A Home Away from Home

By Natalia Perez

I remember the first time I visited Orchard Park SDA Church. It was a scorching hot Sabbath morning in April, and I wore a bright yellow dress to match the sun. At 19 years old, it was my sophomore year at Southern Adventist University, and I hadn’t yet found a church family.

One of my best friends, a sassy Filipina with a heart of gold, told me that we absolutely had to experience praise and worship at Orchard Park (OP).

“It’s like experiencing a bit of Heaven,” she said. And we scheduled a date to go together with some friends.

Upon our arrival, we were instantly greeted with friendly, smiling faces, eager to get us seated and comfortable. The praise and worship was, as promised, an ethereal experience.

OP is a black Southern Belle, sprinkling soul and spunk into her worship service (and her potluck). I loved her instantly.

Three years later, I’ve found myself not visiting as often as I’d like, but every time I make the drive out, the experience is the same: It’s soulful. It’s loving. And it’s home.

“We’re so happy to see you here!” they tell me each time, embracing me in a hug.

Every time I feel untethered and apathetic to my surroundings, I know it’s time to go back. One of my favorite parts about OP is that it’s a mission-centered church, tirelessly looking for new ways to pour into the community. It forces me to step outside of myself and my own issues and focus on pouring that same energy into others.

There are countless opportunities every week to participate in community service. OP has built a prayer, evangelism, discipleship, outreach, and health and wellness ministry, and leaders actively encourage members and visitors to be a part.

“We’re a real family here. We go through our struggles together. We laugh and cry together,” one of the church members told me once.

The congregation is small enough to feel homey, yet large enough to fill almost every seat in the sanctuary. Pastored by Troy Brand, a sarcastic, good-natured and humorous man, every Sabbath is somehow themed around something we all really need to hear.

I recently visited for Easter Sabbath, and the message commemorated Christ’s resurrection and our redemption. “Because the tomb is empty, my faith is not empty,” Brand said multiple times throughout the service. “We must die to Jesus every day.”

The service ended with a powerful rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” and as always, it was a piece of Heaven.

“We’re so glad to have seen you today!” said the greeters, embracing me on my way out.

Although I graduate this week and am leaving Chattanooga, OP will always hold a special place in my memories. And every time I feel untethered or disconnected, I’ll know it’s time to return home.