How Tommy Parker Is Living Out the Gospel, One Year at a Time
Tommy Parker (’12) is a twenty-something who gets the notion of vocation. With a degree in Bible and minors in computer information systems and humanities, he has found ways to marry his passion for ministry over the last five years with the knowledge, skill, and experience he garnered while an undergrad at Milligan. Each job he has held prepared him for the next, though this rural Illinois boy could not have imagined himself working in an urban setting with preschoolers and a church plant in the midst of an historic flood.
After graduating in 2012, he was offered a full-time position as a graphic designer and web developer in Milligan’s PR and Marketing Office.
“For the next three years I got to work with so many gifted and talented people who make Milligan’s publications and marketing look amazing,” said Parker. “I cannot express how grateful I am to these people who pushed me to be creative, to practice my skills, and to make beautiful things. By the time I moved away from this beloved position and into the next stage of my life, I thought of myself confidently as a designer.”
Then he arrived in Houston, Texas, through a Christian volunteer service program called “Mission Year,” which is designed for 18 to 30-year-old Christians who are committed to living in Christian community and coming alongside what God is doing in the city by partnering with local churches, non-profits, leaders, activists, and neighbors who are transforming their communities.
“Ostensibly, we were in Houston to be missionaries, spreading the Gospel of Christ to the hurting corners of the inner-city. Instead, we discovered that God—and the Gospel— were already there,” said Parker. “God has been working in our cities for as long as cities have been around, and we were able to experience the Gospel anew from our neighbors.”
Parker’s Mission Year volunteer assignment placed him for 30-plus hours per week at Yellowstone Academy, a non-profit, private Christian school serving students from Houston’s historic Third Ward community in grades PreK through eighth. This placement brought Parker much joy and proved to be providential.
In addition to time spent with the school, Parker also got involved with a local church, where he helped lead worship and participated in various community service projects. It was during one of these projects that he met Lincoln Christian University and Duke Divinity School graduate Jacob Breeze. Breeze was planting a church called Holy Family, an outreach of the Chapelwood UMC Network. After some conversation, Parker was invited to join Breeze and his team in the important work of establishing a new body of believers.
With his Mission Year coming to a close, Parker found himself torn whether or not to stay in Houston. He had housing and a job lined up back in Tennessee, but “I just couldn’t leave this church-planting idea alone—it was starting to drive me nuts,” said Parker. “A few weeks after that conversation with Jacob, I went for a bike ride to clear my head. As I was riding along the bayou trail, I stopped at a bench to watch the sunset, and I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave Houston just yet.”
Though he was confident that this was where God was leading him, Parker had no place to stay, no job, and no real support network.
“I was getting a little discouraged because nothing was coming together. Then, on the very last day of Mission Year, I applied for a position as a preschool instructional assistant that had just opened up at Yellowstone Academy. They offered the job to me within 24 hours,” recounted Parker.
That same week, one of his Mission Year housemates got a job and decided to stay in Houston, too, and another Mission Year friend who had an apartment invited both of them to move in until they could afford their own housing.
“I went from having no job, no place to live, and no real support network to having all three in the space of about three days. It was the answer to a whole lot of prayer.”
Now, Parker serves as the coordinator of communications and stewardship at Yellowstone Academy, and he is a catechist and church house leader for Holy Family. His “mission year” has become a way of life for him, at a significant point in Houston’s history.
At Yellowstone, in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, Parker’s responsibilities included not only communicating closures to families and the media, but also creating an online form for families to let the school administration know they were in distress.
“I personally messaged and called every family that responded—nearly twenty just through the online form,” he said.
It was also his job to start raising money.
“We made the decision pretty quickly to waive all tuition payments for the fall semester,” said Parker. “We knew that for the families we partner with, the biggest impact of the storm would be in terms of lost wages, and we wanted to give them one less bill to worry about. We also raised money so that we could provide direct relief to those families most impacted in our school community. As a result of those efforts, we raised more than $150,000 from nearly 200 individuals, corporations, and foundations from all across the nation during those two weeks after the storm. More than half of that money was raised in less than 72 hours.”
In addition to raising funds, Yellowstone staff also collected supplies at the school. Through a partnership with a local grocery store chain, they were able to send a box or two full of needed supplies and food home with every single student. They also were able to organize a special “Yellowstone Store” where families could pick up brand new clothes, supplies, and food in the weeks after the storm.
In his role at Holy Family, Parker and his fellow staff members minister to people who have had rocky histories with the church.
“Some have been hurt or even rejected for reasons beyond their control, and some just aren’t interested in what most churches seem to offer. Only a handful of our members have been Christians for most of their lives.”
Holy Family practices what it preaches, putting into action one of its founding principles: “We believe God’s love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers.”
In the aftermath of the hurricane, Chapelwood and all of its partner communities leapt into action. Holy Family organized a supply drive, filling more than 10 trucks with needed supplies that were collected in partnership with a local coffeehouse.
“Through our connection to Chapelwood, I and many of our neighbors helped to muck out houses, rip out drywall, carry out trash, and clean up in general after the storm,” said Parker. “It was an extraordinary time to be a part of this city. What Holy Family did sounds really good on paper, but really it’s just what EVERYONE was doing. The people of Houston poured themselves out for their neighbors who were most affected by the storm, and it was incredible both to witness and be a part of.”
From Illinois to Tennessee to Texas; from college student to PR office; from a year of discernment and intentional service to a private school staff and house church leader, Parker’s path has been anything but predictable. And he is okay with that.
“Trust that you are unique and wonderful, and that you have something good and beautiful to offer the world,” said Parker. “Trust that you have been entrusted with talents and ideas and skills that need to be put to good work, not buried under layers of fear and doubt.”