In the fall of 2022, Greg and Chrissy walked into Penn Forest Wesleyan Church, Roanoke, Virginia. They were no strangers to the church and had stopped by to visit Reverend Myron Atkinson. Rev. Atkinson was thrilled to see the change in the couple from when he first met them.
Nearly five years ago, Rev. Atkinson received a call from a friend to help a couple because he was geographically closer to them. The friend had provided the couple, Greg and Chrissy, a night’s hotel lodging. Effectively, then, their care was handed off to Rev. Atkinson. This was a low spot for Greg and Chrissy, with the weight of alcohol use and homelessness bearing down on them. Rev. Atkinson brought them into the church and began a relationship with them. Penn Forest Wesleyan eventually began helping Greg and Chrissy to acquire food, an apartment and transportation.
The physical expression of God’s love had a profound spiritual impact on the couple. Greg rededicated his life to Christ and subsequently took the step of baptism. Chrissy later gave her life to the Lord. Greg’s gratitude for God’s forgiveness and his new life runs so deep that he will tear up when talking about his relationship with God. Chrissy speaks often of God’s goodness to them. Rev. Atkinson readily acknowledges the life change in them: “He [Greg] has such a sensitivity, and he recognizes what the Lord has done through and in them. They have a new passion for the Lord.”
Greg and Chrissy moved away from Penn Forest Wesleyan Church, but still maintain a connection through Rev. Atkinson. The couple has stable housing and steady jobs. The gratitude they give to the Lord has also been expressed towards the Penn Forest Wesleyan Church, by the couple providing painting services at a significant discount.
A second couple, similarly in need, was discovered camping behind the church. They were mired in drug abuse, homelessness and petty theft. Rev. Atkinson admits they were hard to help and remain a work in progress, but he believes the best. Over time, they have pursued sobriety, decided to get married, acquired jobs and are residing in an apartment.
The transformation in both couples was not the only change Rev. Atkinson has witnessed. He was pushed to grow past the legalistic culture he grew up in, where anyone who was different was not considered a Christian. Now he, “sees people for who God made them to be, and not what they have chosen.” Seeing people beyond what they are doing and how they look pushed him to really begin practicing what he preached.
Penn Forest Wesleyan Church also grew in their openness to caring for people different than them. There was an initial pushback to the inclusion and support of the two couples. Rev. Atkinson acknowledges this pushback was generated from a good motive, as people cared about the church and desired to protect him. This resistance was at times even helpful, as it pushed Rev. Atkinson harder to seek wisdom in how best to minister while setting appropriate boundaries, which helped him and the church to avoid becoming enablers.
Rev. Atkinson set the tone and prepared his people by telling them, “These individuals were made in the image of God.” The church followed Rev. Atkinson’s leadership to come alongside both couples. When a month’s rent or other needs surfaced, someone within the church would help. Rev. Atkinson also used his relationship with the local board of administration (LBA) to approve funds to help provide financial assistance.
These experiences have helped the church become more accepting of individuals and are helping God to make many lives new. Rev. Atkinson has led this perspective shift. He stated, “Those couples are yesterday’s victories, we need new victories today.” In last five years, Penn Forest Wesleyan Church has seen about 25 persons come to Christ!
Rev. Atkinson, while pushing for life change, is still able to see ongoing victories. “Every day that they choose not to drink, do drugs, or shoplift, is a victory today. They are still a victory today, because every day they choose to pursue Jesus is a victory.”
Jacob Gibson is the senior pastor at LifeSpring Wesleyan Church, Richmond, Indiana, and graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary, Marion, Indiana.