by Carolyn Albright, Ripple Allentown
Juanita is nine months pregnant. Her boyfriend, the baby’s father, is in hospice dying of cancer, and she’s about to be evicted from her apartment in downtown Allentown. She arrives at Ripple desperate, yet cheerful. Tomorrow is her birthday, and we celebrate by singing and giving her a whole cake, complete with candles.
Last week when I saw Brian, his hair and beard were white, in keeping with his aging frame. Today he looks years younger with his obviously dyed hair. He tells me he’s living in a new “time warp,” caused by the convergence of aliens and Americans.
Today, my husband, Tom, and I will officiate at a funeral for a homeless man who attended Ripple.
Yes, these are some of the realities of Ripple, where I sense God’s call to pastoring.
What brought us here? God. What keeps us here? God. How did I get here? It has been a long journey, involving wrestling, resisting, remembering, releasing, and surrendering.
My Lutheran upbringing prepared me for service in the church as a choir and youth group member and leader, and later as president of our college fellowship (where I met Tom), Sunday School teacher and Bible study leader. For one year after college, I participated in Lutheran Volunteer Corps, an organization similar to Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), in Washington, D.C., where I met households of MVSers, who began my introduction to Anabaptist theology.
Early married life with two young children brought us to worship at Whitehall Mennonite Church, where, eventually, Tom was chosen to pastor. We were both rebaptized, as were our children later.
Tom prayerfully began pastoring in his “free time,” alongside his job as a teacher. I wrestled with the time crunch that his two jobs created for our family, and even resented how church took Tom away from our family. Meanwhile, God was nudging me to get involved and begin recognizing my own gifts of pastoring, but I refused. What would our kids do if both of us were sucked into church work?
So many brothers and sisters at Whitehall began calling out pastoral gifts in me that I could no longer deny that God was calling me to a pastoral role. Yet, the resistance continued, as Tom enrolled in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation. I decided to tag along to keep my eye on him—he was having some medical issues at the time—and ended up enrolling as well. Taking those classes was a fresh start for me, as I paid close attention to my own spiritual formation and internal conversations. I began to seriously consider what being called to pastor meant, and started meeting with a spiritual director. At the same time, we were moving out of Whitehall Mennonite’s realm to start an inner city ministry we first called “Ripple Effects.” Franconia Conference was instrumental in nudging us to take on this “missional experiment,” and Ripple continually reshapes itself, in true experimental fashion.
In the midst of all this, as our children approached college age, I returned to teaching school. Now how could I take on studying to be a pastor, when I, too, was working full time? Wrestling and resistance continued, until I remembered that others wrestled with God. I was in good company!
Releasing our country farmhouse and swapping for an apartment in inner city Allentown was a breaking point for me. I began Gateway classes after our first year in Allentown, and I have one more to complete. Because of Ripple’s ministry focus, I have also taken classes in restorative practices, and will earn a 24-credit certificate in ministry studies from EMS in the spring of 2015.
City life is so different from suburbia, but mission trips to Honduras also prepared us for life in Pennsylvania’s first majority-Latino city. We are part of a forming, informal group of Christians who live and work here in Allentown, and God keeps expanding our circles.
Recently, I wrote a response to some credentialing interview questions. One question, “What biblical principles guide your life and ministry?” caused me to reflect on love, relationships/community building and transformation. All three of these are rooted in Anabaptist theology and guide my daily living. Ripple’s byline is “moving closer to Jesus as our center,” and we do this by loving others Jesus’ way, building relationships, and praying and working for real, lasting transformation—beginning with me! In surrendering to God’s patient, persistent, risky call, my life has opened to new, life-giving possibilities. God is shaping me with a refreshing, transforming, loving perspective for my brothers and sisters in the inner city, as I pursue this adventure of being called to pastor at Ripple.
Juanita is still at risk of eviction. Brian still suffers with mental health issues. The family of Ronald, the homeless man whose funeral we officiated at, is still grieving. We are all moving closer to Jesus as our center, as we love, participate in community, and allow God’s transformation to happen.