Speak Boldly:  A Two-Track Approach to Christian Education and Formation

Throughout the season of Lent, we at St. Mark’s felt stirred to offer formation for all ages in a way that we had never done previously.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know what that was.  Personally, I knew that I needed to teach something that would be life-giving to me and would therefore feed the congregation in a new way through my energy and excitement.  For me, that meant teaching something about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) – more on that in a moment.

Of course, the Hebrew Bible wasn’t going to tap the interest of everyone in the congregation, so we needed something else to offer alongside.  With all of the recent changes in the local political landscape, the increase in issues like opioid overdose, and a bankrupt public school district, we felt called as disciples to learn more about those issues.  So we set forth to run a forum featuring influential public leaders to be run parallel to the Hebrew Bible class.  For six weeks in Eastertide, we began as a community with a meal (prepared by the culinary students at the Charter School for Excellence) and then broke off into our classes:  Public Forum, The Story of Creation for kids, and the Hebrew Bible class.

The Hebrew Bible class had one main purpose:  to teach the students about the origins, structure, and historical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.  It was intentionally not a devotional “bible study,” but rather an abbreviated introductory level Hebrew Bible course one would encounter in seminary.  The 26 students were excited and equally apprehensive because they knew they were going to face some challenges to their faiths along with way.  However, we knew that we could trust each other and that all opinions and questions were valued and respected.

Why teach such a class?  First, Jesus was Jewish.  Therefore the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were His scriptures that informed His faith and His teachings as our Messiah found in the New Testament.  Second, we are called to be peacemakers in the world.  How better to more deeply understand our Jewish brothers and sisters than through a deeper knowledge of their scriptures and our shared history? Third, there are many things as English readers of ancient Hebrew texts that we miss (symbolism, sarcasm, euphemism, parallelism, poetry, etc.) that once realized make the scriptures come alive in a new and powerful way.  Fourth, and perhaps most important, this deep study of the Hebrew Bible in college and seminary liberated my personal faith.  It caused me to think anew and ask the difficult questions I had previously been afraid to ask.  That freedom to ask hard questions is necessary for deepening one’s walk with Christ.

For six weeks, we prayed, studied, argued, sang, and shared revelatory moments together.  From Creation to the Exodus, from myth to commandment, from festivals to prophecies, from sex to poetry, we covered it and we had fun while doing it.  Can the 26 students speak fluent Hebrew?  No, but they can speak a few important Hebrew words and relate them back to their own walks with God.  Can the 26 students identify all of the writers in the Torah?  No, but they now know that there are many voices, faiths, and perspectives found in those books; and that there is much beauty in the unifying work of God in bringing all of those writings together to give us what we have today.  And finally, can the 26 students tell us everything there is to know about God’s character in the Hebrew Bible?  No, but they can certainly proclaim that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not the stereotyped old angry man in the sky, but is the same living, loving, merciful God we know in Christ today.  And for that I say, Alleluia!

Craig Dressler is Associate for Parish Life at St. Mark’s, Erie.

#doinganewthing Social Media Sunday at St. Mark’s

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

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Screen shot of Kate Amatuzzo’s (with Carly Rowe) Facebook post during the service.

It was only somewhat coincidental that St. Mark’s planned our first attempt at Social Media Sunday on the same day that we heard this passage from the prophet Isaiah. While I admit, I was pleased when I read the appointed lessons, it was actually after the fact! We picked Sunday, March 13, because it was the end of Lent and timely in that folks may in fact be considering attending church for Holy Week and Easter. It was also planned to happen at the same time that we launched our new website (www.saintmarkserie.org in case you were wondering). Once we determined those two things, the Isaiah reading made it all the more appropriate. So much so, that we used #doinganewthing as part of the day!

So why do a Social Media Sunday? This idea is certainly not original to St. Mark’s. The Episcopal Church has done several on a national level in recent years. Why? Because Social Media has become a powerful way to encourage people of faith to share the gospel. Facebook reports that they have 1.2 billion users (238 million in the United States alone) and Twitter reports 230 million users. I think we could all agree that this kind of reach is greater than just about any other medium available right now – oh and it’s free!

Our goal, like others who have done similar events, was to get people beyond their fear of using digital media and understand that these are effective tools that we can use to invite others, show our care and concern, tell our friends about our church, and introduce them to Jesus. Not everyone is an extrovert and not everyone is going to be comfortable walking up to someone and inviting them to church. However, if you are on Facebook or Twitter, you can post, share, invite and you have reached into your network of folks in a way that your church couldn’t do without your help. One on one evangelism times the number of friends you have on Facebook!

59695_976127559130832_6951792523750174087_nOur organization for this Sunday was simple. We produced a handout with clear instructions that everyone who came to church was given. It explained where to find St. Mark’s on Facebook and Twitter and then we suggested posts and tweets and of course hashtags (#doinganewthing #getconnected #stmarks). We gave those who were not on social media a way to participate by giving them the opportunity to write out their tweets and giving them to me to tweet. We also projected the new website and the live twitter feed in the church. (Yes, projecting in an Episcopal church and nothing bad happened, it was just fine.) Both really helped people get engaged. Vanessa Butler was on hand posting and tweeting on behalf of the diocese so our reach was even broader.

The results of all of this were beyond what we could have expected. The participation from the congregation was overwhelming and we had so much fun engaging in it on a Sunday. We picked up 20 new Twitter followers and 10 new page likes on Facebook, all in less than two hours. The website traffic was exponentially higher than any other Sunday morning. Will these people turn up at St. Mark’s for Easter or another Sunday? That remains to be seen, but at least they now know who we are and what we stand for when they decide that they are ready to come to church.

An unexpected result was that our members found new relationships and connected with other members they may not have otherwise connected with, by liking and sharing their posts and tweets. They were looking for each other after the services, introducing themselves by asking “Were you the one that posted that?”.

We said all along it was about the relationships, not the technology. Indeed it was. We reached hundreds of people outside of the walls of St. Mark’s on March 13 and we formed community for those who were already there. Win, win, and, yes, we would most certainly do it again!

Carly Rowe, Associate for Programs and Development, St. Mark’s, Erie

Brewing Faith – A Christian Community

Brewing FaithA brainchild of St. Stephen’s Fairview, Brewing Faith has become an essential piece to the spiritual lives and development of many young adults in the Erie area.

What is Brewing Faith? Brewing Faith is a monthly opportunity for young adults in their twenties and thirties to come together in a casual atmosphere – that of a craft brew pub – and intentionally discuss issues of faith and life. A collaborative ministry of St. Stephen’s and St. Mark’s, it is modeled after other young adult groups found throughout mostly major urban areas, and is open to people from all walks of spiritual life – Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, non-denominational, etc.

As a staff member of St. Mark’s and a thirty year old adult, I am thrilled to be a part of such a community. It’s a chance to simply be in Christian community – no agenda, no right or wrong answers, no rubrics – just simply be. As Jesus regularly broke bread with His community, we too are continuing this tradition and letting the Spirit move in and among us. This freedom of community has created a safe space in which everyone is valued and all opinions matter. Through the grace made manifest in the Brewing Faith community, we have been able to have fruitful and thoughtful discussions (while not always agreeing) on a wide array of topics: The Nicene Creed, Prayer, Social Justice, Racial Discrimination, Liturgical Practice, Holiness, and Lenten Discipline just to name a few.

And God has taken this community of Brewing Faith and has deepened our community far past the surface conversation topics. We have been able to celebrate birth and mourn death together as our individual lives have taken their various turns. We have held each other up in prayer and support one another along our journeys. And the community is starting to ask itself, “What’s next and what’s our wider purpose?” From a community development perspective, a community asking itself those deeper questions is a dream come true – a seed of something that is about to blossom beyond our wildest imaginations. Please pray for us as we work to discern our next steps as we deepen our communal walk with one another and with God. And if you’re ever thirsty…Millcreek Brewing Company on the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 6:30pm. Cheers!

Craig Dressler, Associate For Parish Life, St. Mark’s, erie, PA

Sr. Joan Chittister Speaks at St. Mark’s Service For Displaced Workers

The current state of the world is volatile. We all know this to be true. The terrorism, gun violence, increase in gangs, and job losses can be debilitating. But we are called as followers of Jesus to speak life – resurrection hope – into those dark debilitating places in our world. But, how do we even begin to know where to start?

Fr. Don Baxter, Gary Loncki (one of St. Mark’s delegates), and myself asked that very question of ourselves on the second day of diocesan convention. The lead story in the Erie Times News was about the massive layoffs announced by General Electric for their Erie plant. We wondered how we could respond. There was no way we could create new jobs for these people and no way that we could financially assist all of the people who would be impacted. What we knew is that we are people of prayer as followers of Jesus, and that we have a beautiful tradition of common prayer that perhaps we could offer to the community in a time of great uncertainty and grief.

In that moment of our response, God went to work. We began by crafting an evening prayer service with healing for the jobless and job-displaced people of our region. It was our hope to have a local leader offer a reflection at this event, but we weren’t having much luck finding that leader.

Then a providential opportunity presented itself where Fr. Don found himself at an event with Sister Joan Chittister, a world-renowned author on religion. In a step of faith, Fr. Don approached Sister Joan with the invitation to speak at the service. By the grace of God, Sister Joan was available and excited to offer the meditation. Fr. Don’s willingness to take a chance, Sister Joan’s support, Gary Loncki’s public relations experience, and guidance of the Holy Spirit came together to create an opportunity for healing far surpassing our wildest imagination. All of a sudden we had news coverage from all of the news channels and the newspaper. Our message, the message of the Resurrection, was being proclaimed.

On November 29, St. Mark’s hosted 60 guests at that service from all walks of life. Sister Joan focused her meditation on the grief and sadness that we are all familiar with and spoke deeply to the resurrection hope that we all have in our Savior Jesus Christ. Over 40 people came forward for healing for themselves or on behalf of another. The presence of the healing power of the Spirit was palpable as Fr. Don, Sister Joan, and Judge Nygaard laid hands on those 40 people asking God to come into their lives in new and powerful ways. That night was one of those moments that we desperately yearn for as ministers in the church, and it was an honor to bear witness to such a moment in the life of the church.

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Left to Right: Craig Dressler, Carly Rowe, Sister Joan Chittister, Fr. Don Baxter and Richard Nygard.

Dislocated Workers Focus of Prayer Service at St. Mark Episcopal Church

AR-130419938.jpg&maxW=960St. Mark Episcopal Church, 4701 Old French Road, is hosting a public prayer service for dislocated workers and their families on Sunday, Nov. 29 at 4 p.m. 

The service will be conducted by the Rev. Dr. Donald Baxter, St. Mark’s vicar.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, an internationally known author and lecturer on issues related to justice and peace, will deliver a reflection at the service.

Baxter noted the recent announcement that Erie’s General Electric plant will cut 1,500 jobs plus news of other recent layoffs in the Erie area make it necessary to bring people together for prayer.

“Workers and their families are hurting and looking at uncertain futures. We want to provide them a place to gather for prayer and support. By putting the Gospel of Jesus Christ into action, we trust the service will bring them a measure of healing and hope,” he said.

The Rev. Baxter said Sister Joan will provide a needed perspective for those who have lost sistertheir livelihood or are facing a loss of employment. 

The service will include music, Scripture readings, reflection and prayers for healing.

All are invited to attend.

For more information, call 868-9704 or contact Craig Dressler, St. Mark’s Associate for Parish Life, at cdressler@saintmarkserie.org

“That’s God’s Work Right There” A One Church Story

Donny began “How you all doing today? Who has something they’re sorry for today?” And there it was.

The Holy Spirit was in the house. It was palpable. I just didn’t know it yet.

2015-09-12 17.41.28A little earlier on that chilly, wet afternoon, I parked the car and found my way up the stairway marked with yellow. It was oddly quiet inside. Finding our way through the back hall into the kitchen, my 2 friends and I discovered folks standing around a prep table donned in hairnets and aprons. They looked ready. But no one was doing anything just yet. I needed to get started.

One of my responses to nervousness is to let my tasky side take over. And unexpectedly, I was pretty nervous the afternoon I went to the Erie City Mission to participate in the first joint venture between St. Marks and St. Stephens for a Saturday dinner. I did not know the people from St. Marks well. I had never been to the Erie City Mission (ECM). And I had never worked in a commercial kitchen. So though I was excited about this outreach, I was antsy, too.

We spent a few moments in introductions and then the work got underway. A few plated desserts. Some sliced buns for the barbecue. Others rolled the silverware and napkins. Shortly, the amazing Jackie Krukowski arrived. She leads the kitchen efforts at ECM. The buzz in the kitchen grew. We were all eager to be a part of this ministry. With initiative, teamwork and Jackie’s supervision, we were ready to serve with time to spare.

I had volunteered to lead the blessing. You might think that was the source of my nerves, but it was really a very small factor. I’m a big ham. Donny, the greeter and coordinator out front, prepped me. He would talk first then I would start the prayers. To be honest, I was glad to have a warm-up act.

That’s when Donny began with his “How you all doing today? Who has something they’re sorry for today?” And I felt the Holy Spirit.

Every person in that cafeteria looked tired– a bit worn by life. Most of them were in jackets, wet from hoofing it in the cold rain. All but one of them were men. The singular young woman raised her hand to answer Donny’s question. She could not have been 20 years old. She started slowly.   She said how sorry she was for how she had hurt her family, particularly her father. She described her circumstances, which included drug use, the preterm loss of a child and homelessness. She was in so much pain that she couldn’t stop talking. I was unsure of how to move us along. Donny, at the ready, approached me and said “Can you go with her into another room? Can you spend some time with her? Listen?”

All I could think was “I don’t know what to say.” But wait. She needed someone to listen. I had to lead the prayer, so I turned to another volunteer and said “Can you go sit with her? Spend some time listening?” Her response told me that she was not a social worker, counselor or clergy. In fact, none of us were. But we could all listen. She said yes and Jackie showed them to a room where they could talk.

We said our prayers, then Donny organized the tray line. We began serving and, in no time, needed to start the dishes. The guests were so kind and gracious. One guest told me about a place where the young woman might find help. I shared it with Jackie, and she marched off with purpose. Another said, “How can that father turn his back on that girl? I have 2 daughters and I would do anything for them.” He winced and walked away with tears in his eyes.

Finally there was a break for Jackie and she asked me what was going on with that young girl. She had missed the opening. I briefly told her what had happened. And in a flash she responded with “That’s God’s work right there.” That’s when I knew it. That’s when I understood the palpable change in the air from earlier.

2015-09-12 15.13.01We were a group of people from 2 churches. We just wanted to do some outreach. We knew that the ECM still had some Saturdays where they needed meals. We came together not knowing much about each other. We laughed. We enjoyed each other. We got the work done. I’m guessing nobody expected the experience with that young woman. But I am pretty sure it’s safe to say that when we left, we knew it was God’s work. We had been given a chance to help a few folks feel better for a few hours. Lucky us.

I am a lowly student of human behavior. I continue to search for my path in life and what God’s plan is for me. And there is so much I do not know. But I believe that on that day we were each agents of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe that is what the nervousness was about.

Danielle Bane, St. Stephen’s, Fairview

Awaiting what God has in store for us next

DSC_0083The Spirit of the living God is breathing deeply into the lives of the people at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. In 2010, the Bishop along with the leadership of St. Mark’s embarked on a three year intentional redevelopment. Since the initiation of that redevelopment, St. Mark’s is grateful to God to be able to proclaim that we have nearly tripled in congregational size.

The people of St. Mark’s have worked tirelessly to foster growth in four key areas: evangelism, outreach, formation, and liturgy. They have dared to engage evangelism, a word that is unfortunately taboo in many Episcopal congregations. The people of St. Mark’s freely and unashamedly share their spiritual stories with others and invite them to church. This intentional evangelism along with St. Mark’s naturally hospitable atmosphere bring people in our doors and Continue reading