God's House: A Reflection on the Congregations Project Summer Seminar
There are few lunchtime conversations that effortlessly turn to the choice of hymns for one’s own funeral. Yet midway through Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music Summer Seminar, the cornerstone event of its Congregations Project, there occurred just such a conversation as I found myself humming for a Lutheran music minister from Chicago the songs I’d chosen for my Resurrection Mass. Your average person—even your average Christian!—might find this topic unpalatable, disturbing, even worrisome from a healthy twenty-four year old graduate student. My companion, however, did not bat an eyelash; indeed, she was equally eager to share her own Order of Service. Over a plate of skewered chicken we contemplated our own liturgical eschatology, and I couldn’t help but feel that some common ground had been won, some Christian zeal shared across geographical, generational, and denominational lines. I left that lunch table feeling more known, with a deeper sense of Christian solidarity.
While considering how best to share the Congregations Project Summer Seminar experience with Prism readers, the text of that funeral tune I hummed for my Lutheran friend that day has kept running through my mind. The song lifts its lyrics from Psalm 27:
One thing I ask, this alone I seek, to dwell in the house of the Lord all my days. For one day within your Temple heals every day alone; O Lord, bring me to your dwelling!
God’s dwelling….. The House of the Lord…… From their earliest days, Christians have used household and dwelling language, borrowed both from descriptions of the Jerusalem Temple and of the Roman paterfamilias, to describe the experience of Christian community, liturgy, and eschatology. John 14:2 comes to mind immediately: “In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
The Congregations Project theme in 2011 was “Worshiping God in this Place.” Participants in theSummer Seminar experienced the church’s spaciousness its embodiment in multiple local parishes with varied social and theological commitments. God has indeed prepared many rooms! Yet the participants equally experienced a unity of purpose, a harmony of hearts at prayer, a shared commitment to the Gospel. In this article and in two still forthcoming, I will introduce you to the seven congregations whose representatives gathered at Yale this past June to pray together, hear lectures, speak with one another, and share their current projects in worship, music, and the arts.
Each congregation’s project was related to the 2011 theme. Lectures and conversations sometimes considered places much grander than these congregations’ houses of worship—neighborhoods, ecologies, even the cosmos as a whole—but all shared the conviction that what happens there matters immeasurably. This too draws me to the image of the Christian church as God’s House. This image may seem anachronistic or banal to some, but I believe it provides a window into the participating congregations and into what happened at the Summer Seminar.
God’s house has a garden. Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. sits in sight of the White House, and for years has witnessed to the evangelical mandate to serve in the heart of a city (in)famous for both poverty and power. Luther Place is well known for its outreach to disadvantaged populations through its N Street Village initiative, a nonprofit that offers a host of shelter, housing, and occupational services for D.C.’s homeless community. Luther Place is also the home of Lutheran Volunteer Corps, an organization that places volunteers in a variety of social services and ministries, offering opportunities to cultivate life-long commitments to community, social justice, simplicity, and sustainability. With such a focus on works of justice and charity, Pastor Karen Brau notes how the physical space and environs of the church have been neglected or considered secondary: “It’s a new thing to pay attention to our space!” Pastor Karen and a committed staff are attempting to beautify Luther Place’s surroundings. Lutheran Volunteer Kristen Kane-Osorto has constructed rainbow sunflower decorations out of recycled hubcaps to vivify the exterior. Staff member Amanda Weber (ISM ’13) painted icon murals on the Church’s doors depicting St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The images invite passersby both to learn the stories of these holy men and women, and to join Luther Place as it seeks to continue their legacy. The representatives from Luther Place came to Yale to cull ideas on how to further develop the church’s sizable yard as a “Sacred Commons” for the neighborhood.
God’s house has a front door. A number of years ago, St. Monica Catholic Community in Santa Monica, CA, suffered a devastating earthquake. Witnessing the broken church building, Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson heard death knells for the parish. “We lost this church,” he thought to himself. But as the parish community gathered for Eucharist in a nearby auditorium in the earthquake’s aftermath, parishioners began to look at each other for the first time as they gathered in a more informal, circular setting. “This became our model for parish life,” Msgr. Torgerson notes. “A parish doing okay flowered into something so much more.” The Christians at St. Monica’s took what they’d learned to heart. They developed a robust ministry of hospitality that is a model both for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and for Christian churches around the country. Operating out of the conviction that “every person is Jesus in disguise,” a team of 150 hospitality volunteers meets and greets parishioners and visitors in the parking lot and at the doors of the church. The team also offers hospitality dinners for new members, and Msgr. Torgerson provides personalized phone calls to each. The staff at St. Monica’s even consulted hospitality industry experts in order to make their ministry of hospitality as seamless and effective as possible. At 9,000 families and growing, the parish plans to build a parking garage to accommodate new members.
God’s house has a foyer. Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois has experienced 114% growth over the past ten years, an unusual feat for any religious organization, but especially for a mainline Protestant community in the shadow of that far more famous Windy City destination, Wrigley Field. Such growth seems all the more impressive when one notes the vast majority of new congregants are also members of Generations X and Y. When Pastor Craig Mueller looks out at his young flock from the presider’s chair, one question preoccupies his mind: What do they want? Young adults, per Mueller, “are exciting for us, but they’re also mysterious.” Some are just looking for a place to get married or to baptize their children, while others are in for the long, holy haul, attracted by Holy Trinity’s vibrant catholic liturgy, active social ministry, its commitment to staying “reverent, relevant, and real.” Mueller and his team seek to determine the needs and desires of the Gen X/Y folks they’ve been commissioned to serve, part of their ongoing effort to balance radical welcome with a deep commitment to their Lakeview community. This February, Holy Trinity will be hosting a conference entitled, “Sects and the City: Gen X/Y and Mainline Protestant Worship.” They’ve invited several other mainline Chicago congregations to join the discussion, moderated by the Summer Seminar’s own Benjamin Stewart of Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology, as well as Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Jewish respondents. For more information on Holy Trinity’s ongoing conversation, check out www.sectsandthecity.org.
God’s house has a living room. And it’s full of Presbyterians! Both Central Presbyterian in Atlanta, Georgia and Idlewild Presbyterian in Memphis, Tennessee are asking big questions about how their congregations operate. Central’s Pastor Gary Charles recalls his understanding of pastoral ministry upon graduation from seminary: he was in charge, and surrounded by a bunch of little helpers: “I drank that Kool-Aid for a long time.” Enlightened and liberated by years of ministerial experience, Charles and his team of artists and musicians are spearheading a collaborative worship planning initiative. Clergy and laity meet weekly to pray with Lectionary texts, offering input for the coming week’s liturgy; Central holds biannual planning meetings open to the wider church community to glean from a wider field of gifts. Getting to know his staff and congregation more intimately has been “redemptive,” Charles says; collaboration has led the church, which sits across from both Statehouse and City Hall, to ask deeper questions about how power is exercised, how best to speak to the world, and how to “make [our] doors more porous.”
If Central’s project resembles a family meeting of sorts in the living room of God’s house, Idlewild invites the adults assembled to pay special attention to the children playing on the periphery—the largest growing demographic at Idlewild. Director of Music Dr. Ted Gibboney led a conversation at the summer seminar around an upcoming community concert, inviting input on how to turn the church’s already robust music program into a locus of intergenerational involvement, catechesis, and transformation. Associate Pastor Anne Apple stressed Idlewild’s strong choir programs for both kindergarteners (“cherubs”) and elementary age children, but noted, “We really do drop kids from middle school to high school.” Other participants shared Apple’s sentiment concerning their own communities. Idlewild’s continuing study of the role of children in their community attempts to empower the baptized of all ages to live their faith more fully.
God’s house has a kitchen. And a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America! On the last Saturday of every month, Lida Rerecich, an active parishioner at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Boise, Idaho, purchases local ingredients of the finest quality and supervises a team of food preparers. Volunteers transform the parish hall into a full-service restaurant for the poor—the homeless, unemployed, and, especially, the underemployed. Tables are set with quality silverware, fine linens, and centerpieces with cut flowers from a nearby garden; local musicians set the ambiance. St. Michael’s parishioners take as their commission the words of Jesus in Luke 14:12-13: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Parishioners, according to the Rev. Lucas Grubbs (S.T.M. '07), have taken up their task with zeal: “Congregants are hungry to serve.” Following their summer seminar presentation, Prof. Don Saliers of Emory University gave the team from St. Michael’s a further charge that equally applied to all participants in their various projects and ministries: “You’ve opened up your home; now you have to go farther.”
God’s house sits in the desert. The United Church of Santa Fe, in Santa Fe, New Mexico assumes the prophetic mantle of John the Baptist each Sunday, preparing in the high deserts of the American southwest a highway for God. United’s senior pastor, the Rev. Talitha Arnold, notes how the Judeo-Christian imagination often portrays the desert as a space of spiritual aridity, something to be wandered through rather than a holy destination in itself. The pastoral team at United hopes to change hearts and minds by helping people “feel at home in the desert environment,” to help members see the desert as good, saved, habitable. United has embarked on a study of ecumenical and interfaith desert wisdom, established an education initiative to form the community in the unique environmental stewardship the climate requires, and continues to explore ways of reflecting the richness of their surroundings in liturgical art, architecture, and music. Summer Seminar participants found themselves mesmerized by the stories and images Arnold and her colleagues brought along, especially photographs of a fountain on the side wall of United’s sanctuary, shaped like an irrigation ditch or acequia—a reminder of both the inestimable value of water in the southwest and of the Christian baptismal promises.
For more information on the ISM’s Congregations Project, and to read about 2012’s Summer Seminar, “Keeping Time/Life Passages,” log onto www.yale.edu/ism/congregations.
Matt Cortese '12, a student of liturgical studies at Yale, participated in the 2011 Congregations Project summer seminar as an unofficial scribe.
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