Written by Anthony Moujaes
As the executive director of Back Bay Mission, the Rev. Shari Prestemon racked up a lengthy list of accomplishments in the 13 years she's been leading the vibrant Mississippi-based ministry of the United Church of Christ. Prestemon's work was grounded in helping the less fortunate and marginalized people in Biloxi, Miss., establishing Back Bay Mission as an important contributing member of the surrounding community and beyond.
Now the time has arrived for Prestemon to hand the reins at Back Bay Mission to someone else. Prestmon's final day of community ministry in Mississippi is Friday, Sept. 13, as she prepares for a new role as conference minister of the Minnesota Conference of the UCC.
"I am so struck by the very diverse circles that being the executive director of Back Bay Mission allow you to be in," Prestemon said. "It's a privilege to navigate between local churches of the United Church of Christ that volunteer with us, to the city council chambers here to going to the capital in Jackson, Miss., doing advocacy. It's a very diverse experience, and it allows you to meet so many incredible people with their own stories about the mission and eagerness to be part of it."
Prestemon's collaboration with Biloxi was unprecedented for Back Bay Mission, as she eventually secured funding from the city that continues today, and also helped the mission obtain a federal grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001 – both those funding sources support the mission's housing programs. Because of her activism, Prestemon was chosen to chair the Mayor of Biloxi's Task Force on Homelessness in 2004.
One of the lasting memories that Prestemon will carry with her to the Minnesota Conference is the aftermath and recovery work that followed Hurricane Katrina. In 2005 the hurricane brought destruction and flooding along the Gulf Coast near Louisiana and Mississippi, displacing thousands of people, and nearly destroying the mission.
"[I will remember it] not because of how devastating it was, but more about how people rushed to our side, to help us rebuild as an organization and help us recover the community," Prestemon explained. "It was really a stunning experience to be part of."
Prestemon guided Back Bay Mission along the path to recovery. She launched affordable housing programs for community members in the area, and oversaw the rebuilding of the campus – including two new buildings. The Mission House and Micah Day Center were completed in 2009, and the Micah Center began its program in 2010 as a day center for the homeless, gathering space for community-wide events and staff offices. The Mission House houses recovery and work-camp volunteers.
In 2001, Prestemon established the first formal financial development program for Back Bay as a fundraising and grant-writing program. She also led the Mission to found the Open Doors Housing Coalition (2001), which is a group of organizations that address the causes of homelessness and advocate for solutions to the problem at a local level.
Prestemon was ordained in the UCC in 1993, the same year she received her Masters of Divinity from UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary. She received her Doctor of Divinity in 2010 at Heidelberg University. Among her recognitions are the Reinhold Niebuhr Award for Service from Eden Seminary (2007), the Heart of Service Award from Wider Church Ministries (2007) and the Alumni of the Year Award from Chicago Theological Seminary (2008).
Asked what she looks forward to with the Minnesota Conference, Prestemon said she is ready to "get out in local churches and see how people are striving to embody the Gospel, and reach out and be the church."
Back Bay Mission is honoring Prestemon by creating the Shari Prestemon Social Justice Internship. The program will provide a member of the UCC between the ages of 19 and 23 with a unique opportunity to participate in a 10-week summer program tailored to their interests. Prestemon was an intern herself as a college student at Back Bay Mission, and said the experience changed and directed her life.
"That internship was such a transformational experience for me in so many ways," Prestemon said. "It allowed me to meet members and pastors from all across the United Church of Christ. It gave me a vision of the Church centered on doing justice and making a difference in the world."
As Prestemon prepares to leave the Mission for Minnesota, some individuals related to Back Bay had well-wishes and warm memories she can carry with her.
"I will miss her vivacious personality and gracious smile at the annual meeting of the South Central Conference," said the Rev. Teddy Kissell, an interim sabbatical minster at Plymouth United Church in Spring, Texas. "Shari brought Back Bay Mission far into the service of those who need it most."
"Our small church in Millvale, Penn., First United Church of Christ, has always been a supporter of Back Bay Mission," said Nancy Gleyze. "We are a very small congregation with a very small budget, but we donate whatever we can. One year, almost 15 years ago, Shari and her associate came to Pittsburgh and visited our little church for a shrimpfest. They stayed with us and spent two days with our church. Our entire congregation was so excited. Although we have always felt a connection to Back Bay, the fact that they would take time to stop at our little church meant so much to all of us. It reinforced our connection and several times after that, we have sent volunteers to help at Back Bay and we continue to support the mission to this day. Although we are miles and miles apart, Shari made us feel like we were neighbors. It was awesome."