LTSP graduate Mark Parker is “reinventing Church” in Southeast Baltimore

A condensed version of this article was published in the Spring 2013 edition of
PS, The Philadelphia Seminary magazine 

Pastor Mark Parker is playing a lead role in “reinventing” Breath of God (formerly St. Paul’s) Lutheran Church located in the Highlandtown section of Southeast Baltimore, Maryland, about two and a half miles from where he grew up in the city’s downtown. And to hear him talk about it, the 2007 LTSP graduate is having a blast doing it.

Pr. Mark Parker at a rebuilding site“I can’t be in my office,” he said. “I just have to be out and about in the neighborhood meeting people, building relationships. They see me now as more than a person wearing a collar. When I attend special events, meetings or festivals, it is easy to have a conversation.” And the conversation can lead in any number of directions.

Take for instance Thursday nights at 8 o’clock when Parker showed up at the Laughing Pint, a neighborhood pub, wearing his collar. “A bar is actually a great place to meet people, hang out and get into conversations, even Christian conversations. People in that climate will open up to you and ask you questions,” Parker said. When people ask difficult questions about faith and what to believe, Parker remembers Professor Timothy Wengert’s classes on the Lutheran Confessions, and a more advanced class Wengert teaches on relating the Confessions to “actions that benefit somebody else ... The newer people connecting with Breath of God Church usually don’t have a Lutheran background,” Parker said. “That is not why they are there in church. But my seminary study, connecting to my classmates, and doing field work and internship in West Philadelphia, all taught me how to preach and teach, be authentic and deliver a radically different message about faith, the Bible, and the grace of God in a way they may never have heard it before.”

How did Mark Parker “come home” to do neighborhood ministry in his hometown? 

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was 110 years old when Parker arrived in 2009. The economy was crumbling in Baltimore and elsewhere. “This congregation had a good reputation in the community,” Parker says. “They had always tried to serve others in this place. But the 25 members, most of them older, did not have the energy they once had, and they knew that if something different wasn’t done to rebuild the church’s mission in Christ they would not survive. When people from the neighborhood visited the church in those former days, they saw the congregation’s members did not look like them, and so they did not return.” Forty years ago the community was mostly comprised of white, working class citizens. 

Today, the attractive community of row homes located about 15 blocks from Baltimore’s downtown consists of 25 per cent Latino residents, 25 percent African Americans, 25 per cent white, mostly elderly persons, and 25 per cent young professionals. So St. Paul’s dwindling membership invited Parker to re-energize the mission to be relevant to the church’s neighbors. Now, more than three years later, the congregation consists of about 75 per cent representation from its diverse neighborhood and from a wide variety of churched and unchurched backgrounds. The remaining 25 per cent are “original” parishioners who frequently do not live in the immediate community but wholeheartedly endorse the new church direction.

“I just started in 2009 going out to meet people,” Parker recalls. “I met 15 to 20 people or so who became a core group agreeing to help Breath of God Church make a fresh start.” The start included a name change. “The first month we joined Habitat for Humanity to help build a house in the neighborhood. Each month after that I invited neighbors to be part of a service project in the community. We started a basketball program in the church’s gym. We had special events on Halloween and for Thanksgiving.” And there were those Thursday evening conversations about God at the Laughing Pint Pub.

Meanwhile, earlier ministries making a difference were preserved. A weekly, 10-year-old “Make Sandwiches for the Homeless” program was moved from noon to 5 pm when working people could take part. A parish nurse health education and support program, featuring flu shots, blood pressure screenings and clinics, went on.

Before Easter of 2010, invitation cards went through the neighborhood to launch a new worship initiative. “It is very much a Lutheran order of worship,” Parker says, “but with more music.” The service is printed entirely in the bulletin and features music from Lutheran worship books and other resources “the variety of folks in our neighborhood will recognize from their backgrounds.” He acknowledges it can be a challenge to meld it all together. But he says it is exciting. “We try to pick songs familiar to everybody, including from Hispanic and African American traditions. And we did it from that Easter service on whether the people from the music backgrounds happened to be there or not,” Parker says. He explores “” for content each week and also includes music from United Methodist, Baptist and Church of God in Christ traditions.

“When I was in seminary I took evening and Saturday classes so I would get to know seminarians from other traditions,” he recalls. “Those classmates of mine were so helpful in expanding my knowledge, and their assistance and knowledge helps me enormously in this ministry. I meet people from those backgrounds every day on the street.”

Parker acknowledges the diverse challenges facing the diverse neighborhoods around the church and “no shortage of ways you can get involved.” He cites poverty that made a tighter grip on the community during the economic downturn. “We have a lot of men who are part of the construction trades in the community. Many families have been on the edge and lost a great deal. Our neighborhoods are actually safer than the perception many people have of urban communities, but it can be hard to grow up here. We have some moms and dads involved in addictive behaviors. We have some criminal activity here, and about one-half the boys are gang members by the time they reach the age of 18. It can be hard for young boys in the community to have a good role model.”

But Parker contends schools in the community are improving, and they are part of an impressive partnership list Breath of God Church lists on its web site along with the community library, the Highlandtown Community Association and the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, and other faith organizations in the area. 

Once the national president of the Lutheran Student Movement, Parker says he was transformed by participating in a mentoring program for youths while a University of Maryland student. And so it was natural for him to start a similar kind of mentoring initiative for third and fourth graders, many of them attending Highlandtown Elementary Middle School diagonally across the street on the intersection where Breath of God Church is located. Parker visits the school regularly and is part of its Family Council. He invites children to play basketball. Each August the congregation collects school supplies for the children of the neighborhood, and at the end of each school year “we host a breakfast for the school’s teachers to say thank you for what they do,” Parker says.

For Parker, being a faith leader comes naturally. He grew up with parents he is grateful for, attending Christ Lutheran Church not all that far from where he now serves. “We had an amazing congregation with youth programs and wonderful pastors, Amy and John Miller, who now serve in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I first thought of becoming a pastor at age 12. My pastors encouraged me along with Chaplain Elizabeth Platz at the University of Maryland. I decided to attend LTSP because it was an urban seminary concerned about urban churches and ministry.” He warmly recalls theological conversations with classmates and faculty in the seminary’s Refectory.

“When I first came to seminary, it was at the beginning of a new curriculum, and so I can’t tell you what the old one was like,” he says. But many classes were influential. In addition to Wengert’s teaching, he recalls “Multicultural Society -- Monocultural Church,” a course taught by the Rev. Dr. Charles Leonard, who also supervises field work education. Also, he remembers “Hip Hop and Faith,” instructed by the Rev. Chaz Howard, chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.

Parker and his wife, Christine, also an LTSP graduate, moved into a home close to the church a couple of years ago. They have a 2-year-old son, Luke. Christine is pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Edgewood, a suburb north of Baltimore.

Parker says he engages “all of the time” the folks in the community referred to in a recent Pew Research Study as “Nones,” people who report to the U.S. Census they have “no” church connection, a growing segment of the American populace. “In our community the 25 per cent of residents who are young professionals have a higher percentage of ‘Nones’ than the national average,” he says.

“I think of my role in this community to consider myself as pastor of all of its people whether they really care about having a pastor or not,” he says. “My ministry is one of presence. I want to be there. I want to have a relationship with all the folks around me. So I go out to meet and greet them. When there is a festival in Patterson Park, a beautiful public park in our area, I am there. The people I meet in the park or in the pub may never decide to hang out in church. But I am there to open doors for them and invite them to ask questions. Some of them have been ‘burned’ by what they will call a judgmental church experience in their past lives. They ask questions about topics like abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyles, even clergy sexual abuse, as well as how faith can help them in their lives.

“Later on when the idea of a wedding comes up, or they need a funeral for a family member,” Parker says, “my name will sometimes come to mind, and I can be there for them...”

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