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.)


Pak said...

I hope that by "the gospel happening" you mean that the children are hearing of the good news of Jesus: that he died to take God's wrath for sin upon himself, and rose to be the Lord of all, and that living righteous lives with Jesus as Lord and Saviour is the obvious response.

Otherwise, what would be the point of all those wonderful activities?

To put ANY obstacle in the way of Children to entering the kingdom provokes Jesus to very feirce words of condemnation (Matthew 18), and without wanting to sound unreasonably critical or picky, I can't help but be a tad concerned that a whole post about a 'thriving' church mentions nothing about Jesus or salvation.

Mercenary Presbyter said...

The Church has always preached the good news of the saving work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and this congregation testifies to that in word and deed. I agree that if we did not "proclaim Christ and Him crucified," these activities would not bear the marks of discipleship and would be just a lot of nice actions by a social club.

My question to you is how do you define "hearing the good news of Jesus?" St. Francis of Assisi said, "Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words." Our actions speak as loudly as our words do. It is an incarnational testimony to our faith in Jesus Christ, which we share in both words and actions.

lorna (see throughfaith) said...

This is wonderful. I don't quite second what Pak writes. I think if you minister the love of God to these kids, if you sit beside them and allow them to sit beside you - God is there in the midst and yes you can preach Jesus because He's already there.

I would love to have a Sunday service where MOST are kids. Jesus would too. He talked about it.

But I have to say that I cracked up at this "I think Baltimore changes street names just as a nod to their English roots" - yes it's normal in England for roads to change their names ... and I find it confusing too. It's probably European rather than simply British- it happens here in Finland too.

Do keep sharing what God shows you in this church of kids. I WANT to know :) because God is surely up to something and I think it's wonderful :)

Sally said...

Sounds wonderful, evey blessing as you find your way forward.

Mrs. M said...

1) This sounds really great.
2) "Talk to everyone because you never know what the Holy Spirit might have in mind." This is one of the wisest things I've read in a while.

Mary Beth said...

Most extremely fantastic!!

RevDrKate said...

"...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." Wise, wise words. Blessings on you and on this place.

Deb said...

Wow. I think this is way cool. Of course, I'm not an Episcopalian, but my spouse has been one from the cradle roll..

That despite the numbers game you have a junior and senior warden who are infectious with their joy and smiles... I think it is a gift of God, them to you, and you to them.

And yes, the street name changing thing drives me nuts, too.

Joy in the journey!

Lauralew said...

I peeked in on your blog since my spouse is from Baltimore...I know exactly where that church is. I am heartened to read your words; it sounds like a place where the Spirit is alive and well. God bless you my Sister as you minister in this place!

Mercenary Presbyter said...

Thanks everyone! I'll keep you posted here on what happens next.

Pak said...

St. Francis of Assisi makes a great point about the importance of conduct.

In the New Testament, I can see only one situation when someone is instructed to NOT use words in order to see another converted. It is of course 1 Peter 3, and the imperative is directed to wives with unbelieving husbands.

Furthermore, when Paul was jailed in Rome, he wrote to the Philippian church about his joy that regardless of motive, Christ was PREACHED.

As great a theologian as St Francis was, it still remains that the Word of God should determine what is normative in the church.

PS, you've not yet responded to my comments on your post about Archbishop Venables in 2007.