Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When church is CHURCH

I received a phone call last week from the Senior Warden at St. Luke's Episcopal Parish in West Baltimore about their need for an interim rector and asking me if I would be interested. If there's one thing I learned from Dr. Rick Carlson at LTSG, it's talk to everyone because you never know what the Holy Spirit might have in mind. I scheduled the interview for yesterday and what a blessing it was.

I live a little over an hour west of Baltimore in a rural area and my upbringing was So. Cal. suburban, so inner city urban ministry was out of my box so to speak. Baltimore is a funny city - it's really more of a loose confederation of neighborhoods with a city limit boundary drawn around them. Technically, St. Luke's is in the Poppleton neighborhood, but the other side of Carey Street is Franklin Square.

So, off I went heading down I-70 into Baltimore, down Route 40 ... Edmonston Ave., then it becomes Franklin, then Mulberry (I think Baltimore changes street names just as a nod to their English roots) ... and then a right turn on N. Carey Street towards Franklin Square - the church is on the left. It is a beautiful old stone gothic church amidst boarded up row houses in a neighborhood where the median household income is $23,000 per year. St. Luke's looks like a throwback to another time and place.

Joann Johnson, the Junior Warden, met me at the door to the undercroft to let me in. I immediately saw signs of children ... lots of signs of children even though Joann and I were the only people in the room. There were flags hanging from the ceiling, posters, pictures of their summer day camp, poetry, a bank of computers, books ... something was going on here.

We went upstairs to see the church built in 1857. This means it is a "Whittingham church" referring to its being planted by Bishop William Whittingham, the fourth bishop of Maryland. Bishop Whittingham is a legend in our diocese both for being a long serving bishop (38 years from 1840 - 1878) and for planting a lot of new churches. Whittingham churches have a particular look - gothic architecture and built of stone. St. Luke's is an historic building (click the link for an aerial view) and the congregation and diocese are working diligently to preserve it while making it usable for the programs they are doing with the neighborhood children.

While touring the church, Andre Liggins, Senior Warden, arrived. Andre and Joann both have an infectious love of the Lord, tremendous joy and excitement for the ministry they are doing with the neighborhood children. It is palpable when you talk with them about what's going on at St. Luke's. If one just looked at numbers, things wouldn't look so good at St. Luke's. Average Sunday attendance is around 20 - 25 and the 2006 plate and pledge income was $8,000. But numbers cannot tell whole story - it takes Andre and Joann to tell about the gospel happening on Carey Street.

St. Luke's has become the safe haven for the children of Franklin Square and Poppleton. Their summer day camp was attended by 40 neighborhood children. The average Sunday attendance of 20-25 is mostly children. One Saturday a month, St. Luke's hosts "Safe Saturday" where the kids can come to the church for arts and crafts, poetry, movies and games. During the school year, St. Luke's runs an after school homework club every day during the week. Andre started a poetry slam where neighborhood youth come over and perform their poetry ... and one of them even published a book of poetry! St. Luke's is bringing the hope of God's love to this place.

Andre grew up in this church while Joann joined several years ago. It's obvious they are excited about their ministry at St. Luke's and what's happening there. Andre said, "We may be a small church, but we are a busy church!" And he's right.

I am scheduled to return on October 5th to preach and celebrate Eucharist with them. Joann said the kids will want to interview me too (of course!). The position is very part-time (2 days a week) and will run through early next year as they seek to call a priest on a more permanent basis (permanency is all relative in ministry). I'm looking forward to it.

It does my heart such good to be in the presence of people who are so obviously on fire with the Spirit and who understand what it means to be Church. Andre, Joann, and the people of St. Luke's understand that the Church exists as much for the people who are not there on Sunday as it does for those who are.

(P.S. If you want to check it out, here's the map on how to get there. Services are at 9:00AM on Sundays and there's always someone at the church during the day. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.)