Part 5 of a series: Listen That You May Live
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (May 17, 2017) -- Rev. Leah Burns is working inside the church on a Thursday afternoon. It doesn’t take long to realize she would rather be working outside the church.
Burns is associate pastor at Second United Methodist Church, an appointment she has had for a year. She sinks onto a sofa in the quiet building and begins talking about mothers, children, race, and a God of plenty.
“What does it mean to be a witness?" she says. "It means being present with the people. I don’t want to take away from all the great work our churches are doing, but there is so much more outside the church that we ought to be doing.”
She describes the Lonsdale, Mechanicsville, and Beaumont neighborhoods that border her own church. Mothers hesitate to let their children play outside because of traffic and crime, she says. The middle schools and high schools are located in more distant neighborhoods, complicating the lives of families who are typically financially stretched and headed by single, working parents or grandparents.
Food stores are scarce. Child care is expensive.
“The frustrations and challenges of the kids in our neighborhoods are incredible,” she said. "It's easy to lament the lack of funds in our church budgets, but we have tremendous resources. The Jesus I follow is a multiplier. He will make what little we have into plenty."
"We could help," she added. "Our churches can and must help them.”
In the neighborhoods where Second United Methodist hopes to work, norms such as separating people by race or meeting times on Sunday morning can be difficult for people outside the church, the pastor said. Families and neighbors are often biracial, and parents work shifts around the clock. The same is true for many communities.
Churches need to consider different options to reach all kinds of people, she said.
“We struggle to take care of 30 children in after-school activities, and they bless us in so many ways. But what keeps me up are the hundreds of children who are not there with us."
Until children of various races come together, “they won’t be together as adults. We call ourselves the United Methodist Church, but we worship separately.”
Burns, a former human-relations officer who was born in Ohio, says she loves her congregation of 150 and their willingness to try new things. She loves the people in the retirement and nursing home where she serves as part-time chaplain. She’s involved in organizing race-relations conversations with other congregations, as well as a new multi-church “open table” gathering for young adults. She’s working on a "poverty simulation" event, as well as prayer walks and other activities to reach the neighborhood kids she worries about.
There’s so much to be excited about in the United Methodist Church and her own church in particular, the pastor said.
Yet she knows she's not alone in wanting to move beyond the boundaries and divisions.
“Jesus didn’t go for that separational stuff,” she says. “Jesus says, ‘No, we’re not having that. Let’s leave that building and go where the people are.’ The needs are before us. I want the church to understand and go where the needs are.
“This is what we are called to do.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.