Two churches in the Diocese of the South will make 2019 their last year of services. “We usually get sad about a church closing its doors, but I think we should celebrate the ministry,” said Archbishop Foley Beach at the 2019 Synod meeting. And in that spirit, we will.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” Ecclesiastes 3:1
Church of Jesus Our Shepherd, Norcross, GA
Rector Rev. Bill DeBardeleben
“Jesus Our Shepherd is an unusual church,” says Fr. Bill DeBardeleben. “Our whole focus has basically been on mission.”
Jesus Our Shepherd will hold its final service on Sunday, December 8, 2019. Just the day before on Dec. 7, the church will turn 26 years old. Over these many years, the church has supported dozens of missionaries, sent its own members out into ministries around the country, and supported local ministries to the homeless, children, and those in need – much of which was accomplished by their conviction to forego purchasing a building.
“We thought we wanted a building, and we raised a good bit of money,” says Fr. Bill. “But we were praying all through this and after we had raised the money for this building, we prayed again and God clearly told us: I’ve got all the buildings I need; I want a church.”
Part of that calling was what they named the “Legacy Project” – supporting Fr. John Richardson in ministry in the Atlanta, area, using part of their building fund to pay his salary for several years. Fr. John served in local church planting and as a chaplain for both Oglethorpe University and the juvenile prison system. “We could see then that someday Jesus Our Shepherd was not going to continue, but we wanted to leave something that would,” says Fr. Bill.
Though the church didn’t take off as they had hoped, “He [Fr. John] has had a major impact on the campus of Oglethorpe University, and now he is working with young people in the juvenile detention center and bringing kids to Jesus like you wouldn’t believe,” says Fr. Bill. “That is a fruit of Jesus Our Shepherd. It wasn’t what we envisioned, but it was what God envisioned – so we’re happy about that.”
Jesus Our Shepherd came under Anglican oversight in 2004 with its second pastor, Fr. Tom Belt, who with wife Lucy started Partners in Ministry, offering support to missionaries around the world. After Fr. Tom retired from Jesus Our Shepherd in 2014, Fr. Bill became Rector. Fr. Tom had initially come to Jesus Our Shepherd at the request of its first pastor, Frank Barbian, to help with musical worship.
“Tom is a gifted musician. He has written the most beautiful liturgical music. Everything that you hear in a liturgy, he has put to music,” says Fr. Bill. “We still sing all of this in our service. Almost all our whole service is musical.”
The rich scope of missionary work inspired or supported by Jesus Our Shepherd is almost hard to grasp. They currently support about 20 missionaries worldwide with around 60% of their budget: from overseas work in India, Nepal, Israel, and Pakistan, to work around the U.S. among college students, refugees, clinics, and local food kitchen ministries. The former senior warden of Jesus Our Shepherd now works with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Florida campuses. One of their members left an executive position to work with inner city children in Tallahassee, FL. Another church member works in Clarkston, GA, one of the largest refugee communities in the country.
“We were determined to not go out of business and leave our missionaries with no opportunity to replace the loss of our support,” says Fr. Bill. So while they will have their last service Dec. 8, their missionary support will continue until September 2020.
One beautiful story Fr. Bill tells is of Moses Woloquelli – a member of Jesus Our Shepherd for the last 20 years, who met church members when they came knocking on his door to spread the news of their worship service nearby. A recent refugee from Liberia and its civil wars, Moses had a place to live but little else. Jesus Our Shepherd helped take care of his immediate needs, but also assisted him in pursuing higher education, and sponsored his wife Oretha’s emigration to America. They’re even making a movie about him to draw attention to his need for a green card – rather than temporary protected status, which requires annual renewal.
“It’s just a glorious story… He’s been through a lot and God has been faithful to him, and he has been faithful to Jesus Our Shepherd.”
Fr. Bill invites anyone who has ever attended Jesus Our Shepherd to come back and join in their last worship service on Sunday, December 8, 10:30 a.m. at the Hilton Atlanta Northeast [please note: this is a change from the Pinckneyville Community Center].
“We will have a glorious celebration of the life and victory of the Church of Jesus Our Shepherd. Our Bishop, Frank Lyons will be with us and we will have other surprise guests I’m sure. A big reception will follow. Please come celebrate with us and bring glory to our awesome God.”
Continuing their December tradition, Jesus Our Shepherd will be raising funds to send rice to Liberia – last year’s donations totaled over $2100. Another December custom is gathering wrapped Christmas gifts for children in their partnership with the First Asian Indian Baptist Church. “If you want to be extra blessed, go buy some stuff, wrap it and bring it. You will never have this much fun again,” says Fr. Bill.
“We love what we do, and we love each other, and we love the Lord. And we’ll continue to do that.”
Emmanuel Fellowship, Cleveland, TN
Rector Rev. Mitchell Baker
“Some of [the] seeds that God planted in our hearts when he called us to plant Emmanuel was that the Holy Spirit would draw the people to the church,” says Fr. Mitchell Baker. “As far as I know there were only a small handful of people who ever came because of advertising. All others came by word of mouth because of what they experienced.”
Fr. Mitchell and his wife Luwana have lived and ministered in the Cleveland, TN area and at Lee University there for the last 16 years. Emmanuel Fellowship had its first communion in 2003, beginning formal services in 2005. The mission of the church, he says, has been to restore the concept of community and relationships with Jesus Christ, relationship with others, and relationship to the community and world.
“We also wanted to instill the idea of Sanctuary,” says Fr. Mitchell. “We wanted them to know that Emmanuel Fellowship was a safe place. When they entered the doors people would love them exactly where they were in life, whoever they were, or whatever had happened to them. [It] was a place of healing for those burnt out, spit out, abused, or felt abandoned by the Church.”
This was evident in their choice of worship time – Saturday nights, to invite any who would otherwise be averse to a Sunday morning church service.
“They would come and God would minister to them, and after a few months they would go back into the world healed and refreshed,” says Fr. Mitchell.
Their work at Lee University allowed them to touch the lives of many students, many of whom are now dedicated to ministering to others.
“One has planted a church in Ames, Iowa and is reaching those who have not entered a church for decades. Another is an associate pastor at a UMC in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and will be doing a church plant in New Jersey in January,” says Fr. Mitchell. “Our first student, who was also our first worship leader, graduated from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis [and] now has a Lutheran parish outside of Buffalo, NY. Of course, many other of our kids are ministering in a multitude of ways.”
The touch of Emmanuel Fellowship and the Bakers is clear in the words of those who have passed through their doors:
“Emmanuel Fellowship is the church we searched for over many years. Under your steady leadership, we found a church filled with love, acceptance, and the strong presence of God. We feel privileged to have experienced this.”
“Your kindness and sincere concern for people – including me – has been wonderfully refreshing. You are the kind of people Paul was describing in I Corinthians 16:18, ‘For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.’”
“Emmanuel Fellowship has been on the forefront of a re-emergence of liturgy on the campus of Lee and the younger community within Cleveland. What you have planted and watered within this community, God is giving up in his timing. I will carry all of these fond memories with me in my heart, but it’s not the services or occasions that make them fond. It’s who you are and the spiritual bond of friendship we share that makes these memories special to me.”
“You both have blessed my life, I am so very thankful we made the decision to walk in that day and start our journey with Emmanuel! I knew I had found my home! I look forward to our monthly visits now as we start our new season together.”
Emmanuel Fellowship held their last service on Saturday, October 5, a time of “Homecoming and Commissioning” of prayers, anointing, and sending forth. Fr. Mitchell will still be serving in the Cleveland community as an Anglican priest, and it’s the Bakers’ desire to have monthly gatherings “for fellowship, food, scripture, and the Eucharist.”
And as a former parishioner said, “He is still ‘God with us.’”