St. Paul’s looking for a way to draw millennials back to the fold

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church sits on a shady stretch of road, a stone’s throw from the old Peyton Wall that once separated blacks and whites in southwest Atlanta.

It has called this sleepy middle-class neighborhood home since 1969, but was born some 15 years after the Civil War in 1880 when a small group of African-Americans petitioned the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia for status as a mission.

In all that time, it has stood as a beacon of hope for a community weighed down by matters of race, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and reassuring the downtrodden.

You won’t hear much about that. St. Paul’s has long adhered to Jesus’ words in Matthew “when you give to those in need, don’t let the right hand know what the left is doing.”

No one has had to tell the Rev. Charles L. Fischer III what St. Paul’s, the oldest black Episcopal Church in Georgia, has done. He has been a witness to it, first as an 18-year-old student at Morehouse College and now as the congregation’s pastor.

At a time when more and more millennials have forsaken the church, he wonders what the future might hold. For St. Paul’s and the faith he has clung to all these years.

At 41, Fischer is just one generation removed from those born between 1984 and 2004 and yet he remains steadfast, unmovable. It is his prayer that millennials will once again embrace their faith and return to the place that has given him so much.

For his part, Fischer said Jesus led him here and here he will stay.

“I wanted to be part of the body of Christ,” he said.

Fischer was baptized into the Episcopal faith by his grandfather and grew up in St. David’s, a small Episcopal congregation in Cranbury, N.J.

And so when he arrived at Morehouse in 1993, the expectation was that he’d attend church. The denomination didn’t matter. When his parents called, and they always did, Fischer knew he’d better be able to say he’d been to the Lord’s house.

After graduating from Morehouse in 1997 with a degree in business administration and finance, Fischer returned to the Northeast to work for Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City.

He left four years later in September to work for his alma mater as the assistant director of alumni relations.

He was sitting at his desk one day, looking for an Episcopal church, when he was led back to St. Paul’s, where the Rev. Robert Wright would become his mentor and where Fischer would begin to feel the tug of the ministry. Over the next several years, Fischer would split his time between St. Paul’s and Zion Hill Baptist Church, where his girlfriend Rhonda Pelham was a member.

The more time he spent at St. Paul’s, the more she joined him and the more the women at St. Paul’s embraced her.

The couple were married on Oct. 9, 2004, in Newark, N.J.

The pull of the ministry was getting stronger and more persistent. Fischer left Morehouse to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary, the same school his grandfather attended in Alexandria, Va.

He graduated in 2009 and after two years running the seminary’s alumni and church relations office and serving part time at several area churches, Fischer was considering pastoring full time.

When he called his former pastor and mentor Wright for advice, Wright suggested he come back to Atlanta and serve with him. St. Paul’s needed a youth minister.

To Fischer’s thinking, it made more sense to pastor. He had a son by then and was living just three hours from both sets of grandparents in D.C., but Rhonda Fischer wanted to return to Atlanta.

“My wife said she was coming and was going to take my namesake,” he recalled, laughing.

The Fischers arrived back in Atlanta in July 2011. In October, the associate pastor left to take a position out of state. In June 2012, Wright was named bishop of Atlanta; he left in August.

Fischer was named priest in charge while the church conducted a national search for its next pastor. In October 2013, he succeeded Wright as pastor.

When he first left Atlanta in 1997, Fischer said he had no intention of ever coming back, but in hindsight, his return made sense. It was St. Paul’s that helped him figure out what it meant to be a man. Not only had the congregation embraced him, Wright was as much a mentor as he was an older brother, guiding him as he maneuvered being a husband and a father.

When he was tapped to succeed Wright, it was overwhelming.

“Here I was just a couple of years out of seminary, succeeding my mentor,” he said. “They could’ve gone anywhere in the world, but they called me.”

And so for three years, Fischer said he has been trying to do what God called him to do — spread the Gospel.

It hasn’t been easy. The community has changed. Many who once lived in the neighborhood have moved to the suburbs. Young families have been replaced by the aged. Those who come to partake of St. Paul’s mentoring ministries at Peyton Forest Elementary don’t stay and when the final school bell rings seem to disappear altogether.

Getting people to come and stay has been, perhaps, the biggest challenge for St. Paul’s. But like that wall that once separated blacks from whites, Fischer is bound and determined to see this one tumble down, too, and once again draw as many as yearn for the Gospel because that’s what he’s been called to do.

“It’s a good place to come and be recharged for the week ahead, to be valued and to find your purpose,” he said.

That isn’t something someone told him. It is what he lives.

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