How does a local congregation cultivate a shared understanding of mission in an age inundated by polarizing news stories and socio-political realities? For the faithful of Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, they reclaimed discipleship as learning within the context of a gracious community. “[Mission] is about remaining in that student role and allowing myself to be taught what’s next by the Holy Spirit,” said Rev. Ashley Rossi, Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church. “I really feel like I am walking alongside the congregation more so than, at this point, necessarily being a leader. I am in this hot mess with them.”
As Carmel has leaned into the messiness of faith seeking understanding, they have facilitated discussions on immigration, invited speakers to address local gun violence, viewed documentaries on climate change and systemic racism, and hosted interfaith and ecumenical partners for dialogue and fellowship. Church members, including youth, have even recently pilgrimaged to other churches and ministries within the Presbytery of Philadelphia to listen to stories of innovation and social engagement relevant to their changing neighborhoods and relationships they have developed. A church whose membership is fairly traditional and all over the political spectrum, each connectional learning experience has helped their people view topics at hand not through the lens of partisanship but Jesus’ optic of neighborly love. “This is a part of mission,” added Rev. Rossi. “The more we can hear other people’s stories the better we can engage our own communities, even if they don’t look and act the same as ours.”
Over the last few years, Carmel’s revitalized discipleship has not only enhanced their learning, but also empowered their ability to live into a collective mission locally and beyond. This was especially evident in the aftermath of *Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico in 2017. As leadership began to plan their summer ventures for 2018, various church committees unanimously discerned a call to send a relief team of 12 to Puerto Rico in partnership with an ecumenical faith-based organization.
And they went.
Compelled to extend the love and compassion of Christ alongside people they recognized as distant neighbors, fellow citizens, sisters and brothers of the faith, the entire experience evolved into what Rev. Rossi called an “avenue to alternative perspectives.” As they served alongside local churches, they not only saw first-hand the vast devastation, but also took notice of how the faithful of Puerto Rico rose up in solidarity to carry the burdens of the whole community they considered their God-given responsibility. They were not concerned so much about various lines of division but focused on alleviating the suffering of their neighbors most in need. For members of Carmel Presbyterian Church, this embodiment of the gospel not only deepened their relationships with God and one another, but also renewed their discipleship as they returned home ready to serve in light of what they had just learned on the island. “This [mission trip] made me feel a closeness to God that I have not experienced in a long time,” said Elizabeth Angelo, member of Carmel. “Being surrounded by kind teammates and the wonderful people of Puerto Rico, coupled with our meaningful devotion time, my heart was full, and still is today.”
As Carmel continues to nurture their congregation’s missional identity beyond their summer service, they regularly risk conversations in efforts to reap authentic and embodied discipleship near and far. Whether through formative gatherings and “Free Prayer” at local coffee shops, Ashes on the Go at nearby train stations to begin Lent, or the planned viewing of 13th, a documentary on mass incarceration and the U.S. prison system, the faithful of Carmel listen, learn, and serve as humble disciples. They assure one another they need not to have it all figured out as they follow Christ, who is the One making all things new and right. “Church is not a temple to success. It is not some sort of shrine to how great we are at whatever,” remarked Rev. Rossi. “[Church] is a bunch of broken people trying to come together and make the world a better place and heal ourselves in the process. It doesn’t all have to be a raging success. It really doesn’t.”
Thanks be to God.
*In 2017, the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s Leadership Collegium and Trustees unanimously approved the sending of $25,000 to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for financial aid in Puerto Rico relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.