'Build the Serving Church' Capital Campaign Kickoff – 40th Anniversary
A couple of weeks ago I had a free Sunday in New York and took the opportunity to visit a congregation I’d just heard about. The subway put me off in a really gritty part of Brooklyn. Outside the station there were a quite few dilapidated buildings, plenty of graffiti, and a number of signs of emerging new life. I walked a couple of blocks to a building that houses a music venue at night. On the sidewalk outside late on a Sunday morning there was a sandwich board that said, “Bushwick Abbey: church that doesn’t suck.” People had already started to gather in the courtyard – mostly young adults, a few people who seemed to know more about what was going on, several dogs, and the priest – a young woman with blue hair. She was welcoming people warmly, introducing them to others, and dealing with details about the coming week and worship.
The doors opened onto a bar – with coffee pots already set up, and a sign about the price of beer and wine after the service. One fellow was swabbing a spill on the concrete floor. The fellowship was warm and gracious, with new people gathered in readily. The service started shortly after noon, an hour consciously chosen to be late enough to sleep in or sober up. Music was provided by a small band – two guitars, a drummer, and a keyboardist and vocalist. They’ve written lyrics and music and adapted other pieces for this venue. The stage that serves the music hall at night held the band and an altar. Any of you would have recognized the prayer book form, with a few adjustments – like a sung version of the New Zealand Lord’s Prayer. The sermon was excellent, fit the context and the readings, and challenged us all about loving relationships. The prayers of the people offered opportunity to say or write down our concerns and hopes. If you want a pastoral appointment, the priest holds office hours in two different establishments – one a juice bar and the other a real one.
When I visited, this community was only two months old. A group of about 25 had gathered, a number of them for the first or second time. Almost all were young adults, two-thirds of them young men. Half a dozen dogs had come with their owners. A deeply caring community is clearly emerging in this place, and it’s beginning to reach out to serve its neighbors as well.
This clearly is not for everybody, but it wasn’t designed to be. I hear some people in that diocese are complaining about the priest’s blue hair. Makes me wonder what the church would do without hair dye! This emerging community is clearly responding to a deep hunger for good news about God’s love in human form – for community and meaningful relationships. The children of boomers and the unchurched are discovering that church isn’t necessarily boring or irrelevant or dictatorial.
This isn’t the only model needed in an age of “nones” and spiritual seekers. Your Build a Serving Church campaign is designed to help this diocese move into the next chapter of its life – to bring the gospel to life for new populations, and to help everyone be more effective servants of God’s good news.
The dedication of a new Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach is a model for that kind of living in the world, and being present in a community to serve. It’s already a center for Christian formation – equipping Jesus’ friends for loving God and neighbor. In a new congregation like that one in Brooklyn, a serving church would help to mentor that blue-haired priest in the first years of her ministry, and it would help to provide adult education resources for the young adults who are gathering. It would also help them figure out how to serve their neighbors – the taggers who paint the neighborhood regularly and other young artists who are moving into the affordable neighborhood.
The prayer flags that flew over our celebration this morning reminded me of a caravanserai – an inn (literally, a ‘palace’) for caravans crossing the desert. The Episcopal Church Center is a caravanserai for pilgrims on the Jesus road. I hope those prayer flags keep flying, calling the world to turn in and find home on the road – food and shelter and companionship on life’s journey. May those prayers evoke the wind that moved over the deep in the beginning of creation, to prompt love and compassion, and spread peace. Let this ECC become a palace of learning where leaders and members of the caravan hone skills for the journey.
Building a Serving Church means being on the road. We can’t stay inside our beautiful churches or insular communities – or we begin to stagnate and die. Episcopalians tend to be very fond of that phrase, “in returning and rest we shall be saved.” The caravanserai is for returning and resting in God, but Isaiah was speaking to people who were trying to avoid loving God and neighbor. When morning comes we’re meant to get up and go forth on the pilgrim’s road.
Building a Serving Church will help already-existing congregations redevelop their buildings as caravanserais. Maybe it’s updating classroom space for a school during the week, or redesigning the grounds for garden plots rather than water-hungry lawns, or equipping buildings to generate energy and harvest water. It’s also about encouraging creative and entrepreneurial mission initiatives – like giving instruments to homeless youth and teaching them how to make music. It might support a commercial kitchen to teach culinary skills to the underemployed, or underwrite an initiative to end homelessness or educate inmates or resettle refugees or empower the disabled. It invites us all to ask how we might love our neighbors more concretely.
Your part in this campaign is essential. You can help to ensure that the ministry of Jesus continues in this part of California for generations and populations yet to come. Forty years is a good start – a great start! The future is radically open – and you can help to shape it as a strong rock and solid foundation for Jesus’ expanding band of friends. Hair dye is not required, but it can help build a bridge for someone who’s looking for home!
 Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver
 Daily Devotions At Noon, Book of Common Prayer, p 138. And Prayer 59, For Quiet Confidence, Ibid, p 832. It’s from Isaiah 30:15