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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.

Ellen Berman is a professional content writer and long-time, broadly published journalist. She is an Atlanta, Georgia native currently living in Peachtree Corners and enjoying freelance writing from home.

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Doing Good

Water at Work Ministry Partners with House of Light Orphanage

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Water at Work Ministry, an Atlanta-based charitable organization is proud to announce its partnership with House of Light Orphanage.
This is Pastor Lucas who opened the house of light orphanage in 2006 with the goal to care for his own child with disabilities and others who could not receive care elsewhere. Pictured with his is Water at Work’s Executive Director Dan Blevins (a Peachtree Corners resident).

Water at Work Ministry, an Atlanta-based charitable organization dedicated to providing clean water solutions to communities in the Dominican Republic, is proud to announce its partnership with House of Light Orphanage, a haven of care and education to 40 orphans with disabilities.

Together, these faith-based organizations are inaugurating a sustainable water production business to ensure access to safe water for the orphanage residents and the surrounding communities in Ciudad Juan Bosch.

This business will help sustain House of Light’s mission to provide nurture and education to children, many of whom have experienced physical and cognitive challenges since birth and abandonment by their families. 

A dedication and grand opening ceremony for the water plant was held on Tuesday, May 14, with representatives attending from Water at Work Ministries, Rotary International, Be an Angel Foundation, the local Bella Vista Rotary Club, House of Light Orphanage and the local community.  

With the opening of Water at Work’s new sustainable water plant, the House of Light Orphanage will have a consistent and reliable source of clean water to meet the needs of the orphans and the surrounding community, ensuring access to water that is safe for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene.

The plant has a production capacity of 5,500 gallons per day, and is designed to be a sustainable business that will generate revenue through water sales. Clean water will be produced and affordably sold in five-gallon bottles in the surrounding communities.

Profits generated by the water business will defray the orphanage’s expenses, thereby contributing to its continued viability and moving it toward financial independence. 

This project is just one more example of how this Atlanta-based nonprofit organization is working to empower and elevate local economies in the Dominican Republic.

Over the past decade, Water at Work has established eight fully-functioning water plant businesses across the DR. Each partners with local churches with the goal of meeting people’s physical needs through water and their spiritual needs through the Living Water of Jesus. 

While many people think of the DR’s pristine beaches and resorts, locals know that poverty is rampant in many parts of the country and countless people have limited access to basic needs, including clean water. With the ongoing crisis in neighboring Haiti, ministries like Water at Work are more needed now than ever before. 

“The partnership between House of Light Orphanage and Water at Work represents a significant step forward in addressing the critical need for clean water in underserved communities,” says Water at Work Executive Director, Dan Blevins, resident of Peachtree Corners. 

“By leveraging sustainable technology and innovative solutions, both organizations will make a tangible, life-giving difference,” he added. 

Water at Work Ministry 
Email: audrie@wateratworkministry.org 
Phone: 404-465-1447

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Faith

Georgia United Methodist Foundation Announces Changes to Finance Team

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he Georgia United Methodist Foundation announced that Carol Johnston will succeed Russell Jones as SVP, CFO and treasurer.

The Georgia United Methodist Foundation announced Carol Johnston as its senior vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer. Johnston, who currently serves as associate vice president and controller for the Foundation, will succeed Russell Jones upon his retirement on June 30, 2024.

The Foundation is working to fill the controller position and further enhance its financial expertise.

Johnston will assume responsibilities currently held by Jones on July 1, 2024. In addition to 13 years of experience as the Foundation’s associate vice president and controller, Johnston is a former CPA and brings more than 35 years of experience in non-profit work and a distinguished background in banking to the CFO role. 

As tenured members of the Foundation’s finance team, Johnston and Jones have worked together for more than a decade.  As of April 1, the Foundation has 234.7 million dollars under management due in large part to the partnership between Jones and Johnston.

“Russell Jones has served as the financial backbone of the Foundation for 25 years. He has shared his financial talent and business acumen as a steadfast leader of the Foundation. His deep knowledge of software, systems, and financial instruments has served the Foundation well during his tenure. He has helped shepherd the Foundation through many significant changes and his counsel will be greatly missed.” Katrina Voegtlin, Chairperson of the GUMF Audit/Finance Committee. 

Under Jones’ leadership, the Foundation introduced its loan program which currently has over 42 million in loans throughout the state of Georgia.

“In addition to 25 years with the Foundation, Russell served seven years as assistant treasurer of the NGA Conference.

“We hope that they will enjoy may years together in the North Georgia mountains!” said Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Coppedge-Henley, President and CEO of the Foundation.

For more information about the Georgia United Methodist Foundation, contact Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Coppedge-Henley at elizabethch@gumf.org

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Community

Changes at Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries Help Further Community Mission

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Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries vegetable truck

Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries has been battling poverty, food insecurity and homelessness, among other crisis events, in southwest Gwinnett, for 27 years. In total, NCM served more than 25,000 individuals in 2023, through direct support and personal empowerment programs.

Over time, the county’s demographics have changed, meaning the organization has needed to adapt to serve the community.

Families now face long-term needs due to fixed incomes, homelessness, abuse, language barriers, single-parent homes and many other circumstances, according to the NCM website.

NCM now serves 50 to 70 families each day from a 12,000-square-foot facility. In addition to a food pantry, NCM offers job readiness classes, on-site hiring events, money management courses and regular health fairs.

A new course of leadership

Perhaps one of the biggest changes took effect this January. After almost 30 years of service to NCM, Executive Director Shirley Cabe will now give her primary focus to what she loves the most, the organization’s clients.

Cabe has been with NCM since its inception and has helped grow the organization tremendously as needs in this service area have drastically changed.

NCM’s Board of Directors supported Cabe’s request and developed a new role specifically for her. She will now serve as Director of Client Operations, allowing her to use her exceptional gifts and talents to serve those in need.

Additionally, Cabe will lead the expansion of the food program as refrigerated products will be added to client food offerings. Healthier food options such as protein, produce, reclaimed food and more will also be added.

“Healthier intake directly correlates to improved health and more productivity,” said Cabe in a news release. “This new initiative is huge for the clients we serve. We want to positively contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty. I am excited about the opportunities ahead for NCM and grateful to transition into this new role, focusing on more impactful service to our clients.”

With Cabe’s new role, former Director of Community Relations Ryan Jones will take over as Executive Director.

Jones has been with NCM for three years. Under Jones’ leadership, the organization held its most successful fundraising event to date, bringing in over $519,000 to continue its mission of making a difference one family at a time.

“Building out our team and people is the next step in the process,” said Jones. The big thing with the staffing change is just honoring Shirley and her years at this organization and allowing her to serve people, which is the heartbeat of our organization; that’s how she best serves–interacting with our clients in our community.”

Cabe’s larger role in the food program will help keep it running smoothly, he added.

There is already an established pickup schedule from Publix and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Jones explained that about 40% of food in the United States is wasted.

With new resources in place to access surpluses from supermarkets, restaurants, distributors, farmers and more, NCM can put a sizeable dent in southwest Gwinnett county’s share of the waste.

“We hope to use food as a resource, as we have more touch points with families that we see. So, as things come up in their lives, they’re seeing us more often, and we can step in when unexpected emergencies happen and try to address kind of the issues that have brought them to us in the first place,” Jones explained. “And with that comes just a lot more work.”

Dedicated board members

Les Harper, who succeeded Elizabeth Gross, has taken over as chairman of the board of directors to help with the vision for that work.

“My wife and I have been involved with Neighborhood Coop for a long time, volunteered through the church, and supported financially through the church over the years,” said Harper.

When I retired from working a couple of years ago and was looking for opportunities to give back to the community … one thing led to another, and I had the opportunity to join the board,” he added. “I started on the board a couple of years ago, and then last year, I was asked if I would consider stepping into the board chair role [this year], which I was excited to do.”

Harper’s experience on the board and working closely with Gross for an entire year allowed him to step in almost seamlessly into the new position.

“Elizabeth and I had a chance to work together in some leadership roles at church over the years. So, we have chaired and co-chaired a number of things over the years,” he said.

“For the past 12 months, she’s been great at including me in everything and making sure that I was up to speed on everything, fully involved, and ready to go,” he said.

Anyone involved in large-scale non-profit activities appreciates the time, energy, and resources that go into community organizing. To be good stewards of community trust, funds and well-being, NCM has focused on making operations run smoothly.

“NCM is definitely a feet-washing ministry, especially with the food. … A lot of times it’s heavy, and it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s well worth it,” Jones said. “I’m moving from strictly fundraising to overseeing all aspects of the organization and strategic oversight of all the initiatives that we have going on. … I was born in Gwinnett County. “So, really, the big reasons that I left my corporate job to come to NCM is how impressed I was with the board and the staff when I met them before coming on and the fact that it serves an area where I grew up that has a lot of need,” he commented.

Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries
500 Pinnacle Ct
Norcross, GA 30071
www.ourncm.org
770-263-8268

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