This year there is so much for us to be thankful for and celebrate. At convention I shared a list of completed projects that I am extraordinarily proud to have had a small part in as I’ve worked beside one of the finest diocesan staffs in the Episcopal Church. I could go on for hours about each of these accomplishments. But there isn’t time. And I want us to look forward right now, not back.
I want to start by speaking about the mission of God in Rhode Island; how we are responding to the workings of the Holy Spirit in this place and what we want to do next in Providence for the whole region.
Let’s begin by highlighting new congregation starts this past year particulally: Church Beyond the Walls, Advent, and Church of the Beloved.
Church Beyond the Walls
Church beyond the Walls, which recently became a Specialized Mission of the Diocese, grew out of a pastoral response to the Occupy Movement’s protests. Clergy (led by Jennifer Pedrick, then the rector of Epiphany, and Edmund Harris, the assistant at the time) started to voluntarily take the sacrament to the people on Kennedy Plaza. As Occupy shut down, they recognized that there were people who’s lives were centered around the public space of the plaza but who could not find an authentic community to support their spiritual lives.
Some of us in sitting around reading the Canons noticed that there was an underused canonical entity in our Diocesan Constitution and Canons called a “Specialized Mission”. Conversations started with the organizing committee and essentially a year later we have our first brand new congregation.
I have had the opportunity worship with this congregation once at this point. I know that a number of our clergy have had the same opportunity or more. Even our Lutheran brothers and sisters have helped with that Ministry as well. I encourage all of you to join them on a Sunday and be inspired by the work they are doing. Perhaps you will discover new ways to bring a similar ministry to the streets of your community.
Dennis Bucco and Linda Grenz had a couple of conversations about him starting something with the fire fighter families in Coventry, where he’s the chaplain and does weddings, baptisms, etc for them. That made sense. But then the people he talked to about opening up the church ended up talking about autism.
At the same time Linda was chatting at coffee hour with a young woman at St. James, Woonsocket who lived in Coventry, worked in Boston with autistic children and wondered if we had ever thought of doing something with that population — totally out of the blue. So after a few weeks of repeated encounters of that sort, the two of them decided the Holy Spirit was sending us a message!
The suggestion was to use the empty space of the former St. Matthias in Coventry to host a mid-week service. That process is underway now. They now have a number of families that are worshiping regularly. They are also exploring other ways they can offer their worship space to better serve the community.
Church of the Beloved
Meghan Kelly Brower asked about the possibility of starting a new congregation in her kitchen. A desire to connect with people whose lives had been changed by their participation in the ECC program, but who had not as yet found a regular church home.
Using the unused space of the former Calvary Church in Pascoag, flung open the doors, and used the unheated space to hold a service. Expected maybe a dozen, Nearly 80 people showed up. Of which something like 60% were under the age of 8.
After some hard work and some time renovating the building, Church of the Beloved was born. I expect that we’ll be having conversations with Beloved about how to apply for traditional mission church status over the coming year; Our first, brand new mission church in quite some time.
Amazing Grace Church
There are some other conversations happening as well. I was talking with The Rev. Joyce Penfield about ongoing work in prisons, specifically the baptisms that are happening and the need to register these baptisms. Any liturgical act by a clergy person must be registered.
There is a group of lay people and volunteer clergy that are beginning to lead services at the women’s prisons, with little to no cost to the Diocese. I am very supportive of their dream and have used some discretionary funds to help them as they are getting started.
The working name for this forming congregation is “Amazing Grace Church” and it meets on Saturday afternoons in the prison system proper. This might be another place where the Specialized Mission category might let us create a non-traditional Episcopal congregation in a way. This would let it function with the support of the rest of the Episcopalians in the state, but with enough freedom that it would be able to do ministry in a setting in which a traditional congregation would struggle.
Gloria Dei Hispanic School for Ministry
Bishop Hazelwood’s staff and my staff having been having conversations about how best to coordinate ministry and training within the Rhode Island Latino communities, and we are already well along in our efforts to create a joint Spanish-language Latino lay ministry academy.
We have talked also about how we might jointly plant another traditional congregation, perhaps in South Providence. Those conversations are ongoing. I think it is clear by Bishop Hazelwood’s presence at convention as our Preacher show that our two denominations are growing closer together. and regularly now looking for ways in which our can cooperate as much as possible.
As I mentioned before, some of the clergy participating in the Church Beyond the Walls mission work are Lutheran – just another example of what this cooperation looks like today.
All of this would be in addition to the new congregation that the folks from Ascension in Cranston have worked to plant at the Church of the Transfiguration this year.
That’s pretty impressive all by itself isn’t it!
When I step back and look at all of this new life I am struck by how they are a mix of traditional and non-traditional structures.
Actually they are mostly non-traditional.
In conversations with the clergy over the past year I have been asking them to think about how we can participate in the Mission of God here in Rhode Island in new ways. *I’ve asked them to be willing to try new things, and to be willing to fail.* Actually I’ve asked them specifically to be willing to fail early and often (and cheaply if possible) as we work to find new ways to respond to a culture that is both the same and rapidly changing at the same time within the state.
Building on a new way of looking at our divine missionary imperative, I’ve asked them to look outside their church communities to see where and how God is already at work in our villages, towns, cities and state. And if I’m asking them to do that, I ought to be doing that as well. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the single most common question I’ve been asked over the past two and a half years since my election as your bishop has been, “What is going to happen with St. John’s Cathedral in Providence?” As I told you in my first convention as bishop, and reported on in my second, that discernment has been an ongoing process into which I have tried to invite as many people as possible. Today I want to tell you what we together have heard bubbling up from the grass roots.
But first, I need share with you something I am hearing both from you inside the Church and from others outside of it as have made my way around the state. Do you remember what the Book of Common Prayer tells us is the Mission of the Church? It is found on page 855.
That is our mission! Specifically, reconciliation means the restoration of “friendly relationships – or the recognition of the compatibility of beliefs.” That it doesn’t mean agreement; it means good relationship in spite of disagreement. Reconciliation has been a touchstone of my own spiritual journey since I first pursued science and theology at the same time and it has been the work to which I have always returned no matter where ministry has taken me to serve.
In a sense, I have made this passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians my own ministry’s touchstone:
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor. 5:17-19, NRSV)
Part of the reason I was so grateful that I have been asked to serve the rest of life here in Rhode Island was because I hear a common desire to pursue reconciliation as part of the constant culture of this place. You can hear it in the writings of Roger Williams from the very beginning of the state. It has been a theme woven throughout the history of this place.
I find it most notably present right now in Providence – in the visionary work of the WaterFire installations that have become an integral part of the life of this city and state. Think about it for a second. Water and Fire. They are opposites, one canceling the other and if they come into actual contact with each other, they both cease to be. But by allowing the two to exist in tension with one another, fire suspended just above the surface of water, incredible things happen. People come from all around the world to experience this physical manifestation of reconciliation. And it has led to some amazing moments that perhaps we don’t fully recognize for how amazing they are.
Did you know that Providence is the only place in the world where the Indian community and the Pakistani community have jointly celebrated their Independence Day? That’s day where they celebrate that they are independent of each other. It happened at WaterFire. Twice!
The WaterFire has spread around the world – even to the opposite end of the Earth where the Singapore government has used it, flying the volunteers from Rhode Island to Malaysia, to recast the conversation in that country toward reconciliation rather than the religious sectarianism that is threatening to overwhelm the other nations of South East Asia. All of which grows out of an art experience that is, in the most technical and strictest understanding of the word “liturgical”, a liturgical event that celebrates and creates reconciliation.
I have been asking the clergy to look hard at the neighborhoods around them to see what God is at work doing there – and then to go and participate in that work. And here, right in front of us, in Providence, God is doing something that whole world has taken notice of, and in which we have yet begun to participate in in any significant way. Reconciliation is common idea in theology, in theory at least I guess, if not in practice. There are some key common understandings that underlay the work of the Church in it.
Truth telling is a fundamental part of the process of reconciliation. Any of you have made use of the sacrament of reconciliation (in the Prayer Book – it’s what is commonly called “Confession”) know that the absolute sanctity of the confessional is there because it is a tool to get us to speak honestly about what we have done. The work of telling the truth is what makes the reconciliation with God possible.
Archbishop Tutu and others used this principle to heal the scars of Apartheid that threatened to tear apart the nation of South Africa as that institution came to an end. Telling the truth, learning to dare to speak the truth, is what makes reconciliation possible. I believe it is a tool that we can make use of here in Providence to be reconciled with our own past and with each other. And in so doing, we can become a model for many.
As the grass roots conversations about the Cathedral and its future started in earnest this past year, a theme of reconciliation began to emerge. It wasn’t something I expected, it wasn’t something that I’d ever heard dreamed of, but as we shared it more and more widely, there was an increasing degree of support by the people of this state.
The Vision for the Cathedral of St. John
The idea that has emerged has been, up till now, primarily characterized as using the lower levels of St. John’s to serve as a museum to interpret the role of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion in the institution of slavery in the early United States; Both our support of and profiting by it, and our later work to abolish it. That is in effect an outgrowth of the Traces of the Trade work that this diocese and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church committed themselves to in the past decade. But that part, an important and critical part of our own reconciliation with the truth of our past, is only part of the vision that has emerged.
Let me be more explicit about the vision of reconciliation ministry by using language from a grant that we are in the process of writing to ask for startup funding for this undertaking:
“We plan to convert the parish hall into a museum that would explore the intersection of slavery and faith — how the church has supported the institution of slavery and also how it helped abolish it. The ship building and shipping industry in RI were major players in the slave trade and much of RI’s economy was built with the profits of that trade. Many (perhaps most) of those businesses were own and operated by Episcopalians. So we feel we have both an obligation and an opportunity to speak the truth about the church’s role in the slave trade. We anticipate that this museum would be an attraction to visitors as well as a valuable contribution to the city and state’s history and self-awareness.
In addition to the museum, we plan to create a Center for Reconciliation that would provide programs to move people from viewing artifacts to being engaged in the process of reconciliation. So we envision a variety of programs offered in partnership with various institutions and groups. This would include performances in the sanctuary (music, dance, drama, lectures, etc.), small group seminars and educational events in the library and training programs in reconciliation and perhaps even certification for reconciliation interventionists — people trained to help resolve conflicts in organizations, go into situations like Ferguson or, preferably, help cities prepare for and avoid situations like the one we all witnessed this summer.
We have secured the support of the key leaders in the diocese, the support of the Cathedral Corporation (the legal, decision-making body) and we anticipate that we will receive the affirmation of the diocese at our annual convention in November. In addition, we have initiated the “quiet phase” of soliciting potential partners and already have the Tracing Center (www.tracingcenter.org — founded by DeWolf family members) and the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown working with us and have started conversations with others including the Providence Preservation Society which recently hosted a tour of the Cathedral as part of their Ten Most Endangered Properties tour series.”
A Center for Reconciliation
In total there are really four parts now to what is being called the “Cathedral Project”. There is the creation of what I hope will become a national center for Reconciliation. There is the creation of museum to deal with our own participation in the institution of slavery and our own unconscious racism. There is the use of the upper floor of the Cathedral as a worship space and perhaps, God willing, the site for a new multicultural worshiping community (or perhaps urban abbey) that would be a living example of what we dream. Lastly, there is the possibility of a number of partnerships with institutions and foundations that might use parts of the building to support their own work in reconciliation.
I am delighted to tell you that this is not what I first imagined might come of our conversations. It isn’t a plan that I had at all. It has truly come out of the community, up out of the grassroots, and it has gathered more and more support than I ever imagined such a thing might. I am coming to believe that this idea is a gift to all of us, and I believe that if it is a gift, that God will help to support our efforts to make it real.
There have been a number of instances already where I could swear I could sense the Holy Spirit’s presence in this project as it has blossomed. And that has given me an extraordinary amount of hope.
In this Convention you will vote on a resolution that will empower the Cathedral Corporation to begin to make real financial commitments, to raise money for and begin the work in earnest in what we are calling the “Cathedral Project”.
I don’t know that we’ll get it all done overnight. And I’m not sure what will come first – but I do hope that you will support the work and the vision that has come to us by the dedicated process of listening and truth-telling over the past year. There is much more to say about all of this, and I could happily take the rest of the day to go into details. We’ll need to have the Cathedral Corporation make decisions about the building to move to stabilize what we have as we think about the work of renovation in earnest. But I will leave this for another convention.