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Historic African American PC(USA) church to host Matthew 25 Summit

‘I hope that the church at large will experience New Life’s passion for community justice,’ church team leader says.

The Rev. Hodari Williams speaks with the Women of Victory, who dance in New Life’s worship service once a month. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

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(PNS) — Open the doors of New Life Presbyterian Church on any day of the week and you will find people active and engaged in all sorts of life-giving activities.

“If you came on a Monday and Wednesday, you’d probably see our vibrant seniors in their walking club. What you’ll see on a Tuesday or Thursday of the week is a dedicated group of people who have for years opened the doors of New Life to meet the needs of the community by providing them with nutritional food and other resources and connecting them with social service agencies,” said the Rev. Hodari Williams, team leader of New Life Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

Youth members of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity volunteer at the drive-through food pantry, a partnership among New Life, the Atlanta Food Bank and the Midwest Food Bank. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

According to Williams, New Life gives more than 600,000 pounds — 300 tons — of food a year, thanks to generous donations from the congregation and partnerships with the Atlanta Community Food Bank and the Midwest Food Bank. When Williams began his tenure as team leader, the church became the site of the Legacy Academy, a school offering affordable quality education to children ages 4 through 8. “Our hope is to expand,” said Williams, recognizing the importance of early childhood education in closing the opportunity gap for children in South Fulton, Georgia. “We do our best to service those children and provide them with a strong educational foundation.” On the campus of New Life is a community garden and a lot they plan to develop into a community center. There have also been discussions about developing affordable housing in the area.

On Jan. 16-18, New Life Presbyterian Church will host the Matthew 25 Summit organized by the Presbyterian Mission Agency to encourage and educate leaders and members of churches on how to bring vitality inside and outside the walls of the church through community engagement and social activism. For Williams, who started his career in voter registration, education and voting rights with the NAACP, this opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time. Williams admits that in the life and ethos of any congregation there is always tension between the cultivation of a personal faith that helps one endure trials and tribulations of this world and the calling of the Spirit to help the vulnerable by challenging and changing oppressive structures.

“You have to reteach a lot of texts that have been de-politicized and diluted,” Williams said in addressing what scriptures he leans on to help his congregation grow in its activism. “When we begin to critically look at these texts — and this is what I try to teach the congregation — it was very political for Jesus to assert the kind of authority he asserted under Roman occupation … and to call people to action and to give them a subversive culture outside of Roman rule.”

Sunday mornings are the central gathering time for the congregation of New Life. However, Williams and his team have found more effective ways of reaching and teaching its members in ways that connect their faith to what is happening in the world.

“If you really want to educate folks and teach them something, preaching is probably not the best method of doing that,” Williams said. “We also sometimes move away from preaching and will have one-on-one talk sessions with community leaders.” New Life hosts monthly conversations on subjects like domestic violence, mental health, and, most recently, the Israeli-Hamas conflict. “We often use our media ministry to capture current clips, recordings, videos” and post them on their social media channels. The team at New Life has invested more into how it approaches media for worship on Sundays and discipleship the rest of the week.

“Because right now, it still is the case that our largest audience is online and it doesn’t seem to be shifting back in the direction of the congregation size,” Williams said.

New Life’s media ministry, which includes screens, projectors, cameras, and livestreaming, allows the church to reach members all over the metro Atlanta area, engaging them in worship, education and discipleship. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Their media ministry has brought an unexpected vitality. “It has been a tremendous resource for us, and I think it’s been very helpful and beneficial to a segment of our congregation that has been aging and really longing to connect in ways that they can’t because of physical limitations. … This was one of the things that came out of such a horrific experience in that pandemic,” said Williams.

Williams is excited for the opportunities his congregation will have to engage the speakers at the Matthew 25 Summit and to welcome other congregations and church leaders to New Life on Jan. 16-18.

“It is my hope that when people come to New Life, they will experience the warmth, the hospitality, the love of the community there,” Williams said. “And I hope that the church at large will experience New Life’s passion for community justice and issues that are very vital and important to the African American community.”

“My congregation will be able to learn from many who are doing work across this country and will be sharing in powerful ways, providing new perspectives on ministry.” Williams admitted that churches can “become a little siloed in our own little spaces,” and said he sees the summit as an “opportunity to really engage and to think about possibilities for ministry and all of the new energy that is emerging as church is changing from what we have historically known.”

by Beth Waltemath, Presbyterian News Service