New Crossroads UMC Pastor Zack Martin is shown here with wife Leigh Martin, also a United Methodist minister, and children, Thomas, 4, and Savannah, 5. (Special Photo)
Not long ago, the Rev. Zack Martin was asked to give an inspirational talk to offenders sentenced to Rockdale County Drug Court. That was not so unusual. Ministers throughout the county often speak to the group.
But when the pastor of Crossroads United Methodist Church stood up to speak in the Conyers courtroom that day, he realized he had been in that very spot once before. It was 1970, and 6-week-old Zack was in the arms of Penny Martin, as a judge in that same courtroom granted his adoption to Penny and her husband Myron.
While the Martin family left Conyers when young Zack was just 2, the pastor said he considers himself a Conyers native and was excited when he was appointed to serve Crossroads last year.
His father was a corporate businessman and the company transferred him and his family to Richmond, Va.; Chicago, Ill.; Washington, D.C. and finally back to Georgia when Martin was in the eighth grade. Once they were back in the area, the family became active in their home church, Rock Chapel Methodist.
Martin graduated from Parkview High School and that fall enrolled at Emory University at Oxford College. He finished his studies there and went to Emory University in Atlanta where he was going to become a doctor.
“I didn’t love chemistry as much as I loved my religion classes,” Martin said with a laugh. “I realized God was calling me into the ministry…My parents were shocked at first. I was at Emory and everybody who goes to Emory is supposed to be a doctor. But it’s the way grace works in your life. Sometimes you’re surprised you get called to a different thing.”
Martin graduated from Emory in 1992, and finished Candler School of Theology in 1996, but said he was hesitant about serving a local church. He was single at the time and fresh out of seminary when the bishop, who makes appointments, asked him what he wanted to do.
“I was scared to death of a local church,” he said. “Usually new pastors are put in the middle of nowhere — that was my impression, at least. There wouldn’t be people my age. I had a lot of stereotypes.
“At one Wednesday night supper, a missionary came in and after listening to her talk about serving in Uganda, I said, ‘That feels like the thing for me.’ I filled out an application. I was sent as a missionary to Zamboanga del Sur, Philippines and as exotic as that sounded, it was same thing as being sent to North Georgia.”
Martin said it was a funny turn of events because the post was truly in the “middle of nowhere.” However, it taught him that people are the same in many places.
“They were good people,” he said. “It was a humbling experience and I got over my arrogance of thinking. It encouraged me to come back and take a church wherever they sent me.”
He remembers his time in the Philippines as being intense. He worked with farmers at an interfaith facility and lived with a Muslim family as part of a program to build bridges of peace with the Muslims there.
“In the evenings, we would have groups gather and talk about life and faith, our similarities and our differences as a way to just build understanding,” Martin said. “It was a pretty contentious place to be. I think we did some peace building between a lot of cultures, which is really needed in the world we have today. That’s always been an interest of mine — bridging cultures and seeing people as human beings rather than the labels we put on them.”
Following his post in the Philippines, Martin was appointed as a missionary to Lumberton, N.C., where he worked in a church that had four members and 10 youth.
“I got over myself,” he said. “A pastor doesn’t have to live in the city all the time.”
After his work in North Carolina, Martin was appointed to pastor his first church, Northwoods UMC in Doraville.
“I requested an international congregation and boy, I got it,” he said. “The church was 50 percent white and 50 percent other cultures, mostly West African folks escaping the civil war over there. It was like the United Nations on Sunday mornings. It’s a lot like what heaven is gonna look like.”
He served Northwoods for four years and then was appointed to another multicultural church in Norcross for three years before being appointed to Dunwoody UMC.
“That was a big change,” he said. “I worked with young adults and singles, which was kind of like a church within a church. That was about a five-year placement. I loved it. It was a good place to be.”
It was before he was appointed to Dunwoody that Martin met his wife Leigh, who is also a United Methodist minister and who at the time was serving as a campus pastor for the Wesley Foundation at Georgia Tech. While neither of them ever attended Tech, they met there while taking part in a Bible study for clergy. The couple married in 2004, and are the parents of Savannah, 5, and Thomas, 4.
After Dunwoody, Martin was appointed to serve a church in Forsyth County, where he remained until his appointment last year to Crossroads UMC at 2460 Ga. Highway 138 in Conyers.
“Conyers is probably the most convenient place I’ve ever lived,” he said. “We live a mile from the church and seven minutes from the preschool. It’s easy to get around on the north side. I don’t know about the south side.”
Martin said he is also happy to be back near his father, who lives in Snellville and glad the children can spend time with their grandfather. Martin’s mother passed away two years ago from cancer.
When asked if he has ever searched for his birth parents, Martin said that has never been something he cared about.
“My parents are the ones who loved and cared for me all my life,” he said. “I don’t feel like that’s ever been something I needed to do. It comes up when I’m asked my medical history, but I get all the tests. For me, I really don’t have a good reason (to search). I don’t live in the past.”
As Martin celebrates his first anniversary this month at Crossroads UMC, he said he feels like he is back home.
“We’re doing great,” he said. “This is a real solid congregation with good lay leadership and people who care about the people who are here and those who are yet to come.”
The pastor said the church just finished summer music camp, which it has in place of a traditional vacation Bible school. There were 57 kids who came to the camp and put on a Broadway-style musical of “The Music Man.”
“They learn the songs, act it out and are involved with the production,” Martin said. “We have a couple of professional actors in the congregation who helped. It was fantastic. We transformed the sanctuary into River City. They learned the music and learned the Christian values from the play, such as not gossiping.
“We took a secular play and pulled out the scenes of faith. It was very cool. It’s kind of our niche. We’ve got a lot of actor folks in the congregation.”
He said Crossroads UMC is also home to several educators and retired educators and calls the congregation an “interesting group of people.” Sunday mornings average around 165 in attendance. Music camp’s finale was putting on the show, which packed out the sanctuary, Martin said.
The next big event will be the church’s Back to School Bash on Sunday, July 27, at both worship services, 8:30 and 11 a.m. The event is also known as the “Blessing of the Backpacks” as kids bring their backpacks and place them in the chancel area as leaders talk and pray about the upcoming school year.
Martin said he is excited about his congregation and serving the community he calls home.
“Last Sunday, I preached on Matthew 10, about ‘whoever loses their life for my sake,’” he said. “I lost the life I thought I would have — the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ (TV show) life, but I gained a more meaningful life to love and care for the people of God.”
Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Walton County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.