In the 1980s, Advent Lutheran Church, located in the University City area of Charlotte, was still a new congregation focused on church growth and becoming part of their community. At the time, they never expected to come face-to-face with mental illness or to embrace those living with mental illness.
That all changed one morning when a young man who lived close to the church walked into the empty sanctuary with an ax and began destroying everything he could reach. He chopped through thick hymnals and the church organ and destroyed much of the furniture in the worship area.
Luckily no one was hurt, but parishioners and the community were badly shaken and the man was taken to receive help. The incident left the church facing some hard decisions. Should they press charges, ignore the need of the young man or reach out and help?
The pastor at the time, Richard Little, took the lead in forgiveness, deciding not to press charges; and to the surprise of many, said the church needed to learn more about mental illness. So he reached out to the family of the young man, inviting them to be part of their church community and asked those in the congregation to begin a journey towards a better understanding of how mental illness affects those living with it and how they could help.
This incident is largely how the church’s outreach ministry became involved with Monarch, and began volunteering with the people Monarch supports in Charlotte by creating a Christmas gift exchange.
We looked at the incident and saw it as an opportunity to “make lemonade out of lemons,” explained Kay Griep, a member of Advent’s social ministry board.
Each year, Melinda Pompey, Monarch operations director in Mecklenburg County, supplies the church with a list of names of people supported and Advent hangs them, along with a wish list, on the “Giving Tree” at the church.
Kim Voelker, head of the initiative, said Advent Lutheran Church’s motto is “Love God and Serve Neighbor.” An important part of their church’s mission is to find ways to live this motto.
“We strongly support the work that Monarch does with helping people to achieve their goals and dreams,” Voelker said. “Providing gifts each year during the Christmas season for the people Monarch supports is a small way we feel we can serve and show love to some of our North Carolina neighbors.”
Debra Efird, a member of the social ministry board at Advent Lutheran, said during Christmas “everyone wants to help children, but there aren’t many people who will open their hearts and pocketbooks to people with mental illness.” This, in her opinion, is what makes Advent different.
Griep agreed. She said the ministry is unique because it reaches out to people that are often overlooked in society.
“I enjoy going out and finding something for someone on the list. My husband and I go shopping together.”
The women on the ministry team emphasized their commitment to supporting those in the mental health community, and “rather than getting over it [the incident] at the church,” the ladies said they want to try to better understand mental illness. That is something they have continued to do for more than 15 years.
Advent Lutheran Church is a Christian community of the ELCA Lutheran congregations located in the University City area of Charlotte, N.C. Led by Pastor Ward Misenheimer, Advent demonstrates the many ways to “Love God, Serve Neighbor.”
Click here to watch short video about this ministry.