By Lu Stanton León
When the Rev. Melana Nelson-Amaker got a call from the Rev. Prince Decker asking her church to join his in a new jazz and gospel hip hop ministry, it was easy to say yes.
“It’s pretty simple,” says Nelson-Amaker, rector of St. Christopher’s in New Carrollton. “I already knew Prince: his passion for the gospel, his love for people and his commitment to the church. When he called with this idea, I said yes to my friend. Based on the relationship we already had, I bought into this project for St. Christopher’s. I think Bishop Mariann [Edgar Budde] has this in view as she encourages clergy and churches to have relationships with each other. It makes working together easy.”
Building relationships among churches and with surrounding communities is at the heart of the new music ministry being offered by St. Christopher’s; the Rev. Decker’s Epiphany Church in Forestville; Christ Church, Clinton; and St. Barnabas in Upper Marlboro. This summer the program was awarded a $10,000 congregational growth grant from Diocesan Council. Its four quarterly events are designed as an outreach to young adults and families in Prince George’s County.
“Music has a healing power,” says Alethea Long-Green, the senior warden at Epiphany who was instrumental in developing the grant proposal. “It certainly is universal and brings people together, and when we thought of the goals and objectives of the diocese and our goals at Epiphany, we thought this might work. We’re not starting from scratch. All four churches have done some version of music outreach.”
Plans call for each church to host one quarterly music event on either a Friday or Saturday night and invite the community to enjoy music, light refreshments, and an evening of fellowship. Members from all four parishes will attend and support all four events. Concert attendees will be invited to attend the host church that Sunday, where the featured band will participate in the service. Each of the participating churches will decide what music to feature, be it jazz, steel drums, contemporary gospel, hip hop or Christian rap.
“We thought we could probably get people in the community to attend a Friday-night musical event, but we wondered how could we get them into church on Sunday,” Long-Green says. “We thought what if we said, ‘If you enjoy this, come and hear them again. They’ll be performing at our main service Sunday.’ If it’s nice enough, people will come back on Sunday.”
Once they come to the Sunday service, it’s up to the host church to make the case for them to keep coming back.
St. Barnabas is hosting the first event.
“Last year we had an Advent steel drum concert, and we’re planning on doing it again this year and offering it as part of this collaborative ministry,” says the Rev. Robyn E. Franklin-Vaughn, rector of St. Barnabas. “This is a way of doing outreach to the unchurched, the unhappily churched and lapsed church members. It’s a way of bringing them in, in a very comfortable atmosphere.
“It’s also important that whatever we present is not completely different from what we would usually do. Two of the steel drum members are part of our congregation, so it is not unusual for us to have steel drums accompanying our hymns. It’s not a bait and switch. We are actually offering what you might find.”
Like Franklin-Vaughn, Decker considers the new program to be a musical ministry to people outside the church doors.
“This is not just an activity, not just another calendar event,” Decker says. “It’s an evangelism outreach to those who have never been to our churches. You print fliers, you knock on doors. You can’t sit on your hands, you have to go to them. If you want them to come to Bible study, give them something else you think they’ll come to first.”
The idea for the new outreach program began at Epiphany, where Decker and Long-Green presented a number of collaborative outreach ideas to the vestry.
“They voted for this one,” Long-Green says, “so we looked at our cluster churches and our neighbors and who we thought we could invite to come in and work with us. We’ve already had our first meeting, which I think generated some excitement.”
The Rev. Cassandra Burton, rector of Christ Church, Clinton, says the history of collaborative ministry between Christ Church and Epiphany goes back almost a hundred years to when the two churches shared a priest, a fact she discovered when reading the church’s history.
“There was a priest who walked from our church to Epiphany,” she says, marveling at the six-and-a- half mile walk. “I haven’t figured out how long it took him.”
Building on that connection, in 2015 Burton invited Decker and his congregation to join Christ Church for their Easter sunrise service. Christ Church sits on 14 acres and offers a beautiful spot for the service, she says.
“We usually don’t have an Easter dawn service, and Christ Church does,” Decker says, “so I took some of our church members there on a very cold morning. I took the fire from her paschal candle at Christ Church and, with it in the car, I drove very carefully back to Epiphany, where we ignited our own paschal candle with it.”
That Easter sunrise service “reignited the spark that we could do something else together, and we talked about what else we might do,” Burton says. “The idea of sharing ministry is not something new. I’m always reaching out to other colleagues to see what we can do together.”
Nelson-Amaker agrees. “I learned years ago that if congregations come together to pool knowledge, people, money and materials, projects are possible that one church couldn’t do alone,” she says. “Part of the value of collaboration means Prince’s good idea can be carried out without the whole burden being put on Epiphany Church,” she says. “I think, too, that doing one event, one time, from one church has less impact than a repeated occurrence. To present a series is stronger than a one-time thing.”
Burton, Decker, Nelson-Amaker and Franklin-Vaughn all say their churches have a history of innovative music programs and community outreach. Christ Church provided jazz concerts in the past and offered its first Latin jazz performance in June. In years past, St. Barnabas held candlelight concerts, a ministry they are working to revive, and as an offering to the community, St. Christopher’s has done the Messiah for close to 20 years.
“The notion of doing something musical for the community to enjoy is a long standing one at our church,” Nelson-Amaker says. “Within our walls musical variety just makes sense. Our congregation’s make-up—many from West Africa and the Caribbean as well as people born in the United States—begs for an eclectic liturgy. When I put services together I draw from as many of those traditions as I can. We regularly have African praise, music from the African-American tradition, contemporary Christian music, some Caribbean hymnody and even some songs from CDs, in addition to the 1982 Hymnal.
“Praising God can be done with any number of styles of music. The important thing is the lyrical content and the intent of the music. So if you have a sincere song that comes from classical European music, or is like a folk ballad, or comes from gospel music or even from hip hop, if the reason for the piece is to praise God and to allow people to freely give of themselves to God, that’s what is important. Some styles of music will do that better for some people than others.”
The concert series schedule and program specifics are still being formulated.
“I think one of the best possibilities that could come out of this is for the community at-large to get a different than usual glimpse of the Episcopal Church,” Nelson-Amaker says. “So if after a concert and the follow-up service people are saying “I didn’t know Episcopal churches were like this!” we’ll have made a big evangelistic step forward.”
Interested in applying for a congregational growth grant? In June Diocesan Council awarded the first five congregational growth grants, made possible by increased congregational contributions to the diocesan operating budget. Grants ranged from $3,000 to $20,000 and will support Latino and campus ministry initiatives as well as new worship services and musical offerings. The next round of grant applications are due October 1, 2016. To apply, read the guidelines and complete the application.