What Story Does Your Cardboard Tell?

homeless sign.jpgHow often, when we see a person standing on a street corner, do we roll down our window and give them money?


We all wrestle with this decision but my guess is we may be unsure of how our monies might be used. We may be more inclined to engage one standing on the corner because of their sign.

One gentleman in Richmond stands on a corner only blocks away from our campus, with a sign reading “Smile, it isn’t that bad!” and it wasn’t long ago that another young man found a seat just down from my neighborhood in Durham with a similar sign, “I bet I can make you smile.” Just the suggestion of a smile inevitably makes me smile and even laugh a little bit.

Then there are those signs that tell a brief story of health concerns (a gentleman who cleans up the parking lot at our Food Lion has one on his book bag stating that he has a history of strokes, both as warning if something happens and a story of his life) or stories of war (the wounded veteran who sits at the exit about I-40 nearing the Raleigh-Durham airport). Some signs simply state, “Any help is appreciated.”

These individuals use their cardboard pieces to share their story, to tell where the money goes and why it is needed. They grab our attention and pull us into their story as participants, whether through our smile or our money. Their story is meant to tug at our heart-strings and engage what some might call a guilt complex. And it works. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t see them so often.

As I thought about this sitting at a traffic light the other day, I began to wonder what might happen if our congregations told more stories. What if we told our parishioners where our money is going? What if we showed pictures and put faces and other images with the needs? The very next day, I got my answer when I visited Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church in Tarboro, NC.

20170219_104504Standing outside of the sanctuary and mentally preparing for worship, I glanced up at a bulletin board with a cut-out of a hand water pump. This isn’t an image I see every week, so my eyes began to follow the other images and I took a moment to read the story being told. Here, in the hallway connecting the Sunday School rooms with the worship space, was a visual explanation of the special offering for this season and why it was so desperately need.

The children’s sermon during worship that morning also focused on this offering and helped the kids to understand the need for clean water and the ways to help other children have similar opportunities to their own for the clean food and bodies.

The message was powerful and present. The need was shared in multiple ways, and the congregation was urged to give to this offering so that together they might purchase a water pump for a small community. I do not doubt that they will be successful in this campaign!

Stories pull us in while pictures and written word captures our mind’s eye. Whether it is a cardboard sign held by a scraggly person or a thoughtfully designed bulletin board and Children’s Sermon, these campaigns make us pause for even the briefest of moments as we consider what is being shared with us and asked of us.

The Church is asking a lot of individuals– money, attendance, time, and prayer just to name a few. There are also many questions and concerns about the successes of these “asks” and it makes me wonder how we are sharing our story.

This week, take time consider what images fill the bulletin boards and guide your congregation from discussions to worship, what words are shared and proclaimed with even the youngest of members, and finally– what does your cardboard sign say? These are the images that will stay with us even when we might forget the faces behind them and grab the attention of the passersby, and the stories that will capture the hearts of those who might linger nearby. These are the images and stories which will carry God’s Word into this world!


Make a sign!
Think about your congregation and what IS seen and what you would LIKE to be seen.
What is the story you will share with those passing by your church?
Are you asking for something or opening an invitation?
Are you encouraging the passersby or offering a judgment?


Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

“We are the Church”

I have a daughter who is 9 months old. At this age, she loves to clap her hands together whenever she hears a song, particularly to the “ABC’s” or “The Wheels on the Bus”. I remember loving to sing songs with hand movements like, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Father Abraham” when I was a kid growing up in the church.

church_steepleAs an older child, I was introduced to a little rhyme that included lacing my fingers together at the knuckles, fingers facing down, and creating a ball with my fists . It went like this, “Here is the Church (thumbs come out and thumb tips together), here is the steeple (pointer fingers come out and fingertips together), open remaining fingers) and see all the people!”. it up (twist hands inward and upward, wiggling.

The movements were not only difficult, but it took me several tries, watching friends, before I was able to master the lacing of my hands. I was reminded of this song after a visit this past Sunday at Salem Presbyterian Church because the song we learned during the Children’s sermon invited us to consider how “we” make up the Church, together.

Union-PSCE alum Rev. Janet Chisom invited children, and the congregation alike, to participate in singing a beautiful hymn by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh, titled, “We are the Church”. It goes as follows:


I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world! 

Yes, we’re the church together!

The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people. (Refrain) 

We’re many kinds of people,
with many kinds of faces,
all colors and all ages, too
from all times and places. (Refrain)

And when the people gather,
there’s singing and there’s praying;
there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes,
all of it saying: (Refrain)

Rev. Chisom proceeded to preach on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, the lectionary text for that Sunday. She highlighted Paul’s reminder that Jesus Christ is our foundation, that God’s spirit dwells within each of us, the people, and not a building, and that we belong to Christ.

The hymn, “We are the Church” embodies Christian unity unlike the childhood rhyme I learned because the church is not about a building, nor the steeple, and we are not bound by our walls to be called “church”. When we gather, there is singing, and praying, and laughing and crying, all of it reminding us that WE are the Church.

Before the service began, Rev. Chisom shared with me that she and Rev. Will Robinson felt called by the Spirit to preach on our unity in Christ despite our differences in age, looks, abilities, and passions.

She is not alone in feeling compelled, as a clergy-person, to preach prophetically and rigorously about Christ’s Lordship and our collective call to love one another.

This is an unusual time for congregations around our nation in the aftermath of the 2016 election season. Many congregations celebrate the changes in our political atmosphere. Many congregations are troubled by the changes in our political atmosphere, while others may be experiencing tumult as members feel split between party lines. Paul reminds us, however, that we are all in this together. We belong to each other and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

So this day, be encouraged that God’s word is timeless and in all times and places, of all colors and ages, WE are many kinds of people who make the Church, together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, YES! We are the Church together.

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball, Church Relations Officer

Union Ignites North Carolina

DSC_0187.JPGOver the last several weeks, Union Presbyterian Seminary alumni and friends have gathered for a time of fellowship, learning, and of course eating! These “Ignite” events are developed as part of our effort to connect with our alumni and friends closer to home, while sharing resources and keeping them updated about what is going on at our seminary and ways that they can be involved.

The greatest resource that we have to offer to congregations is our faculty. Over the last few years, North Carolinians have been both reunited and introduced to these incredible educators and leaders who are helping to shape the education and lives of our students. Throughout these recent “Ignite” events, they have reunited with Dr. Frances Taylor Gench and Dr. Ken McFayden, and were introduced to our newest faculty member, Dr. Richard Voelz.

dsc_0223Dr. Frances Taylor Gench kicked off these series of events with a bold statement that anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I personally strongly believe as well, “Saying the Church is dying is a self-absorbed view. We are changing. We are transitioning.” She continued the address as she explored Matthew 14: 22-23, the very first text that she assigns for translation in New Testament 1. Dr. Gench reminded those of us gathered in the Fellowship Hall at First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, that we are not the first disciples to find ourselves in a time of turmoil and that this text presents a realistic picture of the Church in inclement weather, straining to be faithful in uncertain times. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, everyone gathered was transported back to their own New Testament experience at Union while being reminded of the challenge and encouragement we find in this text for our Church today.

dsc_0279Our newest faculty member, Dr. Richard Voelz, joined a group of alumni and friends at First Presbyterian Church in Durham. This lecture might have been the one that I was most excited about, in part because I had not yet had the chance to sit in on one of his lectures and also because of the title, “Preaching in Unsettling Times to Unsettled People”. As someone who has struggled many times with what to say on a Sunday morning following an attack or shooting, and especially in light of recent divisions, I greatly appreciated his transformation of the title in light of the current climate- “Unsettled Preachers preaching to Unsettled People in an Unsettled World.” Dr. Voelz continued to explain that the call to ministry comes as we receive students who feel deeply and profoundly unsettled and don’t know how to grapple with this call. Union now has to answer the question, and act on the answer of what it means to educate for ministry in this unsettled situation. “The ability to interpret doesn’t guarantee that one can lead with wisdom,” he told us.  Dr. Voelz’s talk filled me with confidence as I reflected on my own education and thought about those who will be entering the ministry soon. It also encouraged me to look at my own ministry and evaluate how I am encouraging each parishioner I come in contact with to move beyond only interpretation and into wise action.

dsc_0416Finally, Dr. Ken McFayden joined an excited (and Barbecue filled!) gathering at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, NC to share his own excitement for Union and our newest offering for home-based continuing education for Certified Ruling Elders, Pastors, and anyone else who wishes to develop their faith. “Pathways” is an online, five-week program brought to life through the urging of Virginia presbyteries in conjunction with two North Carolina presbyteries (New Hope and Coastal Carolina). This series of nine courses offered over a two-year period serve as a way to prepare individuals to lead a congregation as a Commissioned Ruling Elder. Anyone can join a course for the cost of $100 and then attend each course from the comfort of their own home or office at the assigned time (typically Tuesday or Thursday evening). As individual needs and demands on our time change, it is encouraging to know that there is this option available for those who might not be able to take a full week out of their schedule, or afford the travel expense, to gather in person for this training. Union is excited to begin using this very same technology throughout the rest of campus as we change the way that snow days and other gatherings look! And I am personally excited to gather online with this community next January for the 5-week course on “Addressing Racism in the Church”!

These gatherings have brought encouraging and exciting news to North Carolina, and we look forward to traveling to other areas very soon! If you are interested in attending an “Ignite” event, we invite you to join us at one of the following (For more information and to RSVP, please contact Bernie Howell at bhowell@upsem.edu):

First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota
Sarasota, FL
March 19, 2017; 6pm
Speaker: Dr. John Vest

Riverside Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville
Jacksonville, FL
April 2, 2017; 3pm
Speaker: Dr. Christopher Richardson

Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church
Norfolk, VA
April 23, 2017
(During the 11am worship with a reception to follow)

Cedar Point Country Club
Suffolk, VA
May 4, 2017; 6pm
Speaker: Dr. Brian Blount

If you are interested in hosting an “Ignite” event, please reach out to our Director for Alumni Development, Rev. Clay Macaulay at clay.macaulay@upsem.edu.

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations

Taking Jesus Seriously

Lady Gaga performs at Superbowl 51

This past Sunday was the Super Bowl 51 and no matter what side you cheered for, it was an epic game. I am a sports fan, but I was not particularly interested in the game this year apart from wanting to watch Lady Gaga perform during half time.

The thirty year old millennial superstar preaches a message of radical love of self and others, demonstrated in her most recent, blockbuster ballad, “Born This Way”. While her style of music and provocative artistry raises eyebrows around some religious communities, the chorus for “Born This Way” hits the nail on the head in terms of articulating a theology of inclusivity:

 “I’m beautiful in my way

‘Cause God makes no mistakes,

I’m on a right track baby

I was born this way…”

God did not make a mistake when creating all of us who make up the fabric of humanity, though we might side-eye a neighbor from time to time and think otherwise. Particularly in our current social and political situation, we may be more inclined to pray to God something along the lines of:

“I’m beautiful in my way, God,

And I know You don’t mistakes…

But Sally is making a mistake…

So I hope you can change her heart, oh God…”

Sound familiar? I will be the first to admit that my prayers, as of late, sound more like “Help (him/her), Oh God…” rather than, “Help me, Oh God…”.

I was reminded of this subtlety in my prayer life after visiting with Bayside Presbyterian Church, in Virginia Beach, Virginia this past weekend. Nestled near Lake Smith and to the northeast of Virginia Beach, Bayside Presbyterian Church has been serving the Church since 1948 and is currently pastored by Rev. Dr. David Rollins.

Love Tree at Bayside Presbyterian

Upon entering the front doors of the church, one finds a beautifully crafted, wooden tree structure just before the main entrance to the sanctuary. Red and pink hearts are strung up by decorative ribbon. Each heart includes the name or names of individuals listed by members of the congregation. This community prayer project was inspired by Valentine’s Day and Christian love.

Rev. Rollins shared, “The idea is to get people to take seriously Jesus’ command to love one another or try to see our neighbors as ourselves, even when we have great differences because of our unity in Christ. It is easy to think about and name those people that we find easy to love, but God asks us to love our enemies.”

Paper hearts were handed out to congregants as they entered the worship space on Sunday morning and folks were invited to string up their names or prayers on to the tree at the conclusion of the service. As Rev. Collins and I processed out, I went over and tied my prayer to the love tree. My heart stated, “My prayer is that I work to see the image of God in all those I encounter. Help me, Oh God.”

How is your congregation addressing unity amidst our divisive cultural climate?

Comment below!

Rev. Nicole Childress Ball, Church Relations Officer

Let the Spirit Dance In!

mapTucked away in the largest city of North Carolina, there is a vibrant community of individuals from Togo (West Africa). One of these individuals is Union Presbyterian Seminary’s own, Yao Thomas Agbemenou (M. Div. 2015).

In 2012, while Thomas was studying at Union’s Charlotte campus, he sought to fill a gap in this community and started what is now known as “Grace of God Worshiping Community” (or “Amenuveve Hame” in their native language, Ewe). Thomas reached out and invited community members in multiple ways, including inviting those who he played soccer with each week! Almost 5 years later, this worshiping community has taken on a beautiful and vibrant form, shaped by the leadership of each member.

Healing Service in Ho, Ghana (January 2012)

I had the wonderful opportunity to worship at “Amenuveve Hame” recently. Having travelled to Ghana (a neighboring country of Togo), I was thrilled to have this opportunity to reflect on my worship experiences in the Ghanaian cities of Accra, Kumasai, and Ho!

The flow of worship is somewhat different than what might be experienced in the same worship space at Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church only an hour before. Songs of worship and praise filled the space and soaked into every part of my body. Following an explanation of why we pray and confess our sins, prayers of confession and intercession were called out in multiple languages, all at once as I reflected on the beauty of this diversity, and the welcome that has been offered to this congregation and in turn to me. I listened to sermon in both Ewe and English and wondered if anyone would take Rev. Agbemenou up on his welcome to be interrupted if there were questions. No questions came until the end, but a few members did seek further explanation on some points that were made and Rev. Agbemenou promised to continue the conversation the following week as time began to close in around us. We sang in Ewe, French, and English. We danced and made the most joyful noise as we offered our monetary gifts and our lives to do God’s work.

In the midst of a broken and hurting world, I found peace and delight as I sang and danced with my brothers and sisters at “Amenuveve Hame”.
New Worshiping communities seek to meet a variety of needs within our communities (learn more about another New Worshiping Community, Farm Church, in this past blog!). As I reflect on this community and my experience with them, especially in light of all that is going on in our country right now, I am beyond grateful for their presentation of God’s Word. The welcome I received made me feel right at home and the word’s I heard proclaimed joined each of us in the Holy Spirit. When so many question how they can and should join with those who look, think, act, and believe differently than themselves, I delight in the fact that I was welcomed to worship with the Love of God (and translations!) rather than left alone in the pew as I wondered what I would see and hear in the next hour and a half.

If you are wondering what you can do in light of the divisions around our world, or would like to learn more about someone else’s life, I encourage you seek out an opportunity to worship with them. There might not be a congregation like “Amenuveve Hame” in your own community but there are other denominations and even other religions represented in almost every neighborhood around the country. Take an hour or so to speak with someone in these worshiping communities if you are not able to attend their service, and invite them to join you at some point as well.


Union’s Travel Seminar Group with members of a Volta Region Congregation (January 2012)

I originally attended worship at “Amenuveve Hame” to support a friend and colleague in ministry, but walked away with a deeper understanding of his own story and the way that the Word of God is proclaimed around the world. I left renewed and excited, eager to share their story. As I have thought back, I wonder– what would our communities, our country, look like if each of us was more intentional about worshiping with our neighbors and embracing the diversity of our faith backgrounds?

 Have you experienced worship in a different setting than what you are used to?

How are you encouraging your congregations to learn more about how Christianity, and other religions, are practiced around your community?

Rev. Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations