry provides housing, food, safety, spiritual guidance, counseling, and rehabilitation to single mothers and their children. These families actually live in the church building, occupying what once was a two-story educational wing that serves as their home. The church campus, donated to 7 Bridges, houses not only this transformed residency, but also the sanctuary where the church worships, a house where Seven and his trainees live, a large basement that serves as the kitchen and common dining room, a community garden, walking trails, playgrounds, and a workshop. It is like a little community within Atlanta, a refuge that survives on grace. So we not only spent a week serving with this ministry, we also lived there, taking our meals, showers, devotionals, and play with people from backgrounds not at all like our own.
I learned many things, far too many to share in one blog. But I would like to share a few things that God helped me see as critical to having hope and confidence for my own service in a small church.
1. All people have the same kind of needs and hopes. Whether we were praying with people at the busiest heroine corner in the southeast or sharing lunch with folks wandering near a neighborhood known for sex trafficking, I came upon people who wanted good things to happen in their lives. They wanted acceptance, safety, and connection. There were no easy answers for why they were there, but most people in these communities relished prayer and conversation. They responded to a simple hug. My afternoon conversations with God were filled with confessions about all the assumptions I make about the everyday people in my life—the waitress at lunch, the receptionist at the gym, or the older couple who just moved next door. The truth about everyone is that we need and long for connection and love. I need to reawaken my faith and remember that no one provides that like Jesus and his family. Every moment and every opportunity, no matter how banal, provides a chance to answer human need with Jesus.
2. Over and over again we are asked to be bold. The boldness of this ministry astounded me. The folks who work at 7 Bridges actually lead teenagers to “the bluff” in Atlanta, an area just west of downtown and noted for its high crime rate and notorious heroine trafficking. They enter believing that God will show up and provide what is needed and that the neighborhood will respond to his love. As a group we stood on the number one heroine corner in the southeast, held hands and prayed for light to shine in this dark, dark place. And then we proceeded to walk the streets with food, hugs, and prayer. How astounding it was to see a woman respond in tears, pray with us, and apologize for the needle sticking outside her shirt. The ministry of 7 Bridges is a ministry of people who have come out of the darkness and off of the streets. And it happened because of the boldness of faith. That boldness is both a willingness to speak of Jesus and a belief that gracious words and deeds done in his name carry a power that goes beyond us. I need to remember that Jesus asked his followers to go and serve and share. The Spirit would take care not only of convicting but also of providing the words and the power that was needed.
3. God finds a way to be present in communities, and most often he is there waiting for us. While working with 7 Bridges, we went into a very small apartment complex of maybe 24 units. Although this community existed in the shadow of the Georgia Dome and the World Congress Center, it shared nothing of the kind of lives of those who drove near it to attend events at those venues. The two-story units each looked out upon a shared parking space. After I knocked on a screen door of a lower apartment, an older woman opened the door and invited me to sit with her outside on the sidewalk. I learned that she had deliberately moved into that community so she could help care for her grandchildren, this after a career of teaching disabled children in the Atlanta school district for 30 years. Before she was through, our group and much of the community had gathered around her in a wide circle for prayer, songs, and to listen to the wisdom of this matriarch. She served as a spiritual force for good and God. I had come to her door with assumptions about her and what might happen. I did not know that a servant of God was behind that door waiting to teach me.
The writers of Scripture never seem to guide us to asking for more money, people, or talents to serve in the kingdom. In fact, it seems that the followers of Jesus were asked to take less than they thought they needed for their gospel enterprise. It seems that God has given us more than we can often see and everything we need, even if we serve in a small congregation.
What we do have are these three things: people around us who need love and hope, congregants who can be assured that gracious boldness will be accompanied by the Spirit of God, and assurance that the Presence of God is with us wherever we go. Actually, God is probably there waiting for us in the presence of a person of peace who will help us! These all give me great hope! Thank you, 7 Bridges, for showing me Jesus!
Jerry serves with the Campus View Church in Athens, GA, and enjoys the rich diversity of his church family and the vibrancy of the University of Georgia community. He and his wife Linda treasure a marriage that has included raising four boys as well as sharing their lives and past homes with gracious church families in Memphis, TN; Conway, AR; Rocky Mount, NC; and Jackson, MS. Jerry has degrees from Harding University, Harding School of Theology, and ACU.