As they studied the Bible, Parris and Frank felt a calling to ministry. They decided to marry and attend a Bible College in California. But Parris needed her parent’s consent. They were not happy when she confronted them with legal documents for her independence. Initially, her parents sought to have Frank arrested. But the weight of their own personal problems swayed them to sign, releasing Parris to marry Frank and follow her husband as he followed the Lord.
The newlyweds traveled to California where Frank enrolled in seminary and a now pregnant Parris enrolled in high school. Returning to high school stirred up painful memories of her first pregnancy. This time she was safe. No one would take her baby away, leaving her with an aching void in her heart. But she was immature and inexperienced in child rearing.
Parris soon found herself in a different kind of training, gaining knowledge through experience. “I was such an unlovely mess,” said Parris. “I remember coming home with the baby and trying to breastfeed. I put down the wiggling mass of human flesh and stared at the diaper, unsure of what I should do. Then I heard a knock at the door. The women from God’s Army came to my rescue.”
At the Methodist Home for Unwed Mothers, women helped Parris through a pregnancy. This time women went a step further; they helped her care for and raise her child. While adoption is a viable solution Parris learned to equip a young mother with the skills she needs to raise her child might be a better solution.
The experience in California taught Parris a model of ministry she later used to fulfill God’s calling on her life. Students worked for the seminary’s roofing company or tree planting service without pay. The profits from the businesses financed the seminary scholarship program that paid for the student’s education, lodging, and food.
After Frank graduated, the Seminary asked them to return to New Orleans and close the dying work the seminary had established in the city. Under Frank’s leadership, the group flourished. When time came to sever ties with the seminary, Frank moved his small congregation to an office while they searched for a permanent building.
God answered their prayers when a Presbyter called. “You have a congregation. We have an empty building in litigation that we will lose if we don’t put a congregation in it. Are you interested?”
Frank moved his flock into the building and controversy. A family seeking to wrest control of the property picketed their first service with large signs announcing “WOE TO YOU SHEPHERDS.” Picketing the congregation of long-haired hippies wearing questionable attire while worshipping God in a white affluent neighborhood attracted the media. Instead of controversy destroying the church, the membership exploded. To accommodate the increased attendance, Frank held five services every Sunday for three years.
The Presbyter agreed to donate the building to the Frank’s congregation if their church paid the litigation fees. His church quickly became the black sheep among the other churches. They became known as the church with the “off the wall singing” for bringing their California style of worship born in the Jesus Movement to New Orleans. Instead of using hymnals, they projected the words of songs on the wall, used drums, and danced.
During controversy, rejection, and a battle for survival, the congregation continued to grow. They built a new church accommodating 600 and then enlarged it to accommodate 1200 worshippers. In a quest to create a more welcoming atmosphere for a diverse congregation, they moved from the white affluent neighborhood to a major thoroughfare on a bus line, and built one of the largest auditoriums in the city.
The year they began building, Parris became pregnant with her fourth child. She had three boys that she loved deeply, but each birth renewed the painful memory of the girl given up for adoption. Parris decided to name a son Frank Jr. and that he would be their last child. She did not believe she deserved a girl, but a glimmer of hope prompted her to choose the name Grace for a daughter.
Shortly before Parris gave birth, she dreamed about angels. The angels shouted “breakthrough”, flew away and then returned and shouted, “Breakthrough. ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left…’” (Isaiah 54:2-3). She woke her husband to tell him about the vision. “That is what I am preaching on this weekend!” He exclaimed.
The message of the vision encouraged them. They had encountered many insurmountable mountains while building the church on Airline Highway. But the angel’s message addressed more than a breakthrough to finish the building. Parris gave birth to her last child, Grace, destroying the lie that she was not worthy to have a girl.
August 2005, a dangerous storm developed in the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans is no stranger to hurricanes, but the magnitude of this storm prompted authorities to order a mandatory evacuation. Frank and Parris took their children to safety in another state while Hurricane Katrina created unimaginable devastation.
The financial aid that flowed into New Orleans to help the city rebuild enabled the Frank’s church to purchase another church damaged by the hurricane. They renovated the building and opened a soup kitchen. Three years later, the need for the soup kitchen waned, and they pondered how to use it.
One night, Parris lay on her bed reading books about the reformation and worshipping God. She heard God say, “Parris, it’s time to sing a new song.” Immediately, her life flashed before her. The women who helped her through her first pregnancy. The women who helped her raise her first son. The seminary’s scholarship program. The decade she had worked with women in prison ministry. The vision of angels. Suddenly, she knew how the soup kitchen could become a facility to help women. Their church paid a hefty sum to a cleaning service. They could let the women in the program clean the church and use the savings and donations to finance scholarships for the women. Then she heard God say, “It’s time. I want you to name it Mary’s Song.”