It began with phone calls into the Baltimore Presbytery office from churches and organizations across the country that wanted to do mission work in the city of Baltimore.
“Churches were calling to see if we knew of places where they could do mission work and places where they could stay. Unfortunately, at the time we didn’t have any mechanism for any meaningful mission work on the ground for them,” says Kate Connors who serves as a PC(USA) minister within the Baltimore Presbytery.
But it wasn’t only phone calls that led those in the Baltimore Presbytery to see the need to help congregations from other towns connect with mission opportunities in the city of Baltimore. It was also seeing a hunger in Baltimore congregations to relate to their own community in terms of mission and engagement.
“Congregations wanted to be better involved and know their neighbors, but many didn’t know how to do that,” Connors said.
Starting in 2009, a group of elders and pastors from the Baltimore Presbytery began to have conversations about creating an urban mission center that would bring visiting church groups and local congregations together to engage in neighborhood-based work in Baltimore. Connors, who became the first director of The Center when it was officially established in 2011, was chosen to lead this team and turn their conversations into a reality.
One of the first tasks was to create a living space for out-of-town congregations and groups to stay while doing mission work in Baltimore. After finding a vacant daycare center on the property of First & Franklin Presbyterian Church in the city, dedicated volunteers turned the empty space into a 40-bed dormitory building that now serves as a complete retreat center featuring new bathrooms, showers and a full kitchen.
Connors said she was moved by the work of those volunteers which included a woman from Bosnia who was trying to start a new life in the United States, a man with a background in construction who had recently been incarcerated and two men who were part of a mentoring program that wanted to gain carpentry skills while helping others.
“We had a lot of people who helped turn this space into what it is today,” Connors said.
The other task The Center undertook was to build relationships with local PC(USA) congregations. Connors said The Center was noticing that churches in the Baltimore area were already doing mission work in other countries and wanted to do more in their own community but didn’t know how to go about it.
Jennifer Barchi, pastor of Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and a member of the steering committee for The Center, said she was actually drawn to The Center before she was even called to serve a church in Baltimore. At the time, she was working as an interim youth director and was looking for sites for her summer high school mission trip.
“What was so compelling about The Center was that it worked with local Presbyterian congregations and plugged visiting groups into the ministries that those congregations were already engaged in,” Barchi said. “It really seemed to offer visiting groups an experience of local, neighborhood ministry.”
One of those mission connections The Center offered last summer involved a summer learning camp that was a two-week program aimed to help students continue to learn during summer breaks. The camp, which is operated by two Baltimore congregations and a local elementary school, included out of town youth who served as counselors, teachers and mentors to the children in Baltimore.
One of those youth, Bennett Byerley from Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, N.C., said he felt called and empowered to work with The Center and the learning camp.
“I wanted to spend time working at The Center because it was a way to make an impact in kids’ lives,” Byerley said. “The Center did a great job of providing us with an opportunity to provide disadvantaged children with an enriching summer experience. I have always wanted to find ways to help others that do not have the opportunities that I have had in my life, so the Center was a perfect way to do that. It also helped me to build teaching skills and improve my ability to relate to others.”
Roger Powers, the temporary supply minister of Lakeland Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, said The Center was able to help his congregation and the Baltimore Orchard Project with a service project involving the creation of a community fruit orchard. While Lakeland Presbyterian had room on its property to plant fruit trees, Powers said there were not enough able bodies in his aging congregation to do the work. However, after The Center connected Lakeland with a youth group from Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas, they were able to plant fresh fruit for the community to share and enjoy, reduce carbon dioxide and add to the beauty of our urban neighborhood.
“It was wonderful to see the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction on the faces of the young volunteers from Village Presbyterian Church after they had finished planting,” Powers said.
Today, as The Center seeks to deepen its relationships with service project providers and continues to work in the city of Baltimore with local children, those living in poverty or homeless and those living with HIV/AIDS, it is also seeking to inspire congregations and volunteers to a call of advocacy.
“We seek to empower our volunteers to go up to Capitol Hill and work with legislators by sharing with them what they have done and why the work they are doing is important,” Connors said.
Through connecting congregations with service-learning and mission opportunities, Connors hopes The Center will serve as a model for the future, with churches not being just houses of worship, but foundational centers for the community.
CHRISTOPHER SCHILLING is a resident chaplain at Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia.