The Southside is changing and for two young ministers it is opening bright new fields for ministry. "To do something different and find how to live out the gospel in new ways" is how the Rev. Brian Merritt explains his new ministry.
"We intend to love our neighbor, follow Jesus, and change the world," said the Rev. Bob Leopold of his new ministry. "We hope to do that together – in community – directly and primarily shaped by the needs of the wider Southside community of which we are a part. We hope to have authentic community partnerships either teaming up with what is already working or starting new initiatives to meet the felt needs of the community. We want everything we do to be shaped by the community, a community that has lots of different contexts represented."
Rev. Leopold, with support from the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, and Rev. Merritt, with a three-year grant from the Presbytery of East Tennessee, are working to establish their separate presence in the Southside. Neither is planning to establish a new church, but to develop community.
In settling on the name, Southside Abbey, Rev. Leopold said he was looking for a word that was not loaded with negative reaction. "Abbeys were places that were a part of the community. They touched the lives of everything in many positive ways. The abbey also proved to be a way to do something very new within the patterns of the old," and that is what he is looking for. "In the opinion of younger people," he said, "the church is only there to further the church and we wanted to find ways in order to be Christ for them."
Mercy Junction also has a connotation that reflects its purpose. "A junction is where people meet and we wanted to have something to let people know this is a place where mercy is practiced," Rev. Merritt said of his ministry’s name.
There are similarities and differences in the way the two men have begun their ministries. Rev. Leopold and his wife Lisa came to Chattanooga so she could be a music teacher at Normal Park Upper School and he could be on the staff of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. They lived on the Southside for several years and he left St. Paul’s after four years to begin the Abbey.
"It is a real pleasure to work for Jesus, employed by the Episcopal Bishop of East Tennessee, " Rev. Leopold said. "Denominational loyalty is departing quickly. The message of Jesus and the actions of the Church can seem pretty far apart at times. The word church used to mean an assembly of people. In common practice it now means a building. Jesus started a movement. We built buildings."
Rev. Merritt came to Chattanooga after a seven-year ministry as senior pastor of a Washington, D.C. Presbyterian Church. "Local Presbyterians wanted to pursue something in the Southside that was not traditional ministry. I had been working for several years on the idea of a new ministry and the national church thought we should pursue this.
"About a year ago we began working together and the Presbytery of East Tennessee has called me to be their evangelist," Rev. Merritt said. "We are hoping that this will be an alternative worshiping community that is interested in a different type of diversity. We will be guided by Presbyterian ideas while working toward a discipleship in Jesus Christ that fits the Southside’s growing context."
"The people in the Southside are incredible," Rev. Leopold said. "Those who have been here for years have a real connection with one another and those around them. They are stewards of a history that most people in Chattanooga don’t want to think about. Those who are newer to this area bring with them a real enthusiasm for being agents of change. They are mobilized, nimble, ready to work, not just talk. The dance between these two worlds is bringing a real creative energy."
Rev.Leopold sees a potential in the Southside to change the world, providing new models for everything, not just worshiping communities. "What are schools, churches, universities, development, infrastructure – all the things that were institutionalized in the modern age – going to look like in the years to come, particularly in terms of sustainability? The Southside has a chance to be a part of modeling news ways forward on all of these fronts, to try to keep the concept of Jesus, but change the structure."
Rev. Merritt also is not looking for a building at present, because that would be expensive and he would rather spend the money to meet the needs of the people there. He sees this as a little leaner and more gospel-related. "I’m not worried about a building. There are buildings where we can go and meet and worship together. A good part of our worship is intentionally centered around doing things instead of just a worship service. Doing things in the community to help other people will be part of our worship."
Both stress the importance of relationships, of getting out in the community meeting people and finding out their needs.
In the beginning Rev. Merritt said his emphasis will be on three things: working on a farm to table collaborative ministry, helping people who don’t have access to fresh produce; an intentional worship community; and an online presence for those who can’t participate in person.
He looks forward to leading fund drives. "Since I’m on a grant, I don’t have to worry, but I want to support existing ministries and organizations and feed people in need."
Rev. Leopold sees Jesus as the model for ministry, "to be a real presence to people where they are and respond to their needs. They know me because I live there and that I care."
Rev. Leopold has begun a Friday night worship service at 6:42 (based on this scripture in the gospel of Mark) which meets at the Hart Gallery on Rossville Avenue at Main Street. A meal and listening is part of the worship.
Both men have special activities planned.
"On election night," Rev. Merritt said, "we plan a service of unity for the followers of candidates of all persuasions. I plan to partner with Northminster (which provides him office space) and some of the other Presbyterian churches in the worship to talk about unity in Christ. I’m hoping to do a fundraiser for the Chattanooga Food Bank in December and do a lot collaboratively with Rev. Leopold.
Rev. Leopold plans an All Souls Day service Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. at the Community Kitchen with a meal and a worship service memorializing those in the Chattanooga homeless community.
He is also planning a community time for conversation he calls Ask A Priest, which will be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m to 1 p.m. for people to come with their questions or just to talk with him. The decision on the location is pending.
"As we survey the philosophical landscape that will come after modernism," Rev Leopold said, "we think that whatever is post-modern will have much in common with the pre-modern world. We are seeing that already. Why buy your bread at Niedlov’s Breadworks for twice what it would cost at a conventional grocery store? Why go to the farmers’ market for eggs? What are these community gardens about?
"People want to be connected to their community and their food. These were pretty common ideas in the pre-modern world. It is the modern world that has pre-packaged everything for easy consumption to isolated individuals. Unfortunately, parts of the Church have done the same for Christianity. Parts of the Church are really in bed with the modern world, particularly consumerist culture. If that metaphor is unsettling, it should be."