by the Rev. Dr. Kate Heichler
On an Advent Sunday [in 2021], a chunk of the congregation at Christ Church in La Plata gathered for our first parish lunch since the pandemic. Over chili and cornbread, we welcomed first-time visitors and longtime members, all there to share and tell the “Story of Christ Church” as part of the Tending Our Soil thriving congregations initiative. Two longtime parishioners, who came to the church at the ages of 0 and 5, respectively, took us through a timeline of the past 25 years. Then we moved the tables, circled up the chairs – with room for the big screen showing Zoom participants – and began a Story Circle.
Starting with “Once upon a time, in 1683, in Port Tobacco, a group of settlers decided they wanted an Anglican Church…” each person in turn took up the story, adding their part, all prefaced by a time reference: “Roughly 350 years after that, my family and I saw the rainbow-colored wind sock in front of Christ and thought, ‘I’d like to try that church.’” And “About 14 years before that, my wife and I moved to La Plata and found Christ Church, and two years later I was confirmed as an Episcopalian,” and “Two years ago I attended a HeartSongs Open Mic night here and Rev. Kate asked me, “How do you bring light into the world.” (She did? Yikes!)
As we went around the circle, a story emerged of a church in which many have found a welcoming home, sometimes after painful times elsewhere; of a sanctuary and worship in which many feel the presence of the Holy Spirit; of active and creative outreach; and warm fellowship. This exercise is to help us craft a succinct “Story of Christ Church” that people can easily tell others. It is one of the ways Tending Our Soil invites us to turn over our soil and aerate it, letting in light and air, making room for planting seeds that will bear abundant fruit of transformation in our community. The next step will be to learn the “Story of Our Neighborhood” – to better know the fields in which we are called to plant those seeds of gospel life.
Tending Our Soil is a rich opportunity for Christ Church in La Plata and our sister church, Christ Church Wayside, to get our hands dirty in our missional gardens. Over the course of three years it will help us to focus our mission, strengthen our lay leadership and ministry teams, and make a transforming impact in our regions. We are poised for growth, ready to pivot to where the Spirit shows openings.
We are living a story God has been writing since the beginning of time and invites us to add our chapters; a story of sorrow and joy, stuckness and movement, despair and hope. Above all it is a story of Jesus and how we make him known. God has written the end to that story already. We just get to live it out.
“Who is My Neighbor?”
When the Diocese presented the “Tending our Soil” thriving congregations initiative, which seeks to cultivate the changed soil of our congregations so that God’s love might grow in our time and place, I was excited!
My congregation of Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, Maryland, was at a critical juncture. We were completing a successful Capital Campaign and the time was ripe to review and renew our mission, vision, and future strategic goals. Myself and our leadership believed Tending Our Soil would be a great resource to help us do this.
Over the past 12 months, Tending Our Soil has encouraged us to think about “how to do church” in new ways to help us renew and thrive. One homework assignment between learning labs was to look around our local community and find out what our neighbors needed.
What we discovered compelled us to initiate new ministries. We began worrying less about membership numbers or the budget, and instead focused on who was in need. Following are some of these ministries.
During the pandemic, even before entering the Tending Our Soil initiative, Ascension had begun offering online worship. By livestreaming our Sunday 10:00 a.m. service, our Wednesday noon service, and all other special services, we reached and continue to reach neighbors locally and globally, providing people with spiritual inspiration and sustenance. Tending Our Soil has helped us realize the importance of this ministry. Even though we are back doing in-person worship again, our online worship ministry is permanent.
We enhanced our outreach ministries in the surrounding community. We continued to support Shepherd’s Table with our casserole ministry and to encourage members to donate financially in lieu of casseroles. Ascension has contributed over $5000 to fund Shepherd’s Table to feed the hungry.
Ascension also joined efforts with Tommy’s Pantry (an organization named after Rep. Jamie Raskin’s late son) to help the food insecure. Tommy’s Pantry is now based at Ascension where church and county volunteers compile shelf stable food and wellness boxes which are handed out twice a month. In total Tommy’s Pantry is ministering to over 600 people per month who come to the church for support.
Our deacon, The Rev. Terri Murphy, began a Street Ministry. Every Sunday morning Rev. Terri and her volunteers head to Veterans Plaza in Silver Spring and hand out $10 food cards as well as care packets. Individuals who hang out around the plaza know that Rev. Terri and her team show up about 6:30 a.m. and they start lining up. Anywhere between 30-60 people experiencing homelessness come for assistance. They have become part of our church. Each week Rev. Terri brings their prayer requests for the Prayers of the People at worship services. Some have submitted their yearly tithes of $2.00 or $5.00 (truly the widow’s mite).
We have engaged in other outreach ministries such as a diaper drive, a blanket drive, and along with Lutheran Social Services and other Episcopal congregations we collaborated to help five Afghan families move into apartments, equipped with furniture, appliances, linens, computers, etc.
And so we experienced a spiritual “aha” and discovered that “our neighbor” goes far beyond the person who lives next door. Or the immediate community that surrounds our church building. Everyone is our neighbor. And we are here to be Christ’s heart and hands no matter where Christ’s heart and hands lead us.
For Ascension, Tending Our Soil has cultivated the changed soil of our congregation so that God’s love might grow in our time and place and flourish in places we had not previously imagined by deepening our understanding of what it means to be neighbors. It is a wondrous love indeed.
The Rev. Dr. Joan Beilstein
Rector, Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring
Participation in the Tending Our Soil initiative has helped Christ Church, Capitol Hill better understand who we are, how we fit in our community, and how we can be more intentional about our future. Ours is an historic parish, founded shortly after George Washington laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol. The Tending Our Soil team began by reviewing the excellent existing materials on church history, including a presentation prepared for the church’s 225th anniversary celebrated in 2019. The team made a visual summary for display in the parish hall to allow for reflection on and discussion of our church history. To learn more about who we are now, the team also displayed a U.S. map and a world map. People placed dots on the map to show where they grew up and indicate their faith tradition, if any.
This inquiry, coupled with conversations with parishioners, indicated that our congregation values inclusion and wants to be a church where people from any faith or no faith background feel welcome and at home. Numerous people said that the words spoken each week before the Eucharist (“This is God’s table, not ours. All are welcome.”) resonate with them. In addition, people value the neighborhood feel of Christ Church and its long-term commitment to serving the neighborhood. People want our church to be a place on Capitol Hill where people put divisions aside and are united in seeking to learn about, love, and serve the Lord.
As part of the Tending Our Soil initiative, the team took a careful look at the neighborhood. The team walked the neighborhood and reviewed data the Diocese provided on neighborhood demographics and trends. Both confirmed that the neighborhood immediately around the church is primarily historic homes, and at the periphery of this area, population growth is exploding. Much of this growth will be people living in new, large, multifamily buildings in the Navy Yard, NoMa, and Hill East areas. We learned that the number of single adults will increase substantially, and the number of school-age children near our church is expected to double by 2031. We have work to do to help ensure that our church reflects this changing neighborhood.
With these findings in mind, the Vestry developed a mission statement to guide Christ Church into the future:
To be a caring, accepting, and welcoming community that embodies Jesus’ love in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and beyond.
Our next step is to set goals that will help us live more fully into this mission. Christ Church has the opportunity to offer a church home to a growing number of people of all ages who are new to the neighborhood or searching for a community of faith. We plan to use Tending Our Soil resources to be more intentional and effective in how we seek to welcome people, help people become involved in the life of the church, and inspire and strengthen people to live out Jesus’ love both individually and as a church.
Parishioner, Christ Church, Capitol Hill
Digging into the Work is an on-going series reported by Tending Our Soil congregations as they implement some of the practical steps to growing in strength as vital bearers of God’s love in the world. St. Paul’s, K Street’s experience with getting to know their mission field was the first in the series.
How do we faithfully live into 4th century creeds, surrounded by 19th century musical and liturgical traditions, in a 21st century context? It’s true, the exact compounds that go into this alchemy are specific to St. Paul’s, an Anglo-Catholic parish snuggled on a shady stretch of K Street in Northwest DC. But while St. Paul’s may pride itself on its differences from our fellow Episcopal parishes–incense! Stained glass! Marian altars! Solemn Evensong!–the disconnect between our parish and the wider community is sadly common. And the root question–how we can be faithful to who Christ has called us to be, while also mindful of what He is already doing in the lives of our neighbors?–is also common to Christians at all times and places.
So we’ve assembled a team that represents not just our parish but our neighborhood, Foggy Bottom, writ large. Some of us are young, some of us are old, and some are old but would rather not think of ourselves that way, thank you very much. One is ordained. Four of us have law degrees (and one other will, someday). And four of us actually live in the neighborhood–which means that our team is more representative of 25th and K Streets than our parish.
Appropriately enough, we started with the physical and tangible. On a cold and rainy November morning, we led a contingent of parishioners around the boundaries of our parish. We were surprised and delighted that the crunchy tan gravel of the C&O Canal, the gleaming alabaster steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and, most of all, the charming brick rowhouses are all ours to tend, the people inside them all ours to discover and celebrate.
As the weather grew colder, we sensibly retreated indoors, to redirect our focus from the tangible diorama of our city streets to who exactly lived in these places. We poured over demographic reports telling us about our neighbors’ age, race, income, occupation, preferred social media–you name it, we have it. The sheer volume of information seemed, at times, overwhelming, even scandalous. Should we really know this much about our neighbors?
Then again, did Jesus really need to know that the woman at the well had been married five times (John 4:18)? Knowledge is the key to intimacy. As winter rolled into spring, and as spring has ripened into summer, we’re still trying to learn as much about our neighbors as possible. We’ve gone on more walks around our neighborhood. We’re creating avatars to represent the ‘average’ resident of Foggy Bottom (not an easy task–you try aggregating a college student with a retired person!) And we’re considering some goals for the coming year, ways that we can get out of our heads and open our doors to those around us. We’ve seen there’s a lot to harvest. But we need laborers–in our parish and beyond (Matthew 9:37).
Parishioner, St. Paul’s, K Street
Digging into the Work is an on-going series reported by Tending Our Soil congregations as they implement some of the practical steps to growing in strength as vital bearers of God’s love in the world. St. Paul’s, K Street’s experience with getting to know their mission field is the first of the series.
My son and I were once on the receiving end of the comment “I can’t believe you sat in her pew!”, followed by a refusal to share the Peace with us later in the worship. I have been to worship in churches where it was not the practice to have bulletins with helpful page numbers or text so one could follow along, you were just expected to know / memorize the service – or stumble along lost. These two examples are not as outlandish as they seem; I have witnessed similar responses to guests here at St. John’s.
When a guest arrives at church we cannot assume that:
- they know to pick up a service bulletin, where to sit, or where the bathrooms are.
- they are an Episcopalian who knows the Prayer Book front to back.
- they have not previously been hurt by religion.
- they are coming in the door feeling wonderful.
- we know who they are based upon their outward appearance.
- they think or believe what we think or believe, or that they even know what they think or believe.
When a guest arrives at church we cannot assume that they are a guest, or might normally attend a different service, or have been out of town for a few months; but we can introduce ourselves if we don’t know them.
When a guest arrives at church we simply can not assume. Rather, it is best:
- to be curious and not judgmental.
- to introduce ourselves to our guests, of all ages. The names of children are important to them and to the family, make sure they are included too.
- to wear our name tags so others know who we are and do not have to struggle to remember; this is true also for those we already know and who still struggle to remember names (myself included).
- to sit with someone and help them navigate the service if they seem lost. This can be especially true with families who are trying to juggle a service bulletin, hymnal, and children all while trying to remain invisible.
- to share the Peace (in a COVID-appropriate way) with our guests, and not just with our friends.
- to invite someone to coffee hour, and walk them to the parish hall for fellowship, taking time to introduce them to other parishioners along the way.
The phrase has often been attributed to Saint Francis that we should “preach the Gospel always, use words when necessary”; when a guest arrives we should show how much we love St. John’s, use words when necessary.
Love thy neighbor: no exceptions, is not just the best sign in Olney, it is also how we can welcome our guests to St. John’s. Show our guests that our love of neighbor is not just for those whom we have known for years, but also for those we have just met.
Written by The Rev. Henry McQueen, Rector
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Olney, MD