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[congregationaldevelopment] 'Store front' Episcopal Churches
While attending the GEM meeting in Los Angles last summer, I was most
impressed with Pueblo Nuevo, a congregational mission in the heart of one
of LA's toughest neighborhoods. Philip Lance started it as a community
flea market a few years ago, a project to provide a job and training for
several out of work. He was newly ordained at the time and wanted a new
priestly challenge to contrast with his apprenticeship in a fairly cushy
parish. He also wanted to make use of his Spanish skills.
A worshiping community developed for those running the flea market,
meeting in adjoining space, a commercial building which was no longer in
use. The mission expanded rapidly. They purchased an abandoned strip mall
and converted it into a first-rate school for kids in the neighborhood.
They sponsor numerous training programs.
The worshiping congregation grows integrally as a part of this larger
vision of 'church.' The Rev. Zoila Manzanares now oversees much of the
day-to-operations; Phil Lance dreams up new projects and applies for the
grants to make them happen.
How can the Episcopal Church begin to replicate this type of
congregational development in similar communities across the church?
Short of cloning Phil and Zoila, how can we hold up their ministry as a
model for discipleship for seminarians and priests?
I served for a time as historiographer of the Diocese of Newark, and I was
constantly reading about parishes starting in the diocese 100+ years ago.
Rarely did they begin with a building or a full-time priest. Many met for
several years in rented secular space or in homes. They were not captive
to real estate, but to the gospel.
It now seems that the Christian groups that begin in houses and in rented
commercial space are more likely to be non-denominational. "Church
planting," as I hear many use it, almost always seems to involve putting
up a building and hiring a priest, and finding a way to provide full salary
with benefits. Only then, it seems, are we developing a congregation. I've
seen several cases where what really has developed is a mortgage, with
concomitant distractions from the good news we have to share.
Episcopalians are too captive to Sunday. I learned this poignantly a few
years ago, while serving on the Standing Commission on Human Affairs. We
met with a group of Asian Christians in San Francisco. They told us that
Bishop Swing uses the resources of major realtors in the diocese to
identify where new neighborhoods are about to happen. An older Korean
priest told us that the bishop recruited him, then bought an old church
and set him up in a neighborhood just about to shift, to have him on the
scene when the Koreans arrived.
'But I was a failure at first,' he lamented. 'My building would
comfortably hold 125, but I could rarely get more than 20-30 on a Sunday,
and even then, few of the same 20-30.' One major reason, he learned, was
that in most of the households of new Korean immigrants, most are working
on Sunday, and some are holding down 2 or 3 jobs. To have ministry with
them, he started doing house masses, lots of them, all through the week at
hours that accommodated their schedules.
People who are made welcome in such extraordinary need tend to remember
the church that welcomed them generations later.
One of the well-to-do matriarchs of my parish, now in her mid-80s, and a
faithful contributor to the full life of the congregation all her life,
illustrates the point. Her grandfather was a freed slave living in Newark
in the 1850s, a successful artisan. He saved up money to pay up the
indentured papers for an Irish woman he had met in the Carolinas. They
were both Roman Catholics. When he brought her to Newark, the Catholic
Church here refused to marry them. They came to my parish, Grace, and
were married. Their great-great-great grandchildren continue to be
Episcopalians and highly successful professionals.
Many years ago Bishop Grien wrote in an article that 58% percent of
Episcopalians have left (read, in some cases 'fled') other denominations
to become Episcopalians as adults. In preaching around the country, I
often ask people to raise their hands if they are in that group, and
rarely is the response as low as 58%. Clearly the Episcopal Church has
been developing congregations in this way for quite a long time. Should we
not be more self-conscious about that in the ways that we invite persons?
I have found that the question itself is almost always electrifying, as if
it is the first time in a long time they have been invited to rejoice in
All around us there are thousands starved for the nurture that we take
for granted. The Episcopal Church is too often a well-kept secret.
The early church was quite clear about its missions to those Judaism
excluded, and bragged that its first major successes occurred with a
minority group, in Samaria.
Go tell it on the mountain, over the hill, and everywhere!