“On every corner of this city, you can find two things: a liquor store and a church,” said James Smith, a senior at the University of Memphis. “I have never lived in a city with this many churches. I guess I am in the middle of the Bible Belt.”
With close to 2,000 churches in the city of Memphis, it is not unreasonable to ask the question— what is the role of the “church” and are they fulfilling the role? With all of the crime, poverty, and homelessness, what is the church doing to help combat these needs? The University of Memphis stands tall in the district with over 22,000 students. How is the church connecting with this major university that sits in its back yard?
The search for a church within walking distance of the campus was not long. Exactly one block from the U of M sits St. Luke’s United Methodist Church where Michael Pence serves as pastor.
Pence said the role of the church universally and even locally is to be the light of the world and that, in order to evaluate any community for its strengths and its weaknesses, first start by examining what those churches are doing.
“I believe that the church is supposed to be that place that sets the example,” he said.
“Light doesn’t try to be darkness; light is always light,” he said. “I think that is the role of the church, to always be light, always be the standard bearer.”
Pence feels that one of the trappings that churches in the community find themselves in is being too worldly and not having a clear separation when it comes to the standard that they should maintain. With churches constantly being in the news for negative activities, Pence would suggest that a remedy is for churches to stay true to who they are and not sway from the mission to be the light of their community.
“Evangelize and disciple is the role of the church. The great command sums it up,” said Cortny Richardson, a recent alumni of UM. “The church is to be the representatives of God in the earth realm. We should love aggressively and intentionally.”
Letting one's light so shine is interpreted in many different ways. Many Christian leaders say the same thing in a different way.
Kenya Gray, president of Fellowship of Christian Students, said “the church is to be a resource to the community.”
When clothes, guidance and food are needed, she said the church should be the leading people in the community.
Pence said all of these things take place at St. Luke’s. Everything from feeding the community on Wednesdays afternoons, Thursday nights and Sunday mornings to being a safe haven for college students. Students can come as well as people from the community, no matter their economic status.
There are mentoring opportunities for college students and an overall safe haven for the community with the church offering Zumba classes along with yoga.
Pence said that they seek to create an atmosphere for students that is engaging and beneficial for their growth spiritually as well as naturally. St. Luke’s frequently participates in school parades, homecomings as well as supporting the basketball and football teams.
The church has open arms to their community. It doesn’t stop there; they even open their parking lot for students to park for free because parking can sometimes be a struggle surrounding the university.
St. Luke’s has open arms, an open parking lot as well as an open heart to different ways of living. The saying at St. Luke’s is to love all, and all means all. They are multiethnic in their membership as well as in alternative lifestyles.
On the pews of St. Luke’s, there can be a married couple that consists of a man and a woman sitting right next to a gay couple. Pence said both couples are shown love and give love because they understand that all means all.
Being open to all walks of life, and understanding that everyone has a different set of life experiences, is the substratum of letting your life shine, Pence said.
“When ever you go to do good, evil is always present, but the presence of evil shouldn't discourage good, just keep doing good,” said Memphis student Kenzi Gates, making reference to a scripture in the King James Bible.
She said the role of the church will always be to “let our light shine.”