This article is part of the Easter 2020 Trinity Magazine issue. You can view the full issue here.
St. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:19-20 that Christ “[entrusted] us with the message of reconciliation...as ambassadors of Christ.” If you were to ask a good ambassador what an effective messenger of the home country looks like, a posture of humility – a characteristic St. Paul calls us to frequently – would likely be among the top 5 qualities. For far too long, the societal sphere where this the message of reconciliation is needed most is race, as Bishop Jim called out in his Gathering 2019 sermon.
Church of the Epiphany, Nashville is one of our church plants in the East Nashville area, led by The Rev. Justin Hogg. Rev. Justin and his congregation planted themselves in a diverse neighborhood where economic and racial forces are in tension. Still, the Epiphany congregation has entered the community with a heart of humility, establishing cross-cultural relationships that show us what being entrusted with the message of reconciliation looks like.
We interviewed Rev. Justin just before Ash Wednesday, weeks before a tornado hit the East Nashville area. Thankfully, all of the Epiphany people survived the tornado. Yet, Rev. Justin said in an email, “it was a very close call.”
TM: Paint us an image of your congregation.
JH: Church of the Epiphany is small. We have one college graduate, but most of our people are probably between 30 and low 40s in age, many families with small kids; we’re a group of families that are just committed to each other. Community is a big emphasis for us. We want to make sure if, someone’s having a hard time, someone will go over and trim the hedges for them or whatever is needed for each other. I try to periodically call everyone in my congregation, just to check in and pray with them. I’m committed to community, word, sacrament, and being the body of Christ in the midst of east of East Nashville. W’re not a financially viable congregation, yet we make it work.
TM: Can you share with us the origin story of Church of the Epiphany in East Nashville?
JH: A little over three years ago, my wife and I moved back to Nashville. We were involved in church planting in San Antonio, Texas. My wife is from Nashville, and we came back to Nashville with the intention of planting a church here. After a year of prayer, meeting people and getting into the community, we gathered people interested and committed to the east Nashville area. East Nashville is a black community that has been gentrifying for over a decade, and I could tell it was creating some tension there. The gentrifying forces were starting to push the black community out.
When I got there, I prayed about these gentrifying forces. As I thought and prayed, I asked where would Jesus be in the midst of this community? He would be in the gap, in the cracks, in the divisions of the community.
So I started talking to the pastor of a local African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church named Omara’n Lee at St. James AME Church in the heart of East Nashville. We formed a partnership with them and started meeting there on Sundays.
TM: Tell us more about this partnership that’s been developing with Epiphany, St. James and Pastor Omara’n.
JH: Through Omara’n, I became part of the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship [IMF]. It is an awesome group, talking about community issues. It's mostly inner-city black pastors, but also involves a lot of black leaders in the community. I got pulled into that and slowly, myself and the congregation kept going further into work with our community members.
We're a plant, a small church, but we're known in the black community and we serve. We're willing and we get invited to things. We helped with their 150th anniversary celebration and Thanksgiving meal. Together, we served over 500 people in the community.Our approach is you lead, we’ll follow, not come in. We don’t want to come in, trying to make reconciliation happen. We want to develop partnerships, understanding and shared work with people in the black community. We avoid ideas of charity or anything like that because that's not what we're doing there, and it’s born some fruit. It’s been a struggle at times, but it’s been a really good mission for us.
TM: How did the partnership get started?
JH: I realized if I was going to come in and do any kind of work in the black community, I needed to go to them. You know, one of the mistakes you can make is to decide you're going to do reconciliation, show up and not build relationships first. I wanted to partner with the black church in East Nashville. The AME churches are more liturgical, so I thought that would make it a little easier. The first church I visited was St. James AME Church, and I met Pastor Omara’n, who is also around my age. We had similar desires, and we hit it off. Our Epiphany church plant started meeting there once a month on Sunday after‐ noons after their service, renting their space.
Eventually, they invited us to their communion services. We would go to their church service. They cooked a big meal afterwards and we built relationships. That grew to twice a month, then we were there weekly. We’ve also done joint services including Christmas Eve and Ash Wednesday. Omara’n and I share the preaching duties for those services.
We also provided a lot of labor and some funds for their recent 150th Anniversary (Freed slaves founded St. James church 150 years ago). It was a great experience to be a part of that celebration, as well as a teaching opportunity for our people. This black church has a lot to teach our church.
TM: What are some of the things you’re learning?
JH: I'm learning about the concern they have for anybody that comes through the congregation. And how they will go out of their way to take care of people; to make sure they're fed, they're in the right place. The congregation is always concerned for those who are in need of help, prayer and salvation within their places of influence.
I'm learning a lot about the gospel; I'm learning a lot about preaching, just listening to these pastors.