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Peachtree Corners Teams Bring Faith to Sports

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pcbx basketball
Photos by George Hunter.

A quick inbound pass whistles by, just out of reach of a defender. The ball’s grabbed, then quickly bounced — passed to another lanky youngster on the Tarheels (not the North Carolina college team, but youngsters on the cusp of being teenagers) basketball squad.

“Shoot it!” yells a teammate.

One quick pivot and a turnaround jumper later, the ball swishes cleanly through the net.
Such is a microcosm of youth hoops November through February at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church (PCBC), which plays host to a highly regarded and mainly intermural sports program that gathers in as many as 1,000 youngsters and adults annually. That includes boys’ and girls’ basketball (ages 7 to 12), with nearly a workday’s-worth of games playing out on a particularly chilly January Saturday.

As is the case with any such program, the scene is familiar. Players, parents and coaches shouting into the echoing cavern of the gym, the squeak of sneakers and the rhythmic ‘thunk, thunk’ of ball meeting hardwood.

Sit in the bleachers for a while, however, and the differences between it and some other programs manifest. No trash talk. No angry disputing of referee calls. Coaches who encourage instead of demean.

‘A good atmosphere’

“It’s the first time I’ve been here,” said Dan Marschke, a Walton County resident, in between yelling in-game encouragement to his grandson. “I think it’s a good atmosphere.”

Unfortunately, the “feel” has changed a bit this year with a pandemic continuing to rage. As COVID-19 gained steam this past spring, adult basketball, tee-ball, and machine pitch baseball were shut down. The program returned with summer camps and precautions in place going forward.

As a faith-based organization, creating a team from youngsters, sometimes less than perfectly disciplined and lacking basketball experience, happens on the parallel tracks of skill improvement plus character / spiritual development. The recreational benefits of sports and fun are emphasized over winning and losing, said league coordinator Billy Sowell. Bringing players closer to Christ — pumping up that faith muscle, so to speak — is also a prime priority.

At PCBC, that takes the form of a devotional done in the course of weekly practice and prayer before games. Coaches, parents and kids all seem to appreciate the connection.

“I get to be closer to God,” is how 13-year-old Grayson McCollum put it, referring to those 15-minute practice devotionals. “He gave me everything that I am blessed with today so I want to be as close as I can.”

Not only has his faith strengthened, he indicated, but the experience has fostered a more even temperament. Cooperation, building each other up and taking responsibility are the default, not anger and blame shifting.

Peachtree Corners City Manager Brian Johnson, who coaches the Blue Devils team his 12-year-old Elias plays on, backs up that mindset. “The general benefit is learning teamwork and sportsmanship and how to be a good winner and a good loser,” he said, “and that practice makes perfect. It takes time to get better.” He added that personal development happens more than at the player level.

At the end of the season, Johnson said, “I feel like I’ve learned things, not just the kids. For me it’s a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher.”

As an adjunct to that notion, he’s mindful that how he handles a bad referee call or tough loss sets an example.

And sometimes playing in a structured environment can lead to an inflection point or alteration in direction. Tarheels player and coaches’ son Michael Brown Jr. said the experience has led to a changed view on sports.

“I always thought soccer was going to be my thing, but basketball has proven to be a really fun sport,” he said emphatically.

He said that a winter holiday made longer by concerns over COVID-19 posed a challenge. “We came back from break and you could definitely tell that we had been gone for a while,” Brown Jr. said. That rustiness led into some rehabilitative drilling on the basics.

Pandemic concerns have also made another kind of dent in the program. Sowell says four teams had been “quarantined” as of January 26, sitting out of games and practices. Two of the teams involved were exposed to coaches who have tested positive. The other two stemmed from cases where a player had tested positive within two days of playing a game. Three of the teams had returned as of January 26, with the other set to come back the following week.

He said that a couple of games and several practices had been canceled.

COVID and other concerns notwithstanding, parents seem very happy with the sports ministry.

“Everybody knows about the program here,” said Karen McCollum, the mother of 13-year-old Grayson and 12-year-old brother Maddox. “We believe highly in keeping our kids involved in sports and keeping them focused. “They’ve learned so much from the coaches and the players.”

That’s like music to Sowell’s ears and, to him, is reflective of the program’s laser focus on faith. “We want to use sports as a way to introduce the love of Jesus,” he said, making it clear to the youngsters “that God gave them the abilities to play and have fun and that’s what we want to focus on.”

Onward and upward

Programs such as PCBC’s occupy an expanding role in the constellation of youth recreational sports.
South Carolina-based Upward Sports partners with churches to help them begin and maintain sports ministries, with more than 1,500 such congregations on its roster last year. Their Partner Engagement Manager, Drew Provence, said the goal is to help local congregations connect with their surrounding communities through the gospel.

“It’s a universal language,” is how Provence put it. “We’ve seen that 95% of all people interact with sports in some fashion.” And, he said, churches can use the outreach and that universal language as a way to attract new members to the flock.

Officials with the local church said that’s a story that’s repeatedly played out over the years, as players and families from the community at-large make the jump from setting foot on the property for a first time to becoming staunch members of the congregation.

Not just for kids

Sowell said that roughly 10% of those involved in their sports programs are church members.

Capitalizing on that broad base to draw from, he said, the men’s basketball program has become very competitive with several former professional and high-profile college players among the ranks.

“That’s why I started the 35-and-over league for players who want to be more recreational than competitive,” he said.

That recreational and developmental focus is on full display in the winter Saturday youth basketball program, said Tarheels coach Michael Brown Sr. A former school basketball player himself, Brown said he’s “thrilled” that his son has also fallen in love with the sport.

“It’s a great thing for a father and a son or a father and a daughter. I really enjoy working with the kids. We’ve got a great community here and a lot of talent and if I can just offer a little guidance and motivation, it’s great.”

Girls allowed — and encouraged

That same dynamic applies in the church’s girls’ basketball league, which takes over the gym earlier on Saturday before the boys storm the court. So said Perry McWilliams, a church staffer who helps direct a girls’ team dubbed the Cardinals. He shares coaching duties with a family friend and his sister, and he said taking on that role after spending some time coaching boys’ squads has been a revelatory experience.

“This is my first year of coaching a team of young ladies and you would think they wouldn’t be as rowdy as the boys are — and that’s definitely not the case,” he said. “It’s an athletic bunch and they need just as much redirection as the boys do. That’s been very interesting. Kids will be kids, no matter what.”

That direction is valuable and well worth it, said Johnson, despite many demands during his day. “I think that with growing up playing structured sports into college and having great coaches and parents to support me, I’d like to think I have something of value to add to my team and the league,” Johnson said. “I believe that’s worth a little extra time.”

McWilliams said he was surprised that some of the youngsters weren’t familiar with such elemental basketball phraseology as “traveling” and “triple double” and needed considerable drilling on the ins and outs of defensive play. Building on a firm foundation, he noted, there have been vast improvements since the season’s outset, not the least of which has been fewer air balls.

McCollum said her boys and his teammates also have needed some on-court and courtside corralling. “There are always times when they don’t want to do something; they don’t want to go to practice or something like that. But we firmly believe that when you start something, you finish it,” she said. “Once they’re there, they love it, and it’s much better than sitting in front of an electronic device.”

Sowell wants to grow participation in the programs that they have now, but that’s proving difficult in one area.

With nearby Cornerstone Christian Academy and PCBC’s own preschool using the gym during the day and practical limitations on practice — having 11-year-olds doing shooting drills at midnight is far from optimal — he said they’re capped at roughly 220 hoops participants on board. Sowell said he hates having to have a waiting list and to be turning away eager kids.

He has hopes that Cornerstone will eventually construct its own gym, giving PCBC more wiggle room and increasing participation.

No matter what 2021 and the years beyond might bring, Sowell has the overall goal firmly in his sights — making the Bible, and in particular one verse — a linchpin of the sports ministry.

“Our verse that we use is I Corinthians 9:25,” he said. From a modern Bible translation, it goes thusly: “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. “

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Faith

Simpsonwood United Methodist Defines ‘Joyful Noise’ Through Many Genres

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David Francis, Simpsonwood UMC
David Francis, Simpsonwood UMC (Photography by Tracey Rice)

The church’s new director of music blends gospel, classical, jazz, show tunes and even “Baby Shark” into its worship experience

 A combination of passion, serendipity and an appreciation for the power of music to uplift the spirit brought David Francis to Simpsonwood United Methodist Church (UMC). The church had been without a Director of Music since the pandemic’s early days. Francis assumed the role in November 2021 with a key goal of revitalizing the choir.

With a star-struck, half-century career encompassing producing, composing, recording and performing, along with his vast network of musical contacts (he is artistic producer of the Roswell Music Club and Alpharetta Music Club), he is steadily uplifting the entire music program at Simpsonwood and aiming toward a whole new realm of artistry.

Interestingly, Francis’ career has come full circle. He last brought music to a church while in his twenties. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he accompanied services for a very conservative, working-class Baptist church, but he wasn’t positively accepted as an openly gay person. His experience at Simpsonwood is totally different.

“Our young co-pastors, husband and wife Rev. David and Rev. Susan Allen Grady, are kind, thoughtful and very progressive and open-minded people. I have great respect and admiration for them. This church also has a strong history of being mission-based and supporting worthy causes, and I like it when good intentions become good works,” Francis said.

Choir Members (Photography by Tracey Rice)

Opening the boundaries of music

Good works — in terms of music — are now materializing at Simpsonwood in abundance. Francis intends to broaden musical boundaries by exposing congregants to selections that come from religious, classical, theatrical, gospel and other genres. And he encourages participation by both amateur and professional musicians of all ages from the broader community.

At the Easter morning service, worshipers will be treated to eight string players, an oboist and percussionists — two from the Wesleyan School in Peachtree Corners — accompanying the choir performing “Gabriel’s Oboe” and “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” from the film “The Mission,” as well as “And The Glory of the Lord” from Handel’s “Messiah.”

Plans are in the works for a late summer theatrical production of “Carnival of the Animals” by Saint-Saens. It will feature instrumentalists and actors from the church, the Atlanta Youth Symphony and the community. Kids will enjoy renditions of songs from Disney film favorites to the ever-popular “Baby Shark.”

Simpsonwood UMC is already gaining ground as a center for musical performance. On March 5, Simpsonwood hosted a piano competition for approximately 250 piano students. Taking advantage of its fine audio system and three quality grand pianos, the church hosted a two piano/four hand piano recital and will soon host a recital of young clarinet students.

Bird’s eye view of Francis playing the piano in the sanctuary, photographed using a drone.

Bringing joy through music

The excitement and energy that Francis is infusing into SImpsonwood’s music program says as much about his musical prowess as it does about his effervescent personality. And it is not going unnoticed.

Lindsey and John Evans are two of the choir’s newest members. They both sang in their high school choruses but had no interest in participating in the choir, although they joined Simpsonwood in 2011. Lindsey’s musical affinity (she dreamed of being a star on Broadway) resonated with Francis’ own musical fervor.

“I’ve listened to a couple of his CDs, and it blows my mind that I even know this person. Yet, his strong purpose in building the choir here is not to have some sort of accolade; he just wants to bring joy to people through music,” said Lindsey.

“And there is no condemnation if you don’t hit the right note. It’s all very positive,” she continued. “It goes back to his whole basis for doing what he does, to bring joy and to have fun. Even if you only sang a little 30 years ago, you are welcome to give the choir a shot.”

Lindsey Evans appreciates the positive impact of Simpsonwood’s musical focus. “The congregation is becoming more invested in the music program, even if they don’t sing,” she said. “People are staying after the service to hear David play before they leave. They just stand around in the sanctuary listening. It’s mesmerizing to watch him play. He plays the piano like no one I’ve ever seen. It’s intense. You just see and feel all of his emotions when he plays.”

Drawing in the community

Prior to the start of Sunday worship, Francis has instituted something he refers to as euphonious (pleasing to the ear) contemplation. It involves 15 minutes of music that differs week to week and is designed to appeal to a variety of tastes. Invited to perform so far have been several piano students, a flute player and an opera singer.

“It’s easy to get caught up into just the people who are already here, the church’s mission projects, and forget about the community,” Lindsey said. “David wants to draw people in from the community and let them experience Simpsonwood in some way, even if they don’t join the church.”

Simpsonwood offers two distinctly different Sunday worship services. The main sanctuary features the talented choir focusing on more traditional hymns, while in the gym, a modern service takes a contemporary approach supported by a five-piece band.

Simpsonwood’s co-pastors, the Gradys, are thrilled to have Francis as a “teammate.”

“The number of people participating in our sanctuary service is more than double what it was prior to Francis’ arrival. He has brought such energy and joy and enthusiasm to our worshipers,” said the Rev. Dave Grady. “He’s taking his long experience and has begun to weave in everything from 20th-century music to classical music, and a little bit of Broadway.

“In my 20 years of ministry I’ve never had a choir director who will help out someone who wants to sing a song by writing a new arrangement to accentuate their individual voice,” Rev. Dave Grady added. “Anyone who wants to offer musical gifts can bring something to the table for the glory of God.”

Plans include initiating a youth choir and expanding the adult choir to 50 participants.

“It’s always good to find opportunities for people working in artistic endeavors. And churches can pick up the slack when schools reduce music and arts programs,” said Francis.

Offering a welcoming space

He aims to connect with music directors in local schools to see if they have ensembles that would like to perform in a non-judgmental, non-threatening environment, potentially transforming Simpsonwood into a safe and welcoming space for young people to nurture their skill and appreciation for music.

Relevance is another focus of Simpsonwood’s musical program. A recent Sunday service featured a piece for two pianos/four hands with Maurice Ravel’s “The Fairy Garden,” dedicated to the people and children of Ukraine.

“It’s very calming and impressionistic and ends with a glissando (sliding up and down on all the notes on the keyboard), which is so celebratory,” Francis said. “It’s like walking the path of the Ukrainians with the hope that they will reach that glissando without more pain and loss.”

Choir member Lori Perozzi has been in and out of the choir for the past 30 years. She grew up in a gospel singing family and has sung professionally. Locals may know her from gigs with the Mark Tucker Trio, a jazz ensemble at 45 South Café in Norcross. Tucker also plays in the contemporary service’s band.

“David has brought an excitement and music to our church that I haven’t experienced since I joined in 1988. He’s not afraid of doing anything music-wise and he is a blast to work with and so much fun,” Perozzi said. “He’s a very inspiring person both musically and personally. Plus, he’s a good recruiter.”

As in many churches, the high-quality music program at Simpsonwood is essential in binding worshipers together.

“Whether you can sing or not, when you have the congregation stand up and sing together there is unity. And for me, it’s a personal thing because my faith is expressed through music,” said Perozzi.

Francis concurs. “To me, music is the foundation of any religious service and always has been,” he said. “I feel it must be diverse, and come from different genres, and must be performed to the best of anyone’s ability. And it’s always better when it’s also entertaining.”


Sunday services info

Table Service at 8:45 a.m. in the Sanctuary is a short service with full communion.
Traditional Worship is at 10:55 a.m. in the Sanctuary.

Contemporary Worship with Kids Church is at 11:10 a.m. in the Family Life Center gym.
The church also streams its Sunday worship service at 11:10 a.m. on the SUMC YouTube channel: simpsonwoodumc.org/sunday-worship-livestream
Simpsonwood United Methodist Church is at 4500 Jones Bridge Circle in Peachtree Corners.

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Faith

Much to Rejoice: Father Charles Byrd Assumes Role as New Pastor at Mary Our Queen Catholic Church

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Father Charles Arthur Byrd.

Photos of Father Byrd by Tracey Rice

Father Charles Arthur Byrd has led a rich, fulfilling personal and ministerial life prior to accepting his latest leadership role this July as the new Pastor at Mary Our Queen Catholic Church.

“Former pastors led in the building of our new church. Father Byrd, another visionary, will lead this parish forward,” long-time parishioner Jim Gaffey said.

It’s a daunting task to come into an established body of faith and make a positive difference, but Father Byrd is well up to the challenge.

“[Peachtree Corners] is a wonderful community, with a lot of good families. A lot of names to learn, but it’s a great parish,” Father Byrd said.

Prior to seminary, Father Byrd worked in the exciting world of advertising, residing in Louisville, Kentucky for seven years. Father Byrd was raised Protestant, faithfully attending church in his hometown of Newnan, Georgia with his mother and father, brother and two sisters. During his time in Louisville, he was introduced to Catholicism and began singing in the choir at St. Martin’s, as well as serving as the cantor for the Latin Mass there.

The road to Peachtree Corners

In his introductory letter to Mary Our Queen, Father Byrd describes his faith journey of self-discovery that eventually led him to pursue a higher calling of community service and a dedicated seminary program.

He finished his pre-theology at a Benedictine seminary in southwestern Pennsylvania, then his Bachelor’s of Sacred Theology at a Jesuit University in Rome and his License in Sacred Theology at a Dominican University in Rome. Father Byrd was ordained a deacon in St. Peter’s Basilica by the future Pope Benedict in 1999. Archbishop Donoghue ordained him a priest in Atlanta in 2001.

As a newly ordained priest, Father Byrd served for nearly two years at St. Andrew’s Parish in Roswell. From there he was sent to teach and do formation work at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe where he had studied pre-theology.

In his letter to Mary Our Queen, Father Byrd expresses a profound love of the teaching aspects of being in a pastoral position, helping priests and parishioners alike in their spiritual and liturgical growth. Father Byrd’s extensive career trajectory has taken him across the globe, and yet he continues to return to his home state of Georgia, to Atlanta for almost two years at The Cathedral of Christ the King, then to Jasper as pastor at Our Lady of the Mountains for over a decade.

Mary Our Queen during service. Photo from Mary Our Queen Facebook page.

Now twenty years into his priesthood, Father Byrd shows no signs of slowing down and no waning of enthusiasm, as he is eager to begin a new chapter with Mary Our Queen. “Worship is, after all, who we are. I like embracing the whole of Catholicism. It is a great joy to me. The teacher in me will help us embrace together more and more of our rich heritage,” Father Byrd said in his introductory letter.

“Father Byrd’s unique background, focus and joyous approach, continuing the building of community, is already having an impactful effect,” Gaffey reported.

Looking forward

There is much to rejoice about at Mary Our Queen, and much to look forward to in the coming season and year. “We have a busy schedule coming up. We just did our All Soul’s Requiem mass and All Saint’s mass,” Father Byrd said. “Then we have Thanksgiving coming up and Advent starting. Christmas is going to be kind of complicated this year as it falls on a Saturday, so a busy time. We have the choir back, singing and doing a great job.”

For more information about Father Byrd and Mary Our Queen, visit maryourqueen.com .

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A Match Made in Heaven-Husband and Wife Team Up as Simpsonwood UMC Co-Pastors

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Photos by Tracey Rice

Some people might find working in a professional setting with their spouse a challenge, but for the two new co-pastors at Simpsonwood United Methodist Church, ministry is the family business that suits them just fine.

David and Susan Allen Grady assumed their leadership roles at Simpsonwood on July 6, and since then they have kept rather busy getting to know their faith community. Both pastors are first career clergy that have worked separately in several church management roles in different places. Most of their ministries have been in Intown Atlanta communities around Dekalb county, as well as churches in Cobb and Fulton Counties.

For a bit of background, the pair met during seminary at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. David spent some time in the United Kingdom then went back home to Alabama, and later his marriage to Susan led them back to the Atlanta area. Since then, he has lived and worked throughout different parts of Georgia, serving congregations of various sizes in Roswell and the Chamblee/Tucker areas, to name a few.

Then the bishop surprisingly called both David and Susan to Peachtree Corners.

The family business

Susan grew up as a pastor’s kid in Georgia, so she said, “we kind of jokingly say it’s like our family business.” And the cycle continues as the couple have a daughter in 7th grade at Pinckneyville Middle School. It’s an unexpected perk of the job that with both parents working at the church, the whole family can spend Sunday mornings together in the same place.

In the unique position of serving together in the same church body for the first time, David and Susan remark on the blessings that the arrangement offers for them personally and for Simpsonwood.

“We are different. We have different gifts, different interests and different skills. We know each other well after being married for years, so it’s a blessing to see each other really shining and doing the things that we are both gifted for and love, supporting each other in that,” Susan said.

“And also, having that person that is your equal teammate to bounce ideas off of and to get advice from, to check in with when we’re doing new things, those are some real blessings that we deeply value.”

David had this to say in addition to Susan’s thoughts. “And I think another blessing for our congregation and our life is that we get to model leadership a little bit differently, in kind of a shared model leadership. I think the other piece to this is that one of the things we might be learning is that Peachtree Corners is maybe at the front edge of a generational turning over,” he said. “So we can, in our work, model ways of being professional, model ways of being in relationships, and model what is healthy and what healthy behavior looks like for life together.”

In their short time here in Peachtree Corners, David and Susan have noticed that this is a town with a strong sense of identity and community-mindedness. “This is a destination for people, even more than just the next community over, as in ‘I want to move to the next community over’ for whatever reason. But Peachtree Corners is a place people are choosing specifically and there is a sense of identity in that also.”

“It doesn’t feel like a stereotypical suburb because you see people that you know when you go places. This is a community that people are investing themselves in, rather than just a ‘bedroom’ community.”

Holiday events, traditional and new

As the holiday season approaches, there is a palpable sense of anticipation for the extraordinary events that will take place at Simpsonwood UMC. The locally famous Walk Through Bethlehem returns December 10-12 in its more traditional form, as opposed to last year’s movie experience that was incorporated into the online Christmas Eve service.

“We are excited to offer a Christmas Eve service that is more what people are used to,” David said.

Additionally, a brand-new Traveler’s Christmas Eve service will also be available on December 19, in addition to the standard service times, to accommodate churchgoers that may be out of town at Christmastime.

So David and Susan will have ample opportunity to meet and greet with much of their community, and they will continue to dedicate themselves to getting to know what makes Simpsonwood tick.

“When we are new in a church, we spend, really, a full year — but definitely the first six month or so — really getting to know the place and the community,” Susan said. “We are excited to see what the Christmas traditions are, those in Peachtree Corners and Simpsonwood, and bring our own ideas, like the Travel’s Christmas service,” Susan said.

For more information on David, Susan and Simpsonwood UMC, please visit simpsonwoodumc.org.

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