“One voice, singing in the darkness…”
These are the first words in the song, “One Voice,” written and performed by Barry Manilow on his album from 1979 by the same name.
One voice, finding the courage to sing in the darkness, to ask why and how and what if. One voice, daring to point out a need, an injustice, an opportunity or a challenge. One voice that calls to others, inviting conversation and community, exploration and possibility. This one brave voice reaching into the unknown can be the thing we didn’t know we needed that winds up leading us into taking our next faithful steps in becoming beloved community.
A few weeks ago, I met up with The Rev. Greg Syler, Rector of Resurrection Parish in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Resurrection Parish is made up of St. George’s, Valley Lee and Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park. Greg and I enjoyed an afternoon iced coffee while he told me the story of the transformation that is happening in the church building at Ascension.
First, a little context. Ascension’s church building sits at the threshold of a neighborhood that has long been disenfranchised and cut off from the center of power in the county. While the median home price in St. Mary’s County is $365,000, the one for this neighborhood is less than half of that averaging around $165,000. About 5,000 residents live there and the median household income of the neighborhood is less than $30,000 per year.
But this story really begins with a “No Trespassing” sign. Some time ago, when Ascension was experiencing trouble with its neighbors while the building was unoccupied during the week, the leadership decided that a no trespassing sign and the fact that the county sheriff had an office next door might help curb the problem. Greg related what went through his mind when he drove up to the church for the first time and found this sign: What message was the sign sending? Where were the open arms of Jesus’ embrace? How could this church share that love with this sign hanging in the small parking lot? How would the community ever see the church as more than a ‘Sunday Only Clubhouse’ for members only?
In that moment – when Greg lifted his voice, putting words to an unintended othering – is when change began. The next steps became clear: the church leadership and congregation had to crack the door open and start the work of joining the neighborhood and becoming more than a building occupied by worshippers for a couple of hours one day each week.
Ascension is much different today. The building is full of people nearly every day of the week.
The classrooms once dedicated to Sunday School now house medical and mental-health care services that are provided on a sliding scale keyed to what a client can afford to pay. No one is turned away. The restrooms in the lower level of the building are waiting for grant dollars from the county to be turned into public showers for the unhoused to use. There is a food pantry that is supported and operated by a coalition of churches and community partners which include among others: WARM, a shelter program, three other churches in Lexington Park, and the support of the local chapter of the NAACP. In the coming year, this community partnership will formally establish a 501c3 corporation to sustain and grow the work they are doing. Deacon Martha Eldredge coordinates the activity of the partners and serves as the communication hub to make sure everyone is on the same page. Greg points out, “We don’t do this work alone. Partners make the work easier to accomplish.”
Intergenerational Christian formation is now taught “in action,” outside of the repurposed classrooms. And instead of venerating an historic church building, the congregation is creating a forward-looking legacy that is grounded in discipleship, finding new ways they can serve the community, and spreading the love of Jesus.
The people of Ascension and their community partners have taken the term belovedness to heart. There was a voice… joined by another, and another, and another. They took some courageous steps and imagined the church as more than it once was. An aging congregation joined with partners to become an advocate for their neighbors and work toward raising the quality of life for them. With each action, they are saying: you are beloved and loved.
Are you that “one voice”? Is God calling you to speak up and to have a conversation about the love of Jesus Christ? Is it your turn to share this belovedness? If it is your time, can you muster the courage to take that next faithful step? If you do, you will never be the same. You are on the threshold of sharing the love and unspeakable joy of the belovedness of God.
The song ends with these lyrics:
It takes that one voice
Just one voice
And everyone will sing.
The Ven. Steve Seely
Archdeacon and Diocesan Liturgist