In 2003, Lakewood United Methodist Church once stood in the Lakewood Heights community, but when they relocated they left their former building vacant for nearly ten years. Without the presence of this church the community was in need of hope and a breath of fresh air.
With the encouragement of a friend, Gary Burke, 2011 McAfee graduate, answered the call and opened Lakewood Church of Hope (LCH) in 2013 that Easter Sunday. Gary not only serves as the pastor, but a change agent in this community.
Lakewood Heights community is located in South Atlanta. This community, once very prosperous, continues to deal with the effects of gentrification and still recovers from major corporations leaving the area. Household income has decreased for a number of families in the community and many of the children receive either a free or reduced lunch.
Gary understands the importance of reaching back and extending your hand to others who may not have the strength to get up on their own, as there were many who helped him, saying, “I am an ex-con. I use to be a kingpin. It was McAfee that opened their arms and accepted me. Dr. Culpepper (Dean Emeritus) as well as others always encouraged me,” says Gary.
Gary’s ministry started before he reached McAfee and before he became the pastor of Lakewood Church of Hope, “My ministry started within the prison where I returned to minister to those incarcerated. My past has helped mold my character, which has given me insight into many of life’s struggles. I am able to help, coach, and counsel with authenticity and humility,” says Gary.
Gary is the perfect person to encourage a forgotten community. He leads his congregation to go above and beyond. He takes a missional approach, understanding God is not just at work in the church, but also in the surrounding community, “We came into the community because no one wanted that building. It was empty for over ten years. I have been serving for three years and we have been able to assist thousands of people in a lot of capacities. We work with others to fill the needs of God’s people,” says Gary.
The vision of LCH is to be a church without walls, embracing and loving people unconditionally where they are. The church is committed to revitalizing their community and meeting the spiritual needs of the congregants and others. The church also provides supplementary services to individuals and families. Gary says, “I have been working with three high schools and one middle school since 2011. I also work closely with football teams in the area. Now, as a church, we help with behaviorally challenged kids, offering conflict resolution skills.” Gary and his church also mentor youth, and offer a summer enrichment camp where kids from the community learn more about prayer, meditation, literacy, and career information.
Gary defines his role as pastor as someone who builds bridges of opportunity between the community and the church. He strives to create an atmosphere of love and hope which nurtures relationships, hoping to help others endure life’s challenges.
Even in his personal life, Gary models to his community how we can support and uplift each other. Gary and his wife, Felisia, opened the doors of their home for a young lady from their community who dealt with homelessness and molestation. This young lady is now enrolled in college with the help of Gary and his family. “She was not in school, and her living situation was changing when her friend introduced her to me. A member of our congregation took her in for five months, but could no longer afford to take care of her. My wife and I brought her in as our own. She is a very smart girl who had a 3.7 GPA. We are better because we now know her. She is unofficially our adopted daughter,” says Gary.
Gary, who extends his hand to many, fulfills his job without a salary, and still lacks neither passion or vision. He knows he is doing what God has called him to. He explains his vision began to develop while at McAfee, “The classes like Leadership and Preaching in conjunction with my Urban Mission concentration [now the Community Development track] gave me an opportunity to connect my passion with my purpose. I gained tools, understanding, and support in order to do what I am doing today.”
Gary continues to step out on faith and rely on the gifts God has given him. He plans to continue to touch the community through his ministry, fulfilling his purpose, and encouraging his community and his fellow ministers who are called to serve. He believes if you are not passionate enough to do it for free, no amount of money will make you do it better.
Gary advises those considering a life of ministry, saying, “A calling to an assignment without provision can be problematic to everyone involved. In my humble opinion there are times when we are not called by God, but by ourselves or others. I would suggest to those who feel they are being called to truly seek guidance from someone that has no stake in the calling. God will send some guiding light that will lead us toward God’s vision and mission. When God is at the forefront, God will provide.”
Gary and Lakewood Church of Hope have grown in awareness of resources for an under-resourced community, never losing sight that they are not God, just ambassadors of Christ. The church has doubled in attendance for Sunday worship and all of their programs have grown in the number of participants since their beginning. Gary says he has been stretched spiritually and knows this could not have happened without faith and stepping out the doors of the church to help others.
From a prison cell, to McAfee, to an abandoned church building, Gary has been prepared and led by God for a boundary-breaking approach to ministry. He does not plan to go backward, but push his ministry and community forward, one person at a time.
Written by Brittini Palmer
Brittini Palmer writes for McAfee as a second year Master of Divinity student. She is a graduate from Virginia Union University where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communications and Journalism. In addition to writing and freelance reporting, Palmer has always been active in the community, and advocates for human rights. She believes everyone has a story, and writes to bring those stories to life with a passion to help someone along the way.