As she reflected on the special summer ministry she directed, Amy Moritz wondered aloud about God’s true intentions.
“What’s God up to?” said Moritz, executive director of the Center for Transforming Communities in Binghamton.
She was addressing a roomful of ministers, host families and program directors who had participated in the summer internship program, now in its fourth year.
But she was looking at the three Vanderbilt Divinity School students who had spent the past eight weeks serving as interns for several urban ministries in Memphis.
The interns were Turner Scholars, students seeking to become United Methodist ministers. They came to Memphis to learn about urban ministry and community building.
Each was assigned to help a specific congregation three days a week. Other days, all worked together to help ministries in Binghamton.
“Is this really about these guys, or is this about us?” Moritz asked. “What possibilities also come from that?”
After eight weeks, “Something has happened here,” Moritz said, “…connections are strengthened and deeper.”
“He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’”
Before he stepped into the pulpit to deliver his first sermon at St. John’s United Methodist Church earlier this month, Hunter Pugh removed his shoes — a gesture of being humbled before God.
“There are faces that love you out there, and they want to hear this, and you’ve been with them for the last five weeks, and this is something that you share together,” the 23-year-old Vanderbilt student told himself before the sermon.
“And the nerves just kind of went away. There was nothing but friends out there.”
As youthful as he looked in the pure-white robes, his message was steady and strong. If he was nervous, it didn’t show as he preached from the Gospel of Mark on the healing power of faith.
After the service, congregants lined up to shake his hand and congratulate him, hug his neck and pat him on the back.
“The Spirit’s got to show up, and I think it did that Sunday,” said Rev. Brad Thomas, St. John’s senior pastor.
Pugh, the son of a Methodist minister, said he was apprehensive about spending the summer in Memphis. Throughout his undergraduate career at Birmingham Southern College and first year of seminary in Nashville, Pugh said all he heard about Memphis was about its crime and poverty.
“What I’ve discovered is you can’t think like that,” Pugh said. “There is abundance, wherever you go, of resources. It may not be financially, it may not be monetarily, but it might be something different.”
“I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you.”
On her first Monday at Highland Heights United Methodist Church, Amanda Hartmann found out at 8:30 a.m. that she would be teaching Bible study at 11 a.m.
She assumed it would be mostly church members, with a few people from the community sprinkled in; it was the opposite.
She also assumed she would be leading the study of Psalm 88. Instead, the 23-year-old Vanderbilt intern found herself being led.
“I was writing down notes of what they were saying,” Harmann said. “I was like, ‘I need to remember this and tell other people this someday.’”
Hartmann has a “servant’s heart” and a personality that allows her to connect easily with people from all backgrounds, said Rev. Rich Cook, Highland Heights’ senior pastor.
“No matter what we asked her to do, she did it cheerfully, and she did it gracefully,” he said.
Hartmann, a Memphis native, said she felt the call to ministry at 14, and that God wanted her to be in service to others through the church. It’s a decision her family has readily supported.
Her late grandfather, George Comes, was a minister at old Everett Memorial United Methodist Church, now the home of Moritz’s Center for Transforming Communities in Binghamton.
“I love this city, and I love the soul of this city,” Hartmann said.
“I have a lot of hometown friends who, all they said in high school was, ‘I can’t wait to get away from Memphis,’ and I never felt that way. I’m like, ‘I can’t wait to get back.’ ”
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
“God is,” repeated a chorus of two dozen elementary-age children, pointing skyward.
“Our refuge,” they went on, opening their arms.
“And strength,” they continued, flexing their biceps.
“Always ready to help us in times of trouble,” they concluded, wagging their fingers.
Ani Missirian-Dill encouraged her young students with applause and smiles as they correctly repeated the simplified Psalm, more or less in unison.
Draped in blue fabric for her Babylonian-era vacation Bible school costume, the 23-year-old Vanderbilt student spent much of the summer as an intern at Christ Quest Community Church in South Memphis.
She helped plan and run vacation Bible school.
“She’s conscious — very conscious — of how she engages in community, and it’s real impressive because it’s all about doing with,” said Rev. Marlon Foster, pastor of Christ Quest. “She is definitely a ‘doing with’ type of minister, and she came in with that mind-set and she just walked alongside our youth leaders.”
Missirian-Dill was deeply influenced by her summer internship, especially living in Binghamton. She plans to move into South Nashville this fall to be closer to Harvest Hands, a Christian community development organization she has worked with for six years.
“I’m the person who has always wanted to go into the places that people are leaving,” she said. “That’s just what I feel like my life is called to be about.”
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
As their eight-week Memphis internships came to an end, the three Vanderbilt students joined Moritz and two dozen others to worship and reflect.
They sat around a table on which there was a Circle of Friends candle holder. They read Psalm 24 and sang “Sanctuary.”
They talked about what God had been up to this summer and the relationships they’d built across all sorts of boundaries.
“God’s call isn’t in the big new thing,” said Rev. Renee Dillard, “but being in the moment.”
The Cal Turner Leadership Scholars Program was created about five years ago by Dollar General founder Cal Turner, a devoted United Methodist, said Tom Laney, associate director of Turner Programs.
The scholarship pays for three years of tuition and a stipend for students who plan to be ordained in the Methodist Church. Students are also placed in a 10-hour-per-week internship at a church in Nashville.
The three students who came to Memphis this summer all just completed their first year in the Master’s of Divinity program at Vanderbilt University. The cohort that began divinity school in 2011 has five students.
This was the fourth summer for the Memphis immersion component.
In a typical week, the students’ schedules were as follows:
Sunday – Tuesday: Worshiping and working with their assigned church
Wednesday: With their assignment in Binghamton. Missirian-Dill was at the Center for Transforming Communities, Pugh was with the Binghampton Development Corporation, and Hartmann was with Caritas Village.
Thursday: Seeing the city and its ministries, including Manna House and the Church Health Center
Friday: Rest and reflection
Saturday: Working in the McMerton Community Gardens and worshiping with Binghamton Methodist Church