A Tale of Two Churches: My Takeaway from EYE14

I love old churches. I love to visit them, take pictures and learn their history. There is something about a church that has welcomed many generations, baptized them, offered a place to pray, celebrate and even grieve together as a community in Christ. It’s amazing to see the beauty in the architecture, and the love and care that goes into the upkeep of a church as well. So, it was no surprise that my heart skipped a beat when I found out that part of the schedule of the Episcopal Youth Event included a day pilgrimage to some historic area churches.
Over 1100 youth, adult leaders and clergy, including Bishops, loaded onto buses for the trip. The youth were excited and pumped up for the adventure. Our “tour guide” told us that we would be visiting some churches in the Philadelphia area with rich history. There had been a time when the area surrounding the churches was bustling and thriving. Those days were long gone now. So, with a bit of uncertainty of what we might experience, we hit the road.
Our first “church stop” was a breath-taking beauty. This gothic revival building, built in the form of a cross allows morning light to shine through a Tiffany window depicting the conversion of Paul. I had my camera ready, poised to take an obnoxious amount of pictures. But as we walked towards the church, the surrounding area houses and buildings looked dilapidated, uncared for and abandoned. A large tree rudely jutted through a two story house, as if trying to escape the brokenness of the community, crying out to the heavens. But, as I looked towards the church, its majesty beckoned me, and I forgot the crumbly, chippy and graffiti covered buildings and entered.
What I found was a shiny, polished and stately parlor with antique furniture greeting me. We were ushered into the sanctuary and I swooned at the architecture, woodwork, tapestries; complete with Tiffany light fixtures, velvet cushions and stain glass windows. Amidst the oohs and ahhs of everyone, I found that I needed to sit down and take everything in. Something wasn’t right. Beautiful? Check. Majestic? Check. But what was wrong?tory of the church. A once thriving parish and city, this church was the “place to be,” full of wealthy and educated parishioners. But, as the 1960’s arrived, businesses moved away, and so did the people. The area saw further decline; crime and poverty became the new norm. Now, around 30 people drive into the city each Sunday, sometimes an hour commute to worship at the church. They don’t stick around much afterwards and each year the congregation dwindles as another aging parishioner dies.
So, what is the problem? It’s not money. This church is endowed to the hilt and has the money to pay a full-time rector and staff, including $10,000 in monthly building maintenance. The church will never run out of money, thanks to the endowment which grows each year.
When the priest arrived at the church, he quickly informed the parish and vestry that the future of the church had to lie in social justice. After much persuasion, he convinced the vestry to approve a food program, afterschool program and summer day camp to move into the basement of the church. This program has taken off and is educating children and providing a safe place for them to be, and is helping families become self-sustaining. However, the vestry and members have been very clear that the people in the basement must not be upstairs. They have even devised a system to keep the sanctuary and upstairs locked from the basement level.
This is the church.
Now, I want to take you back on the bus with me and to the next church. I rode numbly along to the next building, not sure what to expect again. Our tour guide told us as we traveled that this church was built right before the Great Depression. First, the parish built a modest stucco parish hall, nothing fancy but serviceable. After all, they had a lovely lot next door that a proper church could be built on and that would happen next. But hard times came and shook the community to its knees. The church struggled, cried out and hung on for dear life at times. But it survived. As we pulled up to the church, I noticed an overgrown empty lot that looked like it might be used as an occasional parking lot. I joked sarcastically that this looked like the Episcopal Church of the Sacred Parking Lot. Instead of being ushered into a lush and gorgeous sanctuary with cool stone walls and air filled with stately grandeur, we found ourselves in a room designated as a food pantry with fans blowing and the air smelling more than vaguely of dampness. A lovely older lady warmly greeted us and thanked us for coming. She told us that she had run the food pantry at the church for over 30 years. She spoke of the families that she fed biweekly and that she liked helping people. She said there is something about feeding people that is frustrating and yet satisfying at the same time. She saw hungry children. She also saw people who had so much pride that she knew it was physically and emotionally painful for them to have to come and seek help. So, she keeps doing what she is doing because people are always hungry.
This is the church.
A priest close to my age greeted us with a huge smile and asked if we would join her in the sanctuary. She informed us that this actually was the original parish hall and the grand plans of building a church in the adjoining field never quite happened. Times were tough and the church decided long ago that it would have to make due in the modest stucco parish hall. No Tiffany stain glass windows beckoned to be gazed upon. A tiny metal star with white Christmas lights hung unlit above the altar ceiling, ready to shine brightly on Christmas Eve. In the back, a painting of Jesus, with dark skin and wild hair and the kindest eyes gazed upon the church from the back. The priest spoke of the hard times of the parish, but that new life was being found on Wednesday night praise and prayer healing services. She also apologized for the building, and that work needed to be done, but it didn’t seem to be keeping her up at night. There was energy and a determination to wrap everyone up in the love of Christ and do more than just offer a bag of much needed groceries. This church offered holy food as well, with the hopes of sustaining the broken, the hungry and those who yearned for refuge.
This is the church.
So, what will we be? Will we answer the call of the hungry, of those who wonder if they will eat today? Will we answer the call of children sent by parents to a new and foreign place where the thought of never seeing their children again is a better option than the heartbreaking violent life they leave behind? The President of the House of Deputies in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, wrote recently to remind us that long ago a baby was born. The parents loved the child so much that they would risk safety and possible death to flee a hostile homeland. That child was Jesus. I don’t have the answers to end the sufferings of the world. But, I can make a peanut butter sandwich and feed someone today. I can give what I can and ask you to give what you can to the Bishop’s fund to help the children who are helplessly flooding our borders. I can. You can.
This is the church.