Annie's church transforms to reach Baltimore's inner city
BALTIMORE (BP) -- Ryan Palmer admitted he was skeptical when he was called to pastor a dying church in Baltimore's inner city, where storied missionary Annie Armstrong was once a member.A theater major and attorney, Palmer had made other plans with wife Leslie, the two of them members of the Seventh Baptist Church that had then dwindled from a high of 2000 to only 17 members.
"And in 2003 I was actually called and asked to pastor the remnant. The previous pastor was burned out. He said, 'Brother this is where God wants you. He sent you and I believe you are the next pastor,'" Palmer told Baptist Press. "And like Sarah, Abraham's wife, I laughed. My idea was to be bicoastal. I was going to have a home on the East Coast and two aircraft, a home in L.A. and work in the entertainment industry."
Palmer's idyllic picture differed from the Baltimore he ministers to today, where openly homosexual and transsexual pastors lead churches a stone's throw away from his. It's also where heroin addicts, the homeless, prostitutes, alcoholics, committed blue-collar workers, affluent professionals, artists and college students all live within a two-mile radius of the architecturally rich church founded in 1845 and rebuilt after a 1919 fire.
On June 8, the Sunday prior to the Southern Baptist Convention 2014 annual meeting, Palmer relaunched the congregation as Seventh Metro Church. Fred Luter, who had mentored Palmer in ministry, preached the service as one of the last sermons of his term as Southern Baptist Convention president.
Luter commissioned Palmer and the 15 or so Seventh Metro members in ministry, joined on the occasion by perhaps 300 Southern Baptist friends and supporters.
"Father, in the name of Jesus, on behalf of the churches and messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention, on behalf of NAMB -- the North American Mission Board, God we right now want to pray and lift up the Seventh Metro Church," Luter prayed. "Thank you for these committed and faithful members. Bless them God collectively and individually. God we commission them. We send them out from this day forth God to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. ... We lift them up to you God. Give them the boldness and strength that they need God to go throughout the highways and the byways of Baltimore God, and compel lost men and women, boys and girls to come."
Palmer baptized a young woman during the service. She had accepted Jesus a day earlier during the Crossover Baltimore evangelism initiative preceding the SBC annual meeting.
The membership of the church had risen to as high as 70 one month after Palmer began his pastorate 10 years ago, but with no leaders or staff to help, membership declined once again. Palmer was overworked, leading the church as a staff of one bolstered by his wife Leslie, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just two years into their 1998 marriage and is now legally blind.
"The problem that I ran into, I have no deacons, I have no trustees, I have no Sunday School teachers, no associate ministers, and these were all first-time believers" who needed discipling, Palmer said. "They were multi-ethnic and ... going in 70 different directions. ... I began to pull back a little bit."
At his lowest point, Palmer said, he felt defeated and powerless to continue.
"The reality is I fell on my face in the pastor's office and I cried out. And my honest response was, 'God, I can't do this.' I said, 'God I've never seen so many needy people in my life, and I'm so ill-equipped to do anything about it,'" Palmer said. "[God] took me to the book of Haggai. ... It kind of said, 'Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former days?' And just like in Haggai, the folks who were here, we weren't here in the days of [Southern Baptist leader] Richard Fuller and Annie Armstrong and [former pastor] Dr. John Henry Day.
"And [God] says, 'Well how does it look to you now?' And I paused right there and began to make an assessment. And when you keep reading [Haggai] it says, 'Does it seem like nothing?' I said, '[God], how did you know?'"
"And God continues in that text and He says look, the gold and the silver are mine. Once more in a little while I'm going to shake the nations and they're going to come to you," Palmer said.
The passage in Haggai 2 includes the 9th verse, "'The glory of this latter house will be greater than the first,' says the Lord of Hosts." Palmer displays the Scripture on a banner above Seventh Metro's pulpit.
"This is the home of Annie Armstrong. This is the home of Richard Fuller. This is the home of Dr. John Henry Day. We're going to do greater things? It's humbling, but it's not out of reach," Palmer said. "Look at what Annie has done. Look at all the letters she wrote. What would she have done if she had had the Internet? Look at all the materials we have at LifeWay. Look at all ... the social media that they didn't have."
While Fuller was an SBC founder who championed slavery as a biblically sanctioned institution, the Seventh Metro of today serves a diverse and eclectic community.
"We are a city and we are well past the day when the Sunday worship hour is going to be the most segregated hour. There is not one person, and again that leads to 'Metro,'" Palmer said. "There's not one ethnic group. There's not one particular economic situation or educational background. We've got 14 colleges and universities in a two-mile radius. We also have heroin addicts, unemployed, homeless folk of all ethnicities. And so there's not one homogeneous kind of ethnos here. It's a city and so 'Seventh Metro' helps us to identify with that culture."
Limited financially, Seventh Metro is still fully engaged in the community through several ministries and initiatives. Sunday School is known as the Fulfillment Hour. R.E.A.L. Men is an open Bible study to equip men as leaders. Ethos is a Friday night ministry to teenagers, offering workshops and an open mic, and reinforcing good moral behavior through acting, writing, the spoken word, dance and visual arts.
The Point is Seventh Metro's outreach on the campus of Morgan State University and includes worship, fellowship and Christian instruction. Palmer also serves as the advisor to Morgan State's Baptist Student Ministry.
The Edge is a weekly bible study and fellowship opportunity for young professionals who live in the Greater Baltimore area. The I.C.E. team is composed of key congregational leaders who work to "improve church excellence" by regularly meeting with Palmer and evaluating church activities.
Among discipleship ministries Palmer leads are the 13-week Life Institute life application Bible study, the 13-week congregational Evangelism Institute, and the quarterly two-day Leadership Institute focusing on leadership development, ministry team formation, effective communication and personality profile and spiritual gift assessments.
Palmer uses the term "third place," envisioning a church that people readily want to attend after caring for their families and working on their jobs.
"I believe your first place should be home. I'd be a better pastor if I'm taking care of my wife, so that's first place. Second place, by virtue of culture, we spend 40 or more hours a week at work. And so, when you realistically look at it, that has to be second place," Palmer said. "Third place for us is when I'm not at home and I'm not at work, this is where I want to be. This is where I want to hang out. This is where I want to grow and connect and move and laugh and cry."
In explaining the "third place" concept to his congregation during a meeting, he piped recorded music into the church.
"I said I think there's this wonderful spiritual song that just kind of sums up what we're saying, and we piped the music in," Palmer said. It was the theme to the 1980s sitcom "Cheers."
"Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got. Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away?"
"And then they started laughing, but I said that's what I'm talking about, a place where everyone knows your name. They're always glad you came. That's what third place means to us. This is where your community is. This is where life happened for you. This is where you laugh."
Diana Chandler is general assignment writer/editor for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).