What does a community church look like? A Reflection from personal experience.

What does a community church look like? The term is often used for independent churches that do not claim a denominational identity. Often a “Community Church” expresses a certain style of worship, evangelical, congregational, and independent. What does an Episcopal Community Church look like? Interesting, I have never seen a church named “Episcopal Community Church.” In a quick search I found Southwick Community Episcopal Church which is a very good thing. It seems that this church identifies itself with the community. Naming is always important and often says what we think or how we identify ourselves. In my experience Episcopal Churches invariably look to the Saints or a theological expression of holiness, e.g. St. Albans’s or Holy Trinity, Redeemer, Ghost and so on. So naming a church may have some significance. But the concern here is “What does a community church” look like (note the small “c”)?

My own faith journey really started in a wonderful suburban church. Its focus was on youth. It hosted a Boy Scout Troop; the youth group was filled with dozens of kids; it had a vibrant Vacation Bible School; eventually it started a pre-school “as an outreach and mission to the community.” The church was dedicated to the local community Food Pantry and provided worship services to two retirement homes on Sundays. So, it was participating in the local landscape as were several other main-line and independent denominational churches. Each church had niche for itself that laid claim to be a part of the community.

My first church, and so far only church, isn’t located in the suburbs where church attendance and youth groups are normative. My first church, St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, is an urban church located in a part of this city that might be considered a cross roads neighborhood. We are on the margins of the Tremé, French Quarter, Marigny, and 7th Ward or St. Roch neighborhoods. This presents challenges aplenty. We have managed to bridge, in many ways, these very diverse neighborhoods. Briefly, they represent working class, African-Americans; wealthy part time condo owners; LBGT community; bohemian artistic community; and an increasing Latino population. The median income runs from well below the poverty level within the Tremé to some of the wealthiest residents in upscale condos in the Quarter. We have managed to somehow catch the attention of, at least, representatives of this broad demographic. So, we are or are becoming, a community church.

A recent seminary intern from England, upon interviewing St. Anna’s parishioners, noted that most said of this church that, “it walks the talk.” Our faith our church like any denomination can be polarizing. We say, “All baptized Christians are invited to receive Holy Communion” rather than “All are invited to the Table of the Lord” – exclusionary? Our music shifts between ‘old time gospel’ to high Anglican hymns; musically exclusionary? We use incense at almost every worship along with Sanctus Bells, and ‘manual acts’; exclusionary? Yet, despite these apparent gates, or liturgical walls, we seem to be a community church that is drawing people in. We are growing at about 20% per year and have done so for the past seven years. Congregational self identity and demographics change with the seasons but still we grow. So, how are some of the definable ways that we lay claim to being a community church?

The first and perhaps least important but most obvious way is signage! Above each door in our facility a sign is hung that says, “You are now entering your mission field.” That sign is hung on the inside of the church. It says clearly where our work as Christians is to be done. Having been in place for over nine years now, I expect that many of the regulars never notice them – but our visitors do. Our outdoor church sign, a cheap billboard type sign stating service times and community services available from St. Anna’s also says, “All are welcomed none are shunned.” I have been surprised at what an impact that simple statement says for both our congregation and those who pass by. In line with our “cheapness” we have a “Murder Board” mounted prominently on the outside of our church wall, where with a Marks-O-Lot the names of murder victims are written each week – this is a New Orleans tragedy and one that we shall not forget. Yes, signage does communicate and it does help to make us a community church. We define ourselves and remind ourselves each time we look or over-look these signs. Just for the record, we do have the requisite “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” that is a little rusted swinging too low to the ground and usually spattered with dirt from recent rains.

But isn’t a community church meant to be more than hospitable and welcoming and inclusive? Of course it is. The challenge, I believe, is to overcome pretentious idealizations of what a church is or should look like. At this point an entire textbook could be written about what that means. But suffice it to say that I believe that this urban church ventures into unknown territory; maybe even risky associations. This church finds itself present where people are rather than standing outside of the community with an invitation to “come in.” This church ventures out into the wilds of the city.  As a priest, I am the first to admit that many of these adventures take me to places that don’t seem so churchy; or in like circumstances where hymns and prayers are far distant. But, it is where the people gather and they need to know that in THEIR PLACE, THEIR HOUSE, and THEIR MILIUE they are loved; loved not always because of some of the shenanigans that go on but because, well simply, they are humans created by the will of God.

My experience of this informs me of at least two phenomena that seem pervasive in these environs and neighborhood niches. A lot of people don’t go to any church but claim an affiliation; they are tired of the demands (perceived or real) for money or righteousness. Sometimes their own poverty embarrasses them into not going to “tithe” demanding churches.  Often the demand is coupled with the threat of damnation or marginalization. The preacher is the emblem of the community and if your faith is built on outward signs of success as a blessing – what is a poor man to do. This reminds me of the cast system in India “the untouchables.” The other phenomenon is almost two-fold and sounds something like this, “You tell me you love me and you tell me I am a freak of nature” and “You tell me you love me/us but you do nothing in my community that so desperately needs your help.” The end result is that either out of embarrassment or bitter hurt many folks don’t go to church. I am also not naïve enough to think that many don’t go to church because it simply, “isn’t relevant to my life” or “I just don’t feel like going (laziness).”

So, we go to where these hurt, broken, sometimes angry, or secularized folk live and play. We don’t knock door to door. It might help but likely wouldn’t. We go and walk the neighborhood with nothing more on our minds than to be seen and to offer a smile and hello; no fear.  Often those who aren’t in church will ask for a prayer. Others, the ones seeking relevance, well they are a harder lot to move. For them the outward activity of the church, its missions tell the story, “We walk the talk.”  Our Mobile Medical Mission is seen; our Anna’s Arts youth program is neighborhood visible because we walk the kids’ home; our English As a Second Language School is visible because the parking lot is filled to capacity at night. We are in the news because our “murder board” is sometimes a backdrop for the media. This is seen by secularists and skeptics as “walking the talk.”

Even then there is the LGBT community which is quite large near our church, not to mention the lavender line on Bourbon St. where a number of Gay Bars are. The Marigny is more a neighborhood and not a tourist haunt and they too host a number of neighborhood bars patronized mostly by LGBT community.  No less than disenfranchised African Americans or secularized social folk, this community needs to be seen where they are IN THEIR HOUSE. That house is usually a bar, club, or pub.

For a middle-class-straight-married-WASP- suburbanite going into LGBT realm and the poor but proud Black neighborhoods around St. Anna’s is/was daunting yet exciting; no fear. It starts by sitting on the stoop in front of the church and drinking coffee enjoying the day and chatting with passersby; easy to do in our urban church. The next part was befriending and listening to the stories that Gay men and women have to tell. This calls for a suspension of any pre conceived ideas or judgments. Once I was comfortable, a very gregarious gay friend took my wife and I “on the fruit loop” which is a pub crawl from Gay bars to Gay bar. It can take a couple of hours or all night depending on one’s drinking habits (luckily I am in recovery and don’t drink). Oh my! How different this all seemed than our little suburban early to bed early to rise community was. Oh my!

My first jolt, that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, was “Drag Dingo” a form of Bingo. The drag shows and watching men kiss men – well! Like I said, I had to suspend judgment and preconceived ideas. It is by, I believe, the Grace of God and the Power of the Holy Spirit that I did. Not because of what I saw but because I am a creature of bias and a forceful one at that; my prejudice, my urban legends turned into myth, all of those things, thankfully, were suppressed. I also enjoy wit and sarcasm, and I have always enjoyed listening to people like John Stewart or even Mae West who took sarcasm to new levels. In my opinion this is the vehicle of LGBT community, the way to vent, the way to rebel, the way to express their own disenfranchisement and sense of being pushed – push back on stage and in person. Often this is not PG-13 material, often it is near X rated; no fear. But what I discovered underneath all of the caustic bravado were simply people who love and want to be loved. It is often a community that is in communion more than many churches. I say this by bearing witness to older men who become sick, as we all do, and begin to die. The surrounding community gathers, they bring food, clean the house, and provide companionship. When this beloved member passes true sadness and longing are expressed. I have done funerals in bar rooms because they were “safe places” for prayerful and sometimes despised people. I have done wakes in homes and yes drag queen funerals at the church – oh my, that was something. In each case and in most all of these instances what I can say for sure is that there is/was a longing to belong and longing to be loved and a longing to simply be taken for who they are and finally, an unarticulated searching for God’s blessing.

So what does a community church look like? It has open doors. Not just to come into but to go out from. It meets people where they are. Yes, I spend time in Gay Bars; yes, I spend time walking the hood. Yes, I spend time chatting with the guy down the street and getting to know the local folk at the drug store, the great little restaurant down the street, and even chat with my window rolled down on the way home to the hustlers working the corners “for spare change.” When I first got to St. Anna’s, I had not heard of a funeral in a church for a gay man or woman. I suppose they happened. But what I do know now is that because we go out of the doors of the church, not always but often, when a gay man dies they call St. Anna’s. When a gay man is ill sometimes they ask us to visit. If a gay man with AIDS and insufficient medical coverage is in trouble, well sometimes they might just trust us to show compassion, a helping hand and prayer.

For three years, maybe more, our food pantry is supported by LGBT community bars, drag queens, and flashy boys. Even the local gay newspaper supports the work of St. Anna’s. They are still often so afraid to come into the doors that we must go out of the doors of the church. But when a man gives you a kiss of caring (on the cheek) and hands you $500 and says with a smile and in true humility, “this is for the kids” in some way maybe you have done church. Somehow the man or woman feels and is, I think, blessed by being a blessing to others. Finally, one of the most powerful things that our faith can do IS bless. So, I sit at a bar stool and it’s a blessing; no fear. I go to the local black barbershop and kid with Ms. Boutté; no fear. We as a church at least try to do what our forgotten signs above the door encourage us to do.

No, St. Anna’s is not “the Gay church”, although we are generally a pretty happy congregation. We are a church that seeks out “all nations” as our Lord demands. I have written much about the LGBT community and yet we are so much more. We have our church in the Tremé. Just a block or two away arrays of black men hang out. Some sell drugs, some just hang out. It’s a poor neighborhood that doesn’t offer much in the way of work. It doesn’t offer much in the way of opportunity or even aspirations, at least not from what I have observed. Somewhere along the line, in some  child between 8 and 15 that got knocked out or killed on the streets, aspirations, obtainable and good goals. They got lost in the deals, street cred, and hip hop hype. It’s more complicated than that in New Orleans. Believe it is but at least from what I’ve seen this is part of the story.

I know a kid at age seven who looked at me with intense anger in his eyes. Not childhood anger, adult pit of the stomach anger, and said, “I hate cops!” Age seven he was, yes indeed. He hates cops. I asked, “Why?” He said, “Because I just hate cops.” Yes, age seven. He is supposed to not really truly hate anything except maybe an early bath while the summer sun is still up. That same kid gets a walk home every night by Mr. Darryl from St. Anna’s. That same kid and some of those same kids showed up one Sunday, invited, not evangelized, and certainly not expected. They just showed up on Sunday, dressed, and ready for church. One of them came in, smiled, looked in the face, reached out his hand and put a crumpled sweaty dollar bill in my hand and with the biggest smile on his face, “That’s for Jesus!” No fear? Well maybe just a bit. Fear of failure of losing him or his sister. Losing them to the battle that is the streets. They just showed up one Sunday, all having come from our after school program. They choose to be in a place that showed a little care, a little love, and gave them attention without having to literally fight for it. They just showed up. So, Mr. Darryl gathers them up on Sundays and brings them to church and walks them home. Outside of our doors he walks them home. The men hanging on the street call Mr. Darryl “Rev.” Darryl blushes a bit when we call him that at church.

One Sunday Rev. Darryl called all the kids and said he wasn’t going to be there and that they should stay at home. NOPE! A BIG NOPE! A lovely 12 year old got up early, she got dressed, and then went door to door to gather “the children” and make sure they were dressed. Yep, they just showed up. This is inner city urban ministry. Sometimes it is sad and the outcome isn’t always what I or we want. Sometimes we lose. One of my dearest first acolytes, the star of St. Anna’s, well he’s in prison now; he’ll be getting out soon. What will we do then? One of the first people I met was an eccentric big black homeless man. Back in the suburbs I would have run away. But I sat on the stoop and got to know him. Quite a philosopher, artist, and come to find out an expert on antiques – no really before he was homeless he used to buy for an antique company. Well, he ended up in jail. He got out and we tried and tried to get him stabilized and on a path to self sufficiency. It’s complicated but he’s back on the streets and probably homeless again. My first ‘parish administrator’ had attended Oxford University before his schizophrenic break. He was medicated and fully functional. He lived with my wife and me during Katrina for almost three months. He talked his doctor into changing his medication. He is now fully schizophrenic and again homeless. So, it’s not always about joy or ‘success’; no fear. It is after all urban, inner city ministries.

This is only a glimpse of what my experience of ‘urban ministry’ is. It’s far from the whole story because it’s complicated. It’s complicated because people are complicated. It’s complicated because poverty in New Orleans is complicated. It’s complicated because the LGBT story is complicated. But I know this, a “Poker Run from gay bar to gay bar” to raise money for St. Anna’s Food Pantry is more than just lip service. It is a nod that maybe; just maybe “we walk the talk.” So while we are walking the next step is about empowering. Not so that WE can feel good about doing good; so that good and indeed great things can be accomplished by those that we have been put here to serve.

…let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.”      The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St. Luke.