Emily Freeman Penfield, senior pastor at Woodlawn United Methodist Church, is as dedicated to feeding her “sheep” all week as she is about mothering her children, Caroline, 13, and Eliza, nine. Penfield feels that a particular responsibility of a senior pastor is to listen and catch God’s vision for the church. “I listen well, which helps me see other’s perspectives. Listening also enhances my writing and preaching.” Penfield listens and writes down words inspired by God to shape her sermons. Her sermons embody her vision for WUMC: “If we aren’t in relationship with the poor, then we are really missing a huge part of the gospel.”
The artwork in Penfield’s office, a tiny alcove with irregular walls near the front entrance, echoes both her history and her philosophy: A portrait of Martin Luther King hangs behind her desk, along with a picture of Little Rock Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. She mentions the historic faceoff between Governor Faubus and President Eisenhower when nine African American students showed up to integrate the school on September 3, 1957, 14 years before she was born. “I am proud to be a graduate,” she says. She is always sensitive to the marginalized who, like Robert Frost’s hired man, may believe they have nothing to look back on with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.
Her framed diplomas are next on the wall. She holds a B.A. in Christian Education from Centenary College in Shreveport, LA, and a Masters of Divinity from Emory Seminary in Atlanta.
Tree branches adorn the blue and white pottery communion set on her bookshelf, a gift from her husband, Matthew. A macramé tree hangs above the small sofa. All the metaphorical significance of a tree — the stability of its roots, the reaching out of its branches, its shelter to birds, squirrels and other animals — is reflected in Penfield’s beliefs.
Her home church is First United Methodist in Little Rock. “That congregation began my love for the urban church,” she says. Before coming to Woodlawn, Penfield served at two urban churches as associate pastor. At Highlands United Methodist she worked with the Community Ministries program that offers an ID program for the homeless, morning meals six days a week and free laundry service. She then served as senior pastor for the Church of the Reconciler, whose congregation is mainly comprised of the homeless.
Penfield has also been a part of two groups sponsored by the Institute of Clergy Excellence. These are self-selected peer groups that develop a learning plan and submit it to ICE in order to be awarded a grant and other resources to carry out the plan. Members learn from experts in different arenas, from other churches and ministries around the world, and from each other.
These diverse influences benefit Penfield in her ministry at WUMC, which was built in 1912. The church was rebuilt in 2009 following a fire. Only four panels of original stained glass remain in the sanctuary, plus one striking piece in a transom naming the original church, Woodlawn M.E. Church South.
Down the hall, former choir director Tommy Russell is counting the money from Sunday’s offerings. He says, “Emily is easy to talk to. She’s devoted to her family and goes far beyond the call of duty when it comes to serving our church.”
The church partners with Cornerstone School, a nonprofit school for inner city students, grades 1-8. Energy abounds from the gymnasium all the way to an open door and the joyful noise of a classroom. “We’re celebrating Cinco de Mayo,” explains Elaine Davis, the Spanish teacher.
Across the hall in the school cafeteria, Terrolyn proudly stops for a snapshot behind her immaculate serving line. A mural of the food groups cites a promise: “I have given you every plant with seed that is on the face of the earth, and every tree bearing fruit. You shall have them for food.” It’s from Genesis 1:29. Outside, surrounded by a high chain link fence, is a thriving vegetable garden of circular and raised beds designed and planted by Davis’s husband Keith. Towering near the garden is a tree filled with birdsong.
“Woodlawn is a fresh food desert,” explains church receptionist, Jan Conway. The closest grocery store that sells fresh produce is in East Lake. On Sunday, May 5, several other churches will join WUMC to hand out produce from the Woodlawn Food Bank, an outreach program housed behind the vegetable garden, a block building spruced up with a mural of playing children. Some of the vegetables will be provided by Mountain Chapel United Methodist and by donations from this church and other congregations. When the school garden is harvested, those vegetables will be dispensed through the food bank that is open for service on Mondays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Penfield’s vision for WUMC involves making use of the talents of church members like Sandra Taylor, former teacher of drama at Hoover High School. Taylor will direct a theatrical production of Dearly Departed at the church, August 1-3. Others from the congregation of nearly 60 people will provide support for the production as their talents permit. The Thursday and Friday night Woodlawn productions will feature a dinner theater highlighting southern funeral foods, such as corn casserole, red velvet cake and the requisite fried chicken.
Taylor says, “I love Emily and I can tell you why. She’s warm, compassionate, a down-to-earth person who happens to be a woman of God. She is glowing, dear — so accepting, broadminded, articulate — a marvelous speaker.”
Penfield has chosen a flexible work schedule in order to pick up the children from school. Working some at home is better for her “than trying to squish in everything with the children before dropping into bed. My work makes me a better parent. And my parenting makes me better at being a pastor.”
Penfield may celebrate Mother’s Day in a unique way at home. She chuckles at what her Eliza suggested: “Everybody serves their mom breakfast in bed. Since you’ll already be at the church, could we just serve you lunch in bed?”
“In my prayers on Mother’s Day,” Penfield says when asked about the church service, “I always am very aware that not all women are mothers, or are able to be mothers, and so I try to include those who have lost children, who cannot be mothers, who have lost their mothers and have difficulty with the day, and at the same time to be thankful for our mothers and our parent God.”
Woodlawn United Methodist Church is located at 139 54th St. N., one block off 1st Ave. N. Weekly Sunday worship, 11:05 a.m.; office hours, Monday-Thursday 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. For more information on the production of Dearly Departed contact the church office at (205) 595-3776.