2015 National Gathering Worship: Joy Douglas Strome

Joy Douglas Strome preaches at the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago.

2015 National Gathering Ignite: Lynette Sparks & John Wilkinson

Lynette Sparks and John Wilkinson share their Ignite presentation about Great Schools for All.

A “Hardened, Hurting” Homecoming

By Marranda Major

There was a commotion this morning at my bus stop. A man waved his arms furiously and jumped up and down to catch the attention of a young man walking on the opposite side of the street. When the boy crossed to join the crowd at the bus stop, the man embraced him and other elders patted the boy emphatically on the back. The boy smiled in acknowledgement and continued on his way. Another curious bystander asked, “Who was that?”

“A son of our community, come home,” answered the man.

He told us how he had watched the young man grow up in our neighborhood—a good student and star soccer player who had gotten a job at sixteen to support his mother and grandparents. “He disappeared three years ago. We knew he was in jail but were in disbelief—he was such a good kid.”

“He’s changed,” said another woman, “You can see in his face that he’s hardened, hurting.”

I don’t know this young man’s story. I don’t know his name or his charges or the conditions that led to his crime. But I do know his context, and after living in this neighborhood for the past eight months, I recognize that this community is “hardened, hurting” too. And as the tension between police brutality protesters and the militarized law enforcement is exploding in Baltimore, we see the inevitable outcome of our hearts “hardened, hurting” when our grief fails to find reconciling justice. Racially polarized reactions to the events following Freddie Gray’s death reveal that our country is “hardened, hurting” and the enormity of fixing the systemic racism that is so deeply entrenched in our justice system seems insurmountable. However, this year’s Ecumenical Advocacy Days offered our churches and faith communities a place to start.


The theme for the 2015 conference was “Breaking Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation.” During worship, preachers grounded us in the scriptural basis of our tradition that calls us to see God in the faces of the imprisoned. Keynoters presented the appeals we would make to Congress:

Reform federal criminal justice and immigrant detention policies toward the goal of ending unfair, unnecessary, costly, and racially biased mass incarceration by:

  1. adopting criminal justice and sentencing reform policies that incorporate an end to mandatory minimum sentencing;
  2. and eliminating the detention bed quota for immigrants and implementing alternatives to immigrant family detention.

We would ask for our representatives to support legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 (S. 502/H. 920) that would

  • limit the excessive mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses,
  • retroactively apply previous sentencing reforms from the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 for crack cocaine offenses which would result in an immediate reduction of the federal prison population,
  • transfer power back to the judge’s discretion in cases involving the lowest level drug offenses.

Why should Christians care about reforming sentencing procedures? And more importantly, how is drug policy related to police brutality and racism today? For me, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness made the connections between race and how people interact with the criminal justice system obvious. Alexander traces how the War on Drugs led to policies like the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that inadvertently target poor black communities by imposing long mandatory minimum sentences for low level dealing and possession of crack cocaine, and led in part to the 750% increase in the federal prison population in the past 35 years. (Yes–you read that number correctly, a 750% increase.) For more information about drug policy and about how its implementation unfairly disadvantages the poor and people of color, I highly recommend reading The New Jim Crow.


On the final day of the gathering, nearly one thousand participants descended upon Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives. We shared stories from home to connect our elected officials with a vision of how mass incarceration is ripping apart the fabric of our communities. I joined with four other DC residents in briefing a staffer for Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and expressing our concern that in Washington, D.C., three out of four young black men will serve time. Staffer Gamble held our concerns in consideration and shared letters with us that Representative Norton had signed onto to show her support for this legislation.

While having a positive reception to our smoothly rehearsed presentations felt like a triumph, our lobby visits did not end the conversation about mass incarceration. We did not convince all of our elected officials to vote in favor of the proposed legislation. Rather, these conversations opened up a relationship between constituents and their representatives for people of faith continue to continue advocating for just policies.


The learning from Ecumenical Advocacy Days has prepared us to engage in conversations at home with our friends and families about mass incarceration and our flawed justice system. The hard work ahead of us is in changing the collective consciousness of our communities to address systemic racism. For now, we have the tools to acknowledge our privilege; lift up the voices of returning citizens and stories of our incarcerated brothers and sisters; reframe the conversation about drug offenses from criminality to one about public health and addiction; and name the injustices we witness in our daily lives—from the death of Freddie Gray to the War on Drugs that has become a system of mass racial control—so that we can begin the change our “hardened, hurting” communities so desperately need. Lamentations asks,

“When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted–does the Lord see it?” (3:34-36)

By continuing the conversation, we affirm that we see it. We see the injustices our incarcerated brothers and sisters are facing. We see the need for liberation and reconciliation in our “hardened, hurting” communities. We see the opportunity before us to walk alongside “the least of these” as Christ has called us to do so.


Marranda MajorMarranda Major is a Young Adult Volunteer serving at the Washington, D.C. site where she works with NEXT Church. 



Mihee Kim-Kort and Andy Kort (Chicago 2015)

Mihee Kim-Kort and Andy Kort share their testimony at the 2015 National Gathering in Chicago.

2015 National Gathering Worship: Brian Ellison

Brian Ellison preaches on Tuesday morning of the 2015 National Gathering in Chicago.

2015 National Gathering Testimony: Bill Habicht

Bill Habicht’s testimony about social enterprise at the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago.


Scraps of Paper

by Christopher Edmonston

Setting the scene:  opening worship, Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago, first day of NEXT national conference, 2015.  I have been busy tending to details and trying to help our efforts appear smooth and professional (I am on the NEXT national strategy team).  I was running late to worship and I was handed a scrap of paper as I entered.

I honestly thought nothing of the scrap.  The worship leadership team is creative and I was sure they would have something in store for my scrap of paper.  That was my only passing thought as hundreds of other details occupied my mind.  I was more concerned that first time attendees to our conference found a seat where they can see and hear than I was about the piece of paper in my hand.

Worship began.  I finally looked down.  My scrap was a torn piece of the Heidelburg Catechism (yes that one).

I remember:  “What is your only hope in life and death?  That I belong, body and soul not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ … who has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil.”

The words bring me comfort as they connect me to those who have held this faith, practiced this tradition, and taken such statements to heart.  I was in Fourth Presbyterian, one of the great places of ministry in our church, and I was holding the words of a trusted confession.  What was not to love?

I felt very theological, scrap in hand, and all seemed like it was in order.  And for the record, it was decent, too.

Suddenly, I was dislocated as the worship leader stood on the chancel platform and told us the scraps of paper were torn pages of church order, theology, confession, and hymnody.  Sometimes, she said, such things have excluded us and held us back.  Take a pen and write on your scrap, she said, write on your scrap something that is holding you back, holding you back from your calling to be the church, the next church, that God is longing for us to become.

I wrote nothing.

The confessions hadn’t held me back.  Not that I could tell.

I looked over towards a friend, a man who has given his life, decade upon decade to the study and preservation of the confessions.  Were we telling him that we were advocating the tearing apart of confessional theology?

Another acquaintance worked on the new hymnal. I heard that his scrap was a page from it. What did he feel?  Did he feel as though his work was rejected?

Does being born into something new — and the church is being reborn from within — always require declaring death for what has been?

wall 2

Credit: Fourth Presbyterian Church


Credit: Fourth Presbyterian Church

The scraps would be used to build a fence, which by the end of the conference, the creative worship team would transform into a phoenix (which is an ancient symbol of resurrection).  It turned out really well, and (as I am the least artistic person who has ever been conceived) in ways I never imagined. The scraps were more repurposed than they were rejected.

But I go back to the moment I was startled.  I didn’t want NEXT to tear up the confessions (I still don’t).  I want NEXT to help reinterpret them.

Could it be that this is what the worship leaders were suggesting with the scraps in the first place?

After all, the confessions work for me and people who look like me. They had never been used to tell me “no” or deny me any privilege.

Maybe if they had I would want to repurpose them too.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on liturgical art at the National Gathering, check out this reflection from YAV Emily Powers!


EdmonstonChristopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church and a member of the NEXT Church Strategy Team.







2015 National Gathering: Regional Echoes

We are excited to announce a new experiment in the way we connect folks at the National Gathering and at home: Regional Echoes! In previous years, we’ve built in a lunch or dinner by regional context into the National Gathering so that folks would have a chance to connect with people they are more likely to run into a semi-regular basis. This year, we hope that by gathering folks after they’ve returned home, we will allow the conversation to continue, provide opportunities to further develop relationships and local connections, offer an accountability check for commitments folks may have made at the Gathering, and create space for folks who were unable to travel to Chicago but participated by live-streaming to connect to the larger Gathering.


Here are the cities (sorted by alphabetically by state) where Echo conversations will be held in the next few weeks and the names of leaders convening the conversations. To contact these folks for more information, click on their names below:

Birmingham, AL: Leanne Pearce Reed

Claremont, CA: Karen Sapio

Sacramento, CA: Jim Kitchens

Denver, CO: Linda Orosz

New Haven, CT: Adele Crawford

Washington, DC: Therese Taylor-Stinson, Rachel Vaagenes, and Mary Rodgers

Winter Park, FL: Jason Micheli

Atlanta, GA: Betsy Lyles

Cedar Rapids, IA: A.J. Plummer and Chuck Peters

Chicago, IL: Jan Edmiston

Indianapolis, IN: Carol McDonald

Louisville, KY: Matt Bowman and Scott Cervas

Ann Arbor, MI: Kelly Shriver and Fairfax Fair

Grand Rapids, MI: Karen Fitz La Barge

St. Louis, MO: Rob Dyer

Charlotte, NC: Suzanne Davis

Greensboro, NC: Mark Brainerd

Nebraska City, NE: Greg and Heidi Bolt

Princeton, NJ: Kristie Finley and Sharyl Dixon

Albany, NY: Katy Stenta and Eric Fagans

Buffalo, NY: Howard Boswell

New York City, NY: Charlene Han Powell

Cleveland, OH: Eric Dillenbeck

Columbus, OH: Karen Chakoian

Dayton, OH: Margaret Gillespie and Shelley Wiley

Portland, OR: Beth Neel

Philadelphia, PA: David Stipp-Bethune

Mechanicsburg, PA: Kathryn Johnston

Greenville, SC: Al Masters and Andy Casto-Waters

Memphis, TN: Lucy Waechter Webb

Dallas, TX: Nicole Bates

Austin, TX: Kyle Walker

Richmond, VA: Rosy Robson and Owen Gray

Seattle, WA: Leland Seese and Bert Johnson

Madison, WI: Scott Anderson

Milwaukee, WI: Robert Ater

Is your city missing from this list? Contact us if you would like to coordinate an Echo in your area!


Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During April, as we continue to process the 2015 National Gathering, Joe Clifford is curating a month of blog posts exploring multiculturalism in the NEXT Church. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, orTwitter!

*If you do not read Spanish, please scroll down for an English translation in blue

By Antonio Pichardo

Hola Pastor,

Mi llamado al pastorado fue en Canadá, desde que me convertí al Cristianismo mi deseo fue siempre de ser un pastor, trabaje en canada plantando una iglesia luego de cincos años salimos para la ciudad de Modesto en California donde también plantamos otra y después vinimos a Mount Pleasant para ayudar un amigo pastor al cual le avía dado un ataque al corazón y a mí y a mi esposa nos gustó esta parte del noroeste del estado por lo cual después de haber ido a trabajar en dos obras en Belmond y Hampton Iowa decidimos venir a esta ciudad nuevamente.

Vinimos con muchos entusiasmos y nuestra primera actitud era de venir a trabajar con la iglesia Presbiteriana gracias a Dios si tocamos la puerta y esta ce abrió en una forma maravillosa aquí estamos desde el 12 de Enero 2014 como ministerio ágape y la iglesia Monte Horeb se abrió unos tres meses más tarde estamos confiando en Dios que más puertas se van abrir para seguir la visión.

La visión mía es que iglesias planten iglesias, tenemos muchas familias hispanas en este estado y necesitamos la presencia de doctrina reformada en todas estas comunidades, necesitamos iglesia en Austin, en Dallas, Longview, Taylor y muchas otras ciudades que podamos ir.

En esta comunidad en la que vivimos el 57% de los niños en las escuela son de origen hispano tenemos la primera generación aquí que no habla inglés, pero segunda y tercera generación todos ellos hablan inglés, necesitamos todas estas gentes, ya que muchas de estas personas nos la están ganando otras religiones.

Seguimos trabajando con un grupo más o menos de cuarenta personas pero con una visión de crecer, hemos pensado para este verano tener un concierto y otras actividades para hacer venir las gentes a la iglesia, seguimos necesitando ayuda en oración para que Dios haga lo que él se ha propuesto hacer en estas comunidades donde estamos.

Le pedimos a Dios un ministerio en la ciudad de Dallas, esperamos que esas puertas sean abiertas a su tiempo.

Aquí le mando una foto de nuestro primer servicio en Mount Pleasant el día 12-2014.

Estamos muy contentos de poder ser parte de la iglesia presbiteriana muchas gracia por dejarnos servirles Dios y a ustedes.

Muchas bendiciones

Pastor, Antonio Pichardo

ministerio agape

From the moment I converted to Christianity my desire was always to be a pastor. I was called to the pastorate when I was in Canada. While I was in Canada, I worked planting a church. Five years later, my wife and I left Canada for Modesto, California. We also planted a church in that city. During that time, we came to Mount Pleasant for a few months to help a pastor friend who had a heart attack. My wife and I enjoyed this Northeast part of the state. After that short time in Texas, we went on to work with two congregations in Iowa (Belmond and Hampton). We decided to return to Mount Pleasant again when the ministry was finished in Iowa.

We came to Mount Pleasant with much enthusiasm. Our first act was to make contact with the Presbyterian Church (because they are so close to the Reformed Church). Thanks be to God we knocked on the door and it was opened wide for us in a wonderful and welcoming way. Ministerio Agape has been going since the 12th of January 2014. Then three months later Monte Horeb was started in the neighboring Pittsburg, Texas (we are hoping it will soon be a new worshiping community). We are confident that God will open more doors in accordance with our vision.

My vision is to plant churches. There are many Hispanic families in this state and we need the presence of Reformed doctrine in all these communities. We need more Latino churches in Austin, Dallas, Longview, Tyler and many other cities that we can expand to.

In our small community of Mount Pleasant, 57% of the children in the schools are of Latino origin. The first generation here does not speak English, but the second and third generations all speak English well. We need all these people both those who only speak Spanish and those who are bilingual. Already we are bringing many people in who have backgrounds in other denominations.

At this time we are working with a group of about 40 people, but we have a vision to continue to grow. This summer we are thinking about having a concert and other activities in order to attract people to the church. We continue to need support through prayer so that God will do what God has purposed for these communities where we are working.

We ask God for a new ministry in the city Dallas. We hope that once again doors will be open on God’s time.

The attached photos are from our first service in Mount Pleasant on January 12, 2014.

We are extremely happy to be part of the Presbyterian Church! Thank you for helping us serve God and all of you in any way we can.

Many blessings,

Antonio Pichardo

Antonio PichardoAntonio Pichardo serves Ministerios Agape, a new worshipping community in partnership with First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant, TX. 

Wayward White Boy and his Latino/a Friends: A Pastor Blessed by a Blossoming Spanish-speaking Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During April, as we continue to process the 2015 National Gathering, Joe Clifford is curating a month of blog posts exploring multiculturalism in the NEXT Church. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, orTwitter!

By Shane Webb

Ministerio Agape came onto the scene when a curious Latino leader knocked on the door of the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant, Texas. Antonio Pichardo is a man full of energy and a contagious laugh, who also happens to have a strong passion for Reformed Theology. As a bilingual pastor who gets excited about cross cultural ministry, I invited Antonio to explore with FPC the possibilities of joint ministry. I had wanted to get a Spanish-speaking service started for our congregation on my own, but had no luck finding interest in the community, though I met a bunch of fun Spanish-speakers playing soccer. By the time I providentially met Antonio, all my contacts and leads had dried up and I had all but given up on the project. When he came to meet with me, I immediately thought that 1001 New Worshiping Communities (NWC) would be the best way to get this ministry started. Once the idea was pitched to the session of FPC they quickly gave support, though they stipulated a one year agreement that would need to be renewed to make sure that the ministry would be respectful of our facilities (they had a problem with another housed congregation in the past). A small group of about 15 native Spanish-speakers met to discuss what the ministry might look like and vote on both the name and service times. After getting started, a group in neighboring Pittsburg, TX wanted to get a Spanish-speaking congregation going. It has been a little over a year, and they have doubled their regular attendance. Bible study and worship are their main focus but they also have prayer groups and outreach.

As the pastor of FPC and the point person for the NWC, Ministerio Agape, I have various roles. First and foremost, I am a cheerleader. I pray for them and support them as best as I can, encouraging them in their ministry. This includes communicating with the presbytery to keep them aware of what is happening and bugging them for resources and help. I also act as an assisting pastor, trying to maintain that Antonio is the leader and I am just a support. At first, I was extremely involved administering sacraments for their worship and occasionally preaching. Now they have elders and permission for Antonio to administer the sacraments as a ruling elder with seminary training and previous experience as a commissioned pastor in the Reformed Church of America. Another role I have taken on is grant writing. There are many applications and essays to be written in order to participate in the 1001 NWC. I did not learn that in seminary, but I had a little bit of practice while I was at Austin College. Finally, one of my most important roles is as bridge-builder. Antonio has a support committee, which he can call on at any time from the FPC. In the FPC-Ministerio Agape mission partnership, we covenant with each other to have worship together at least biannually and share events with one another. Part of this role is also connecting Antonio and other Ministerio Agape leaders with people throughout Grace Presbytery. Functionally at this time, the people of Ministerio Agape become members of FPC so they can have full rights and privileges until they decide to become their own church. For me, it has been a fun, exciting and Spirit-filled adventure. I am proud of their involvement in the community and their vigor for making disciples of Christ. Not to mention I enjoy crashing their fellowship events for their great Salvadoran, Dominican and Mexican cuisine. To God be the Glory!

Yours in Christ,


Shane WebbShane started his ordained ministry in Lima, Peru where he and his wife, Sarah, served as Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs). He moved to Mount Pleasant in 2012 to serve as pastor of First Presbyterian Church. Shane is a graduate of Austin College and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  He serves as pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant, TX where he hopes to help the members of FPC reach out to their community and share their faith in Jesus Christ.