Tiffany Thomas has this recurring nightmare about competence … her own.
And three weeks into an almost cinematic spiritual journey that has whisked her from Park Avenue in New York to the razor wire of South Tryon Street in Charlotte, she looked out over her new congregation and wondered if she was way, way over her head.
Let’s set the scene: Thomas has just turned 26. She was an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist in Manhattan when she heeded the call to the corner of South Tryon and Remount.
So far so good. Except … when she got up last Sunday for her third sermon, much of the small church’s electrical system had bonked out. No bulletin, no music, no microphone.
Just Thomas and her water bottle, with more than 100 church members waiting for whatever she had to say.
She’d been sipping on the bottle, but with a flourish, she drained it. “Let’s get at it,” she said.
And so she did, using Exodus, and how the Israelites when faced with calamity repeatedly whined to Moses that they should have stayed in Egypt as slaves.
She customized the message to the neighborhood: how the slavery of addiction can seem preferable to the unknown of treatment; how a violent relationship appears better than no relationship at all; how community powerlessness can seem like the norm, just because it’s been that way for so long.
At the end, with Thomas still worried that the service had been a technobust, 11 people asked to join the church. South Tryon would have more travelers on its own trip into the unknown.
Thomas was raised in a Columbus, Ohio, household that set wide poles on Christianity. Dad is a Catholic, Mom a Baptist, and Tiffany learned “the different dances” at both.
At Duke Divinity School, she found absolute middle ground: She became a United Methodist.
At 15, she knew she wanted to preach, and she believes her place is to be with those in the most need. As such, she hopes to practice “radical hospitality” with a community she believes Charlotte has largely ignored.
Her plans? A ministry with Sedgefield Middle School for sixth-graders, when kids come to an early choice between school or crime.
A church-neighborhood partnership to develop political activism to deal with community problems.
An open-door church, built on God’s unconditional love, that will work and pray from the inside out.
Thursday, the goal was more simple: Thomas doing a little preaching at “Trinity’s Table,” a weekly lunch for the needy that South Tryon has hosted for years with the help of its partner, Myers Park United Methodist.
Outside, the theme of Thomas’ last sermon – “Would you rather be a slave?” – blinks in red letters. A man carrying a Bud Light in his left hand walks by with barely a glance. It’s 10:15 a.m.
Inside the kitchen, Joy Poe and the other Myers Park volunteers finish preparations for the 11:30 meal.
When Poe first met Thomas, she says she feared the young minister would be overmatched by the challenges she faced.
But then, Thomas had changed from her skirt and heels into a T-shirt and jeans. She had come to work, Poe says. “And I’ve heard that she’s ‘on fire,’ on fire with the word of God.”
Thomas likes her music loud, and as the dining hall fills with the old and young, the hungry, the scarred, she jacks up the volume on a song by the rapper Drake, offering care to a hurt woman.
Thomas thinks Drake’s music is a placebo for real hip-hop, but she uses it to make a point:
There is help when we need it. All we have to do is ask.
“So when you listen to this song,” she says, “listen for the whisper of God. … He’s saying, ‘If you let me, I will take care of you.’ Let us pray.”
Heads drop. Eyes close. Others keep eating. It’s all the same to Thomas, all steps in the new dance she’s learning on South Tryon.