Meeting newborn Violet Harris in person was the first of my pandemic losses. It was March of 2020, and Violet’s family had just joined our congregation a few months before. I had planned to head out to Winston-Salem, an hour and a half’s drive, to visit with Violet and her mom, Amber, but the headlines about COVID were getting scarier and scarier, and the last thing I wanted to do was track some horrendous novel virus across the state to the lungs of that precious newborn baby. We met over FaceTime, instead.
2020 was a big year for the Harris family. Violet arrived and joined her two big brothers, COVID changed everything, and Amber finally turned her long-time dream into a reality: SPARK, a locally-based community service connector. Although that description pales in the light of what SPARK (Spreading Peace and Rekindling Kindness) actually *does.*
I’ve known Amber a lot longer than her family has been at Peace Covenant. We met when we worked together on a District Event ten years ago, and when I moved to North Carolina, the District assigned me to be Amber’s official mentor in the ordination process. Back then, Amber was several years out of seminary and working in youth ministry at a Methodist congregation. And while you’d think that would qualify someone to be ordained – obviously trained and clearly working in ministry settings – the polity (that I wrote!) requires someone to have a call *within* a Church of the Brethren context in order to be ordained. The Methodists weren’t cutting it. But Amber’s call has always been bigger, more ecumenical, more inclusive than denominational polity can handle.
Even then, in our first official meeting, Amber knew what she was called to do: create a service organization that would connect local non-profits and faith communities in Winston-Salem, offering opportunities for individuals and groups to serve and build relationships. It was a ministry that confounded polity and practice, but it has always been a crystal clear calling on her life. Amber ministered with the Methodists for a while, then took a job as the Engagement Director at a local YMCA camp, and when she went on maternity leave, had Violet and lived through the onset of the global pandemic, she knew it was time to make a move on this dream and call that had lived with her for so long.
SPARK started in 2020, when the world got turned upside down and peoples’ hearts were softened, looking for opportunities to connect and serve in new ways. The most recent case for support shares that SPARK has engaged 1,428 volunteers from 50 groups in 63 service opportunities. There are coat drives and peace pole projects, an ongoing effort to refurbish used furniture for families moving into new homes, partnerships with local coffee shops and faith communities and universities (the Wake Forest basketball team shows up on SPARK’s social media with regularity, volunteering all over the community!). Their summer service weeks are in collaboration with a Lutheran congregation of people experiencing homelessness. Amber could tell you a dozen more collaborative projects that I’m failing to mention, here. It is a beautiful, hopeful, labor-intensive thing.
Amber and her partner Preston, who owns a busy construction company where he lives out his own clear calling in the world, are spreading peace and rekindling kindness all over the place. Preston’s co-parenting and solid support of Amber’s call alongside his own has brought the church ladies to tears more than once. Amber will be the first to tell you that even though she has been the one chosen to steward this gift and calling, to spend her days shepherding it into reality, every step of the process has been collaborative, connected, and brought into existence through relationship and partnership.
Amber is no longer my mentee – she was ordained this year in one of the most beautiful ordination services I’ve experienced. There was a Baptist preacher reading scripture, an unhoused friend leading the singing, a Methodist pastor sharing the prayer, a Lutheran church-planter doing the preaching, a Brethren executive officiating the actual ordaining, and a gifted artist turning all that wide-ranging hope into a painting in real time. I am not the best mentor. They keep assigning me people whose beautiful, creative callings don’t fit neatly into church polity, which means that all I can do is say “Yes! This is clearly from God! Keep busting your head against that brick wall of denominational policy and practice until something, somewhere, gives way!”
And in my experience, that is exactly what happens. God’s calling and presence in the world are so much bigger, so much more expansive, so much more creative and connective and inclusive than any of our attempts at policy and procedure can begin to accommodate. I am grateful for policy and procedure – at their best, they help us keep up with what God is already doing, create connections and structures of support that people striving to live out divine callings in this world desperately need. But polity and procedure are not where the Holy Spirit sets up camp. She’s far too curious for that, way too wily for that kind of containment. That is the gift of knowing Amber, and so many other people like her. They know with bone-deep certainty that this thing that doesn’t make sense to other people is actually exactly the thing they are being called to do. The prophet Jeremiah said that his calling was like a fire shut up in his bones, that he got weary of trying to hold it in. Praise God for people who finally give up on trying to hold it in and just do the dang thing, already. Y’all give me hope.