As the pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church outside Atlanta, Girl Scout Alum Abby Norman is used to looking after others. Although many churches help take care of people in need, particularly those without homes, Abby’s church is a little different; 80 percent of the parishioners are homeless themselves, and all of her church’s work is dedicated to helping them.
New Hope just reopened a month ago, but the programming is already meeting multiple needs in the community. On Thursday nights, the church hosts a bible study and dinner, and every day it serves meals to people in need.
“I come to tears weekly, because I watch homeless people tithe,” says Abby. “They throw $20 in, and I just want to give it back to them!”
Abby, who is 35 years old and in her third and final year of a master of divinity program at Emory University, says that her experiences at Girl Scouts set her up for success as a pastor even more than her education prepared her for this work.
She started as a Brownie in her hometown of Toledo, Ohio, but she remembers attending her sister’s troop meetings when she was even younger, because her mother was the troop leader.
One of her favorite childhood memories is a middle school trip her troop planned and paid for using money from cookie sales. Her mother drew a circle on a map, telling the girls the distance they could afford to travel on their budget. Then she left the room, allowing them to make decisions and plan the trip on their own.
“We chose to go to Philadelphia,” Abby says, “and we owned it. We negotiated among ourselves, taking into account what each person thought was important.”
Abby stayed active in Girl Scouts throughout high school, at which point she eventually became a Gold Award Girl Scout. Her project? Building a library full of educational resources for a local homeless shelter.
“I am gifted in leadership—and always have been,” she says. “But Girl Scouts was the one place I didn’t have to navigate being a girl and a leader.”
Norman appreciated that in Girl Scouts, the two weren’t mutually exclusive.
“I also didn’t have to choose between being a leader and liking what some would consider traditionally ‘feminine’ things, like crafts. At Girl Scouts, I could [fully] be all of me.”
As a Girl Scout, she learned how to budget from her cookie sales and how to paint and coat items with polyurethane from various crafts, a skill she used when freshening up the floors and pews at New Hope one day when a contractor failed to show up. Her troop also learned about color theory, something she uses to this day as a pastor when piecing together a polished outfit. “You really are expected to look put together, but it’s not like they train you on how to do that in divinity school!”
During her time at Girl Scouts, Abby mastered how to organize people, how to assign jobs, and the importance of making sure everyone has a role. “If you give a person a job, they show up. I am not the church—the people are the church, and I need to empower them. I learned how to do that as a program assistant through Girl Scouts when I was 15.”
“Girl Scouts is incredibly inclusive,” adds Abby. “I am the leader, but I don’t walk in with a plan. The church should be parishioner-led the same way that Girl Scouts is led by girls.”
Abby has a big vision for the church, which dates back to the 1800s and was originally built as a country church to support a farming community. “[It’s] the most Instagram-able church in America,” she says. “And I have plans to promote it as a chapel for weddings. It also sits on two acres, so there’s plenty of space there for tented receptions, too.”
In the future, she wants to build a community garden, as well as a village of tiny homes to help meet parishioners’ housing needs. But next up on her list is a project that’s particularly dear to her heart: creating a library, just like she did for her Gold Award.