‘Thank You For Your Support’ The Final Post From the Diocesan Mission Trip to Cristo Salvador

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What a delight and privilege is has been to spend the past week in the Dominican Republic! This week we began what we hope will be a lasting partnership with the people of Cristo Salvador. We are so grateful for your prayers as well as your financial support, which made the week possible. Without the help of many congregations and individuals, we would not have been able to purchase the construction and craft materials, nor could we have afforded to make the trip.

Not only was it an incredible experience to play games with over 85 kids and make new friends with the teachers, it was an incredible experience to be part of this team. Every dinner we learned new things about one another, laughing and joking, and every night during evening prayer we shared how the day impacted our hearts and minds. I have been changed by the week and so have many members- if not all- of the team. One cannot be the same after experiencing such love and hospitality, unity and partnership in the name of Christ.

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Drawn from all over the diocese, from Erie to Smethport, the team is an expression of our diocese. You are part of this too! The team looks forward to sharing with you, in-person, their experiences and stories from the week. We would be delighted to come to your congregation and share about this partnership and how you can get more involved. Please email Melinda Hall at vicarmelinda@gmail.com to talk about members of the team visiting your parish.

Thank you again for all your support!

The Rev. Melinda Hall, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brookville and Church of Our Savior, DuBoise

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An Experience Worth Repeating

The Vine, a community for youth in 6th-12th grade and a collaborative ministry of the Episcopal churches in Erie County, completed their first service trip this past March. They visited Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, in Brookville, PA to help care for the pews and tongue and groove walls.  The walls are made of Pine and require periodic oiling which hadn’t been done since the 1990’s.  The church was very grateful for the help.  Nina Palattella age 17, from the Cathedral of St. Paul describes her experience below. 14575_421588328008187_1905592289553097637_nI had the fortune of traveling with The Vine, an Episcopal community for youth centered in Erie, PA, to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Brookville, PA, on March 21-22. While in the church, I and fifteen other youth helped by polishing the wooden walls and the pews of the beautiful church. During a break in our work, Pastor Melinda was kind enough to walk us down to the town dam not far from the church. After spending the night in the parish hall, we were served a wonderful breakfast that was prepared by one of the parishioners at Holy Trinity, and then attended the morning worship. We were met with incredible hospitality throughout our stay by all of the members of the church, who were very grateful for our work, and for that I would like to thank them. I chose to attend the trip because I was excited to have the opportunity to help the wider Episcopal community. I enjoyed the experience because I got to help people in my church community, and I knew that what we were doing would last for a long time. Many people thanked us at the service in the morning, and I was glad to know that they appreciated the work we had done for them. I think that our first mission trip as The Vine was a success and definitely an experience worth repeating. ~Nina Palattella, Cathedral of St. Paul

The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Family’ Plan (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of “The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Families’ Plan” from yesterday (Click here to see part 1)

Recently, my wife and I attended a small parish in a major city. The church was a part of our growing in faith and of our courtship. This was our first visit in over 30 years. The welcome was warm and inviting but not overly so. The priest came and introduced himself. Worship was beautiful, simple, and well within the gifts and abilities of that community. We were looking forward to coffee hour as there were people who had been there years ago and connecting would be fun. All went well until the announcement time at the end and out came the words “friends” and “family.” I thought: “uh oh!” Sure enough, twenty minutes later, after what seemed like every member of the family had spoken and given their particular announcement and spoke of their friendliness, my wife and I had long since decided not to stay and headed for the door as soon as we could. No one paid any particular attention to us once the service ended and my worst fears were confirmed: another church that believes they are friendly and a family only to discover they are less inclusive than they wish to think and more segregating than they would ever suspect. What happened? Friends and family as descriptors draw a line around an imaginary center of the parish. If you are in the family and act friendly, you understand both the locus of the center and how you connect to it. Like in families, dangerous assumptions are made about how and what the family communicates. When I celebrate Christmas with my extended family I understand the patterns, communications, and actions. When we have an “outsider” it is very clear that our rituals are mysterious and, without deliberate action to the contrary, make the guests feel as if they are outsiders. Sometimes being so excluded is comfortable and, the more introverted, perhaps the more comfortable. But remember that the research suggests most churches described above are pressed to grow and bring in new people. Most believe that what the casual church shopper wants is to be in a family and treated in a friendly manner. However, that’s not why people are choosing to show up at church these days. People show up because people want to believe and need help with unbelief. People have plenty of circles of friends. As a recovering alcoholic, I attend three meetings a week. Many of these people are also very good friends and work at friendship more deliberately and more deeply than anything that happens in church. Most of also have a family filled with health and challenges and love and conflict and so much more. Perhaps people don’t need another family. More likely what people seek is connection, community, God, hope, belonging, and faith. When a church draws the line around friendly and family, guests are immediately drawn outside the circle, confused and wondering how one enters the family. And, regardless of the words, people experience the environment as basically resistant to newcomers. Resistance is a conscious or unconscious pattern of exclusion in which a guest is repeatedly invited to press up against invisible boundaries in hopes of miraculously finding the crack that allows entry. What do we do? First, change the language. Consider deliberately dropping the use of the words friendly and family. Exchange them with words like hospitable, gracious, open, inclusive (careful here, however, as this is more than about sexual orientation) or inviting instead of friendly. Consciously choose to exchange the word family with a word like community, or connection, or parish.hands-544522_1280 Secondly, reacquaint the community with the two founding values of parish life: service and sacrifice. Both words cannot be spoken without looking outside ourselves. Research for the past four decades unanimously suggests that growing churches are those churches that place a primary focus outside themselves; looking and discovering where and how they are called to serve and in what ways they are being asked to sacrifice. More importantly, our congregations are to be porous; they are to be open to the next person who arrives at any time. That woman or man who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to get up, dress and head to our churches does so in hope of finding something different than the health club, the local coffee shop, the Sunday paper, their family and their current circle of friends; they seek Jesus not a circle of friends and family. They already have that. They seek life and love and faith; spiritual companions on the way. They bring with them a raw understanding of our purpose as a local church, the hope of the world; what will they find? 20 minutes of announcements that point out how they don’t fit? Do they hear words of friendship accompanied by actions of segregation? Descriptions of family which are code for “we have no room for you here”? Or will they find a humble community of faithful people seeking to grow in their Christian faith, to support and guide others on the same journey, and to change the world? It’s up to each and every one of us who sees herself or himself as a member of a parish community to decide. The only “cost” to being in a parish community is ourselves and our brokenness and humility and the cracks within ourselves that provide the opening for God and others to enter in and help us create the space of healing and light that seeks to envelop the next person who walks through the doors of our parish community. Jesus brought these two elements together in himself on the cross. We would see that full Jesus! The Rev. Al Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and InnovationScreen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.41.25 AM

The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Families’ Plan (Part 1)

Several years ago a major cell phone company developed a usage plan called “friends and family.” In early cell phone days, when people grew conscious of how many minutes were used and how much each minute cost, we sought ways to increase minutes and decrease the cost per minute. This company invited us to put a certain number of family and friends on a list and call them for less per minute than other calls. Those outside the circle of “friends and family” cost the user higher rates. team-523245_1280Communication with people in our circle grew; outside the circle stayed the same or decreased.

The challenge of friends and family in Christianity goes back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Bargil Pixner, in his book With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel, explores Jesus’ ministry from the perspective of geography and location. He notes that when Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum to expand his circle, the main challenge he faced was with his family and whether he would minister as they wished or as he believed God was leading him.

Pixner goes on to note that Jesus eventually moved on from his family and formed a different community with his disciples. His brother James and others went their way to the Jewish based believers while Jesus himself moved outside that circle into the pagan and gentile world. The reconciliation, according to Pixner, takes place on the cross when Jesus speaks to John and says that Mary is his mother; and says to Mary that John is his son; and the two disparate groups are drawn together.

In the past four years I’ve had the chance to visit several Episcopal congregations around the country. More and more the two words these congregations use to describe themselves are the same as that cell phone package years ago and that challenged Jesus’ very ministry: friends and family.

These words tend to be the mainstay of smaller congregations with a Sunday attendance of less than 75 with anywhere from 10 to 60 families. These congregations are resilient, often having survived threats of extinction, while simultaneously being faithful and, often, hospitable. Their liturgies have become comfortable for them over the years and they appreciate some changes but only gradually introduced ones. They seem to live for four sources of connection each week: the passing of the peace, communion, announcements and coffee hour. These are sources of connection and belonging. Here, also, is where they believe they show how friendly and family-like they are; how they hope that each and every visitor will find a home with them.

Ironically, each of these churches, if surveyed, would also state as their top two goals the desire to bring in new people and to attract young families with children. One look around the worship environment and one experience of Sunday makes clear to the casual and insightful observer why that won’t happen and it’s because of two words: friends and family. These two words, more than any others, often prove to be two profoundly discriminative and painfully segregating words in our church lexicon.

Click here for part 2

The Rev. Al Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation