By Blake Tommey
At every church or gathering they attend, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Jennifer and Trey Lyon receive the same question over and over again from confused crowds: Do you work for CBF or do you work for Park Avenue Baptist Church?
“The answer is always, ‘Yes!’” Trey said.
It’s not that the Lyons delight in puzzling people as to who they represent in their work in Southeast Atlanta; it’s just that they have a deep hope to never untangle the intricate web of partnership that has come to define their work, the work of Park Avenue Baptist Church and the community they all call home. Through relational ministry, the Lyons and Park Avenue are not only partnering with each other, but with the entire Grant Park community to renew God’s world.
“Partnership is the air we breathe; it’s everything we do,” Trey said. “We can all tend to adopt the rugged individualism that says, ‘If you want something done, do it yourself.’ And you can do ministry that way, but when it’s relational, magic can happen. We want to provide the space for that to happen together.”
In a community that is home to remodeled craftsman homes alongside damaged subsidized housing, hip new coffee joints and an abandoned urban middle school, the process of renewal is neither quick nor always clear. But the partnership is dedicated to discovering the gaps in their community’s development, and through increasing literacy among low-income students, training young urban leaders and providing missional learning experiences for groups across the country, Park Avenue and the Lyons are bringing God’s mission into view in Southeast Atlanta.
Seven years prior to their commissioning in 2011, the Lyons’ long-time friend, Tony Lankford, moved to Grant Park with his family to serve as pastor of Park Avenue and lead the congregation in partnering with their community. As he quickly learned, the stage would not only have to be set, but would also have to be built. Lankford amusingly recalls one of his first evenings in Grant Park when he and his wife, Tiffany, decided to tour the community and talk with their new neighbors about the church.
“People thought we were closed,” Lankford laughed. “Person after person told me they thought the church had shut down, or worse, they had no idea what church I was talking about. We were two blocks from the giant church building and most folks had no idea. It was kind of a horrific experience.”
Yet, from Lankford’s earliest dismay in the neighborhood, grew an unyielding commitment from the entire church to come alongside their neighbors in trust and mutuality to seek a role at the center of the community. The congregation hired Henra Chennault as its associate pastor, who had long been a vital presence in the lives of many young boys in the neighborhood through Boy Scouts. The church also began cultivating racial diversity among members and singing gospel tunes in addition to the traditional hymns with which they were familiar. They eventually even relinquished their own annual fall festival to provide crucial staffing for fall festivals sponsored by Grant Park and Parkside Elementary School — community festivals which struggled to recruit parent volunteers. Lankford says it was the church’s commitment to being a trusted neighbor that laid the foundation for partnership with the Lyons.
“The biggest gift that Park Avenue brings to the partnership is our established relationship with the community,” Lankford said. “Because of that presence, we provide the trusted space for Trey and Jen to listen to our neighbors’ needs and invite the congregation into that role with them. Without the local church, I don’t think their work could have taken root like it has.”
Subsequently, the Lyons’ biggest gift quickly became clear after a phone conversation in which Trey vented to Lankford about failing to find help for a destitute family seeking resources at his former church. Park Avenue had enormous amounts of space, but not enough personnel to commit to a full-time presence outside of those walls. If Park Avenue could provide the presence and space for missional ministry, then the Lyons could provide the independent and entrepreneurial mobility needed to engage the deepest social needs of the community. Jennifer emphasized that after exploring communities across the world in which to plant their ministry, the idea of partnering with their friends in their own hometown just felt right.
“Trey and I are Atlanta natives, and we knew the history, the people, the places, the resources,” Jennifer said. “We had been looking into serving in San Francisco and even Bulgaria, but suddenly it occurred to us that God was calling us toward the place we knew the most. So we met with Tony and drew up a basic plan for the partnership. We even moved into Grant Park before we were commissioned.”
From the beginning, the Lyons committed to “discovering the gaps,” Jennifer added. They now had the freedom to listen for those who were not being served and those who were falling through the cracks. With backgrounds in social service and youth ministry, the Lyons and Park Avenue turned their focus toward children and teenagers from low-income households who had few resources for developing literacy and leadership skills.
“Of all the issues we were hearing over and over, it always came back to what was happening in the summer for our low-income kids in the neighborhood,” Jennifer noted. “They lose about three months of progress in school during the summer, especially in regard to reading and literacy. Yet, middle-class kids gain a month or two. And so that achievement gap gets wider and wider, and by the time they hit middle school, the gap is two and a half years or so.”
During their first summer, the Lyons created a one-week literacy camp at the church, complete with curriculum, a meal, 30 minutes of one-on-one reading time with each student and transportation to and from the church. Over the course of the next few summers, the Lyons developed a close partnership with CBF partner, Passport, Inc., and began staffing teenagers from across the country during three and four weeks of literacy camp. This year, through the New Baptist Covenant, the Lyons and Park Avenue are partnering with Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church and Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to extend the literacy camp to six weeks across two sites in Southeast Atlanta as they seek to help students increase their reading scores.
In addition to literacy, the Lyons and Park Avenue identified another gap in leadership development among middle and high school students as they formed relationships with students at the church through Henra Chennault. As Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed reopened the Grant Park Recreation Center and after-school programs emerged in the community, Jennifer said they wanted to join in helping students discern good choices among the violence and negativity that surrounded them. So together with the Andrew P. Stewart Center, a ministry that promotes strong communities through various initiatives, the partnership has now developed a summer leadership camp, focusing on both leadership skill building and service learning.
For two days of camp, students interact in a classroom setting to engage each other in topics such as responding to violence, public speaking and identifying their unique gifts. In addition, the students spend two more days serving as junior counselors with the after-school program at the Stewart Center to help discover their own sense of leadership. Nikki Frazier, a resident of Grant Park and a camp volunteer, said that learning and leadership are important, but the most striking transformation has come as families learn to trust the church’s presence.
“Families really do trust us to help their kids dream and think outside the box,” Frazier said. “We’re not fixer-uppers, we don’t come from a place of assumption and we aren’t going to be gone in a puff of smoke. They count on us, and we want to rise to those occasions. They see us as friends because we are friends!”
As the Lyons and Park Avenue sought to invite others into their partnership in Grant Park, they utilized a long-time ministry of the church called Lydia’s House, an entire floor of the church building used for hosting mission groups from across the country. Partnerships with a local furniture bank as well as Mercer University led to the donation of more than 75 beds, which allow Passport mission groups to staff summer literacy and leadership camps each year.
Yet, more than service opportunities, the Lyons seek to offer a holistic urban-immersion experience as they help others learn to listen and see themselves as recipients of what lower-income communities have to offer them. It’s about creating a community of mutuality, Trey noted. At every opportunity they get to tell others about their role in Atlanta, the Lyons and the Park Avenue Baptist Church will tell you that partnership is not just useful, but completely central to what God is doing in the city.
“Our goal is that we never act or move from a place of assumed deficit,” Trey said. “Most of the time, harmful or unhelpful ministry happens because folks want to solve a problem and just be in and out. That’s not a partnership and that’s and not relational. But when the outcome is beloved community, you not only get stuff done, you reach the point where you realize that you need your neighbors just as much as they need you.”
Blake Tommey serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia as a collegiate minister at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
CBF is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support.The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. To learn more about the Fellowship, visit www.cbf.net.