Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 9: Richmond, VA

Here's my next-to-last sabbatical video -- St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, and its fresh expression, Center.  What a fabulous place for someone who loves history to get to visit....  The video text follows:

Inside St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond is a plaque honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  During his presidency, Davis was a member of St. Paul's, as was Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  In Richmond's Civil War museum at nearby Tredegar Iron Works, you find the altar book used at St. Paul's during the Civil War, with a hand-written edit praying for the president of the Confederacy rather than the United States.  The church's beautiful stained-glass window depicting Paul before the Roman Emperor is said to be an homage to Jefferson Davis and his imprisonment after the war.  But as you make your way to the parish hall and pass the portraits of St. Paul's rectors, you find Jack Spong, arguably the most famously liberal Episcopal cleric of the 20th century, who served here before being elected bishop of Newark.  Clearly something shifted at St. Paul's several decades ago, making it a contrast presence in the old Confederate capital and a leading force in Richmond's evolution.

What hasn't changed about St. Paul's is its identity as a missional presence to its neighborhood -- located literally next door to the halls of power, the Virginia State Capitol and Supreme Court.  For a long time, St. Paul's has taken its call very seriously to be not simply a downtown church but a church for downtown.  More than 100 years ago, it began offering a weekday lunch-and-sermon series during Lent.  Now that's grown into a nearly year-round commitment, with a civic forum through the fall and jazz lunches after Easter.  In addition, St. Paul's is known as a trendsetter in ministry with the poor.  It hosts a weekly feeding program, and its model for school partnerships has been adopted by more than 100 other Richmond faith communities.  In addition, St. Paul's simply but beautifully offers its space for busy downtown people to stop and connect with God any day of the work week.  Clearly, serving the people of the neighborhood is deep in St. Paul's DNA.

So as Richmond's downtown began a renaissance in the past decade, St. Paul's reimagined its downtown mission to include the people returning to its lofts and apartment spaces.  The rector, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, decided to call a priest specifically as missioner to the downtown population -- the Rev. Melanie Mullen.  Borrowing methods from community organizing, Melanie and her missional team built a network through personal relationships both within St. Paul's and in the downtown community.  The team listened to people downtown and heard a longing for two things: intentional contemplative space and authentic community.  And so Center has taken shape.

Center begins with a worship gathering in the church's Atrium, because Melanie's team heard people wanting an intimate, less churchy space.  A single musician plays, maybe on violin or flute, and the group hears both a Bible reading and a poem or other spiritual text.  Then the participants have time on their own -- maybe lighting candles, or walking a labyrinth, or meditating with an icon.  Then the group gathers again to discuss where their personal explorations led them.  They offer prayers, led by a cantor; share the Peace; and move to the next room for a simple meal of soup, bread, and wine.  It's eucharistic with a lower-case "e" -- not Holy Communion, but certainly holy community.  It's a small gathering, usually a dozen or so.  But as one Center participant told me, the weekly time with God and with each other lets them breathe in, so the Spirit can send them out again, empowered to make life that much holier both for themselves and for the Richmond community into which they're sent.

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