[St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Ellicott City, Maryland] For 172 years, people of all ages and from all walks of life have gathered at St. Peter’s Church to praise, worship and give thanks to God.
For 172 years, this community of faith came together for fellowship, extending hospitality to the community and welcoming all to enjoy bountiful food and fun.
For 172 years, these people, inspired by Jesus Christ’s instructions to Peter, whose name they bear, to “tend my sheep, feed my lambs,” reached out into the community to feed the hungry, provide help to the needy and advocate for social justice.
Then on May 3, 2012, tragedy struck. Entering the office where he often came to get food from the pantry the church operated, Douglas Jones, a confused and mentally ill homeless man who used the nearby woods for shelter, shot and killed two women who had often reached out to him: Mary-Marguerite Kohn, a co-rector, and Brenda Brewington, the parish secretary, before killing himself — three senseless, terrible deaths.
The next day, reeling from the shock, members and former members gathered in Starr Hall, the fellowship space for the church, to mourn their loss as they grieved with and for the Brewington, Kohn and Jones families. As people shared their memories and fears, they all pondered the questions: How can we recover from this? How can we make these senseless deaths somehow have a deeper meaning? How can we overcome this tragedy?
In the weeks and months that followed St. Peter’s determined to be a resurrection people. With tentative, but then bold steps, the congregation under the direction of its warden Craig Stuart-Paul and the Bishop’s Ministry Team determined both to honor the lives lost and to redeem this terrible tragedy. Rather than overcoming the tragedy, the congregation determined to transform it by letting it be the inspiration for new life and labors. In his last conversation with his beloved disciple Peter, Jesus has urged him to “feed my lambs. . . tend my sheep.” That message inspired our resurrection efforts.
Resurrection took several forms. First and foremost, St. Peter’s continued its 172-year practice of gathering for worship and thanksgiving. On May 6, just days after the shootings, the congregation came together for its usual services of worship and praise. Hearts were heavy as we gathered around the table to share Eucharist. But we did gather, worship and give thanks, especially for the life and ministries of Brenda and Mary-Marguerite as well as the other blessings in our lives.
Under the guidance of the diocese and with the leadership of our new vicar, the Rev. Thomas Slawson, who arrived July 1, St. Peter’s also determined to overcome its past struggles, challenges and divisions, which had resulted in the bishop declaring it an imperiled parish earlier that year. Members pledged their support to the church. Through sustained opportunities for fellowship and worship, the members worked to overcome divisions and find new opportunities for ministry.
The church also renewed its commitment to St. Peter’s Pre-School, an important ministry to families in our community. Over the summer, our preschool director worked tirelessly to reassure parents and to recruit new students. The community support was heartening. Our classes grew and we were able to continue to offer families a loving and nurturing program for their little ones.
Although distributing food from the church office was no longer possible, the people of St. Peter’s determined to continue its outreach to the homeless and hungry in our community. On May 7, 2012, as on many 1st Mondays before and on every first Monday since, church members prepared and served an abundant meal of roast turkey, au gratin potatoes, salad, broccoli and desserts to homeless men and women at the Route 1 Day Resource Center, part of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Project. They brought non-perishable food to be distributed at that center as well as supplies for the Lazarus Caucus program that offers food and shelter to the homeless.
This year saw the beginning of new outreach efforts: we provided underwear and pajamas for children at St. Agnes Hospital and we explored how we could become part of the Winter Shelter Program, an interdenominational effort. Volunteers devoted thousands of hours to renovating a duplex on the church property so that it could become low-cost housing for a family striving to move forward with its hopes and dreams for the future. Refusing to retreat from its mission, we at St. Peter’s, a resurrection people, expanded our efforts to “feed my lambs. . . tend my sheep.” (John 21: 15-16).
Resurrection has occurred in the very space where the tragedy happened. After extended renovations and enhanced security, on Jan. 6, 2013, St. Peter’s re-dedicated part of that space as a small chapel, St. Luke’s Chapel, to provide an area for quiet contemplation, small services, and spiritual groups. Since July 2012, Morning Prayer has been offered in that chapel Monday through Thursday at 8:30 a.m. and a midweek Eucharist and Bible Study are held each Wednesday evening. That tragic space has become sacred space through the efforts of a resurrection people.
The 172-year legacy of hospitality and fellowship has continued unabated. We have welcomed our members and others in the community to a crab feast, a pig roast, a fried chicken/silent movie night, Sunday in the Park, and a festive quiche and champagne celebration at the Easter Vigil. We have done some renovations in our kitchen to enable us to continue to extend hospitality and welcome.
Of course, we have not done this alone. Members of the community, other churches, friends and family have supported and encouraged us on this journey. To celebrate our successes and to express our gratitude for the life and ministry of Brenda and Mary-Marguerite, whose dedication and lives continue to inspire us, on May 5 at 2:30 p.m. we will gather for an ice cream social with a liturgy of Resurrection Lessons and Carols to follow at 5 p.m., to celebrate new life, resurrection life as a community of faith and as a part of the Ellicott City community.
— Katherine Schnorrenberg is junior warden at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Ellicott City, Maryland.