Church on the Square (COTS) is rethinking church. Or, rather, this community church joint project of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is opting for a return to a parish church model. Called to a neighborhood of Baltimore in an urban renaissance, COTS seeks to serve the Canton neighborhood, and the surrounding neighborhoods of Fells Point, Butcher’s Hill, Brewer’s Hill, Highlandtown and Patterson Park as a gathering place for intellectual discourse and spiritual practice to address social change, gentrification, resurgent racism, responsibility, etc. The lens that the church uses is Gospel. But, there is no bait and switch. Humble servant leadership to make sweeping community change is their goal. Following Jesus’ lead in action is their tactic, not their weapon for assimilation.
“Church as the heart of a community” is being achieved. More than just a tagline, Church on the Square believes that the so-called spiritual but not religious or the “nones” (none of the above) crowd have a thirst for a progressive, engaged religious third space that will welcome them as they arrive. In other words, a church for atheists, agnostics and the inquisitive that can both stand strong on the convictions that it holds while allowing for the cognitive dissonance of dissenting ideas. This creates a hub space, a gathering space that doesn’t require a liturgical litmus or a creedal passcode to gain entry. Specificity of experience need not be sacrificed, by any leader or participant, when deep respect and love leads the way. Methodists, Evangelicals, Catholics, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, Mormons, Bahai, Hindus, Jews and, yes, even Episcopalians and Lutherans have all already called this house of prayer home. But, there is no homogeny of thought that is required to begin exploring with the group. COTS has also been a welcome home for interreligious couples, cross cultural friendships and multidenominational or post-denominational exploration.
Being a community incubator and a hothouse for neighborhood passion projects has already resulted in a wide array of programs at COTS. Urban beekeeping, children’s playgroups of all sorts, a nanny cohort group, a teacher support group, neighborhood meetings on racism, transportation, education and hospitality, as well as 12 step support groups all prove that Church on the Square is a locus for community development and change for families and participants of all ages. Dance, music, painting classes, theatre arts classes and rehearsal and performance venues have begun to place COTS on Baltimore’s map for arts and entertainment. Running clubs, Piyo, Yoga, Meditation, Kickboxing and personal training show that COTS values body and soul health. Outdoor parties, cookouts, free community concerts and events like Halloween, Christmas, Easter Egg Hunts and near weekly birthday parties have shown the neighborhood that COTS is a venue for gathering, engagement and laughter. How many churches have a bouncehouse to rent for inside the church? How many buy badminton equipment to dream of how to invite the neighborhood to play? Why can’t church instigate a little mischievous fun as a way to share Christ’s love?
Baltimore is known internationally as a city ripped apart by prejudice, historic redlining, imbalanced city services and entrenched feelings of unease. Church on the Square sees education on privilege, understanding of urban dynamics and the necessity to work closely with government officials as essential to deep Gospel Mission. To that end, the leadership of at COTS, lay and clergy alike, take community posts and neighborhood volunteerism very seriously. With representatives from COTS on Canton Community Association, O’Donnell Square Business Association, Canton Neighbors Facebook Group, caring for City Parks, liaising with the City Councilmembers office and the Mayors office this is a church that is not afraid to model sacrificial giving back to the city it serves. After the uprising of 2015, COTS sent a team to help board up the vandalized storefronts in the neighborhood and worked with local leaders to combat fear of the streets. The night after the unrest, leaders heard voices of violence erupting from the community and responded by creating two nights of spontaneous neighborhood festivals, in coordination with over 20 local businesses, to keep the streets friendly to locals and visitors alike.
The new chapter of Church on the Square is yet to be written. But, with upcoming programming around interfaith partnerships with Muslim and Jewish leaders in Baltimore, COTS is poised to continue work around healing and connecting. With an upcoming sponsored art festival celebrating diversity in South East Baltimore, COTS is poised to participate in a renaissance of collaboration in a fractured city.
The icon that COTS uses in it’s logo is the mandorla, an ancient symbol for intersection: God and humanity; community and faith; hope and progress; neighbors and support. At COTS, intersection is where God finds us and makes us whole. Maybe that’s rethinking church; maybe it’s reframing incarnation?