By Emily Holladay
When a crowd gathered before Jesus, he preached to them, saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
– Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV)
First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, Tenn., provides a tangible example of the sheep Jesus spoke about — daily working to feed, clothe, welcome and care for their neighbors. The church’s tagline, “A place to be. A place to serve,” only scratches the surface of the compassion it offers to God’s children in their community.
FBC Chattanooga is one of the only Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches within a 30-mile radius, attracting people from multiple counties and three different states. But, despite the regional membership, FBC Chattanooga excels at responding to the many and varied needs within the community in the heart of the historic and diverse city.
“We are the different church in our area — between us and Dalton, Ga.,” noted FBC Pastor Thomas Quisenberry. “Our draw and appeal is the kind of Baptist we are, worship style, family appeal. We are a church that seems to be regional but still has the neighborhood feel.”
The church’s nature is not a platform or grandstand, added Quisenberry, not rallying around issues as much as the question of what the congregation can do now to make a difference in the community.
For decades, FBC Chattanooga has provided ministry to the vast homeless community surrounding the church, offering a clothes closet and weekly fellowship meals. The church even boasts three hairdresser chairs installed by the local beautician school, where those affected by homelessness can come for free haircuts. A few years ago, the college ministry at FBC Chattanooga raised more than $100,000 to install showers and washers and dryers
at the church.
“It won’t be long before we open a tire and lube in the church parking lot,” Quisenberry joked.
While the pastor’s words were in jest, FBC Chattanooga is clearly a congregation that follows the call of Jesus to respond to the needs of the most marginalized and neglected in their community. A humble community, they seek to listen to the ways God needs to use them in the church’s neighborhood.
Ten years ago, Bobby Colvin, a longtime member of FBC Chattanooga, received word that a young man from the church had been taken to the local jail. Colvin’s heart broke, because this young man was a student of his in the Royal Ambassador’s program as a child, and he hated to see him fall into the wrong crowd.
“My wife, Sylvia, went to see him once and she came home and told me I ought to go see him,” Colvin remembered. “I had never been to the jail, but the more I thought about it, I thought I should. Then I went back to see him again. It wasn’t long before I was going on a
pretty regular basis.”
The Hamilton County Jail is situated about six blocks from the church, with many of the inmates coming from within a five-mile radius of the church.
Though Colvin had not visited anyone in the jail previously, he had a friendship with the chaplain, who coordinated a separate visitation day for him. Soon, the chaplain began asking Colvin to visit other inmates who did not often have visitors or anyone to connect them to the world outside the jail.
“One day my wife said, ‘Bobby, why don’t you share that blessing with other people?’” Colvin shared. “So I invited another member of FBC Chattanooga, and then another, and then another. And we’d all go down and visit inmates on Friday mornings.”
Before long, the jail named these men “Program Advocates,” and asked them to help the inmates sign up for one of the numerous life skills classes offered at the jail. Eventually, the men were asked to teach some of the classes and, from there, the church’s “Beyond the Bars” ministry has grown and flourished.
“We have taken it to another level now. These guys, when they’re released, don’t have jobs and they don’t have clothes. We give them clothes [from the church’s clothing closet] and a bus pass that’s good for a month,” Colvin shared. “One of the guys in the ministry is then chosen to mentor an inmate when he gets out.”
Along with the mentorship program, the released inmates are also enrolled in a life skills class taught at the church.
“If they want us to help them on an ongoing basis, they are required to go to that class,” Colvin noted.
During the classes, they learn skills from conflict management to money management. Their mentors help them practice for interviews or develop the tools they need to succeed in the workforce.
“The hardest thing for us to do is to find them housing,” Colvin explained. “Most landlords just don’t want ex-inmates to rent from them. We struggle with finding jobs for them. Most of the time, we wind up having to put them in a motel and then push them to find a job where they can become self-sustaining.”
Many times, inmates are re-incarcerated because they end up back in the communities they came from and fall into the same cycles that put them in jail in the first place.
“A lot of these guys are having to make tough decisions because family is what got them in trouble,” Quisenberry said. “How do you look at your family and say, ‘you’re not the influence that I need?’
They’re having to make decisions that I am not faced with.
“One of the most important things the men have done is build up the level of trust needed for the inmates to be able to feel like we’re not taking advantage of them. We really are invested in wanting to make their lives better. We’re trying to make the community better by trying to make some that are in the community more than they think they can be or thought they could have ever been.”
With the vibrant ministries already provided by FBC Chattanooga, the Beyond the Bars ministry was able to take off seamlessly, working in tandem with preexisting groups to offer resources that otherwise wouldn’t have been available to the released inmates.
“We seek to feed, educate and clothe, but most importantly to show released inmates Christ-like love — to treat them as God’s children and individuals,” Quisenberry said. “We’re going to love them and tend to them as best as we can.”
The church’s mission statement says: Everyone needs a place: a place to worship God with heart and mind; a place to give and receive compassion; a place to learn about life; a place to make a difference; a place to fit in and belong. Through the many ministries the church offers, and particularly the Beyond the Bars ministry, FBC Chattanooga lives deeply and widely into their shared vision as a community.
As Jesus speaks about the sheep and the goats, I imagine he has the people of FBC Chattanooga in mind when he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
“God blesses us every day,” Colvin shared. “We can just feel God’s presence in this ministry. So many times I’ve walked out of that jail and felt like I was floating because of the Spirit with me.”