Picture gallery at the bottom of the blog!
Sunday morning turned out to be wonderful and frustrating. The plan was to worship at Alpharetta Pres at the early service and then drive to First Pres Atlanta to catch the second service so I could visit with the pastor, Rev. Tony Sundermeier and his wife Katie, both Princeton Seminary grads and friends. Unfortunately, APC’s early worship wasn’t at 8:30am (as God intended!) but 9:30, so that wouldn’t work to make both services. Plan B was to just enjoy worship at APC and spend longer than I’d plan during the fellowship time between services to visit friends. I’m glad I did. Although I’ve known and communicated with APC’s pastor, Ollie Wagner, I’m not sure I’ve ever met him in person and know I’ve never heard him preach. The sermon focused on Psalm 23 and one of the stained-glass windows focuses on that psalm. Ollie invited children of the church to come forward and one couple brought their adorable young boys outfitted in little outfits with bow-ties. After the service I found out that the father was one of David Dantzler’s sons that I had baptized some 35 years ago. Love how ministry has an arc.
At worship I sat with Jim and Barb Simmons but was gratified that many old APC folks were there to visit as well. In addition to the Busmans, Tom and Marion Cunningham, Polly Hyatt, with her son Ben, Carolyn Dillon, Frances Mosher, and a host of others. I was sorry to miss Libby McDaniel and her daughters, Jenny and Dana, who came too late; Libby’s husband, John, died last year and he was one of the best hires I’ve ever made in the church. He was a member who had been in the manufactured home business after leaving the Air Force. When that business dried up I hired him to be the Church Building and Grounds Director and he served several of the pastors with great distinction for many years.
Seeing the beautiful pulpit brought a smile. There is, as they say in the South, “a story there!” The story is, early on, before we even began building the first building, I received a call from one of my seminary classmates, Lucy Stafford. Lucy had been called to a church in Kingston, PA, near Wilkes-Barre’, PA, where my folks grew up. Back in ’72 the area had been devastated by a flood after hurricane Agnes that savaged NE Pennsylvania in July. My mother was sick with cancer at the time, but we drove up the day after the flood waters receded to take food and cleaning supplies to friends. Anyway, Lucy was in a church that was a yoked field between a Methodist and Presbyterian Church. The Presby church was an old Welsh congregation and it had been damaged by the flood; although a beautiful gothic building it eventually closed and became a day care, but Lucy’s church had kept the pulpit and Tiffany windows. In the ‘20’s – ‘50’s there was a non-geographic Welsh speaking Synod in the “northern” Presbyterian Church, and for close to 20 of those years my grandfather was a ruling Elder at First Welsh Presbyterian Church, Wilkes-Barre’ in that Synod. I think it is likely that my “Taid” had at least been in the Kingston congregation for worship or a meeting, or, perhaps, even stood that beautiful pulpit. Lucy asked whether I might want it. She’d let us have it for free, only the cost of shipping. So for $600 shipping and a few hundred more for refinishing, this pulpit was in the original chapel I built and now, is put in the sanctuary built after I left. Seeing this old friend, remembering the story, was such a gift.
Being in Alpharetta, especially with the incredible affluence evident in the years since I left, also brings a shadow side in my memory. Alpharetta is the northern most city in Fulton County. Just to the north is Forsyth County and the county seat of Cumming, GA. About six-months after I arrived on the field an ugly incident happened in Cumming that made me wonder what I had gotten myself into. Over Martin Luther King, JR Weekend in ’87, one of King’s lieutenants, Hosea Williams, took a bus-load of protesters up from Atlanta for a “March Against Fear and Intimidation” to Cumming since Forsyth County had no non-white residents and was known as a “sundown” county, meaning no persons of color were welcome in the county after sundown. There were some 90 protesters with Williams, and they were met by nearly 2,000 counter protestors organized by the Nationalist Movement and the Ku Klux Klan who threw rocks and other objects such that the police ordered Williams marchers back on the bus and escorted them out of town. This story, and the troubled history of how Forsyth County became a “sundown” county is told in Patrick Phillips’ remarkable book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America ( https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Root-Racial-Cleansing-America/dp/0393293017/ref=asc_df_0393293017?tag=bingshoppinga-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=80745439392569&hvnetw=o&hvqmt=e&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=&hvtargid=pla-4584345029293036&psc=1). I am grateful to WPC member Gary Shockley for loaning me this book to read. The irony is Forsyth County is growing and has the best school district in the state of Georgia and is actively working to overcome its troubled past. Yet the names of some of the families who were influential in the early years of the conflict that led to driving POC out of the county were known to me and I still remember going to the Alpharetta post office and seeing someone in line dressed in cammo with Klan symbols all over.
Next stop was Montgomery, AL to see the Civil Rights Museum that focuses on lynching in America. After leading a bus-load of APC members to the Memphis Civil Rights museum we had talked about closed on Sunday and Monday, so I continued on to Tom McDow’s hometown, Wetumpka, AL to see the rebuild after it was flattened by a tornado some years ago. Specifically, Tom’s home church, beautiful First Presbyterian, one of the oldest in the state, had been extensively damaged, but rebuilt. It lies just over the bridge and is a sight to behold. From there I continued on to Selma to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, sight of the “Bloody Sunday March” where Congressman John Lewis was so badly injured.
I finished the night in Birmingham at a lovely out-door-café having dinner with my long-time friend, Rev. Ed Hurley, pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church. I can’t remember when Ed and I first met, but we have long done work as Princeton Seminary alums and now, fellow board members for The Outreach Foundation. A funny side-note is I came in second for South Highland PC to Ed, but he was the better choice at the time. I remember going to interview as a family when the twins were just three. It was our firsts flight together as a family, because Amy and I agreed we wouldn’t take the twins on a plane until they were at least three. It was a bit of a fiasco, to say the least, and our lives were not nearly as settled at Ed’s whose twins were already in high school at that time. I am grateful for his friendship and the work he has done at that church I’d come to love during the interview process and we could look back together to see how God worked to call us both to where we needed to be.
This morning I was reading Eugene Peterson’s As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire and his reflection on Psalm 29:2, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” filled my heart as a cool breeze floats over me on the back porch surrounded by the sumptuous green and the song of birds. I smile to note that the bookmark is one Ed’s wife, Gail (a Nashville native) sent. It is a “Prayer for Ukraine” with one of her paintings on it. I love how God knits our lives together.