If space is made sacred by the uses we make of it, a lot of our churches are in trouble. It’s not that our churches are ugly or unattractive, though some are. It’s more that the uses our buildings allow are so limited and have so much prior definition stamped onto them. It is rare to find a church space that is really curious about who we are and what we might be doing there. Most, regardless of their shape or size, say to us, “Admire me, be quiet, sit down, and continue to be quiet.”
The space at Church of the Epiphany in Providence, Rhode Island, was much like this when its membership and finances dwindled to the point where it needed to close or become a mission. It became a mission. (In the Episcopal Church a mission, unlike a parish, comes under the direct authority of the bishop in clergy selection and financial oversight.) There was a grace in this choice that was not immediately evident when I arrived in 1997. What was evident were the results of the economic downturn in the neighborhood over the past 30 years and of the church’s efforts to hold itself together. These included an unproductive, long-term lease of its frontage property to a gas station; conflict-prone leases of its parish house to nonprofit groups; the neglect of its rectory; the addition of siding to the church building’s nineteenth-century Carpenter Gothic exterior; and a surprisingly beautiful worship space freeze-framed at the moment of its neo-Gothic conversion in the 1950s.
Part of the grace in Epiphany’s designation as a mission was that it could receive occasional diocesan funding. But more than that, the grace was the opportunity to discover its vocation. The West End of Providence is the primary destination for the state’s immigrants. Sixty-plus languages are represented at the nearest public high school. Our vocation was waiting (and sometimes sleeping) on our doorstep.
There was also desperation in the church’s situation that made movement inevitable. The interior was a beautiful illusion. We couldn’t afford to make it ours. Stained-glass windows of remarkable depth of color, sagging in their frames. Choir pews with no choir. Ten times more pews than the congregation needed. A deteriorating, drapery-filled lady chapel. Lighting for stage effect on an east-facing altar. It was a set awaiting a cast that had disappeared. The paralyzing residue of clericalism was everywhere.
At least part of our task was to resist the downward pull of so much furniture. We began to fortify ourselves with good teaching and strong doses of practical wisdom from many friends, among them Richard Giles (a pioneer in liturgical space redesign and dean of Philadelphia Cathedral; see page 6) and the people of St. Gregory’s. Such experiences gave us hope that new life could still show up in this place.
The West End of Providence is the primary destination for the state’s immigrants. Our vocation was waiting (and sometimes sleeping) on our doorstep
Over the next six years, we slowly lightened the load of furniture. As the chapel and the nave opened up, we began to experience ourselves as a community in an open space, even beyond our building. We began to take our celebrations to the streets.
The first of these was a Rogation Procession. Rogation Days are celebrated in late May to ask God’s blessing on the new seed and to pray (Latin, rogare) for the land. I have an early memory of a procession outdoors at my suburban Chicago church in which our rector turned over shovelsful of dirt while he reminded us that growth begins with disrupting and turning over the soil. Hoping to capture this quality of holy disruption, I began leading the congregation of Epiphany on annual processions not only to our garden for a traditional blessing of the land, but around the city block we occupy—stopping at several points along the way to offer prayers for activities that are ever-present but often ignored or dismissed as “profane.” We sprinkle these places with water and salute them with incense. (It was only after doing this for a year or two that we learned we’d unknowingly recovered the tradition of “beating the bounds,” a custom of the Church of England where worshipers literally walk the boundaries of the church property, saying blessings in certain spots and, in years past, striking the trees with sticks in passing.)
Our Rogation practice concludes the liturgy on the Seventh Sunday of Easter with a gathering on the front steps of the church beside the concrete barriers that shield us from gas station traffic. We carry an Ethiopian cross acquired about the time we started this practice, incense, rhythm instruments, a bucket of holy water, a branch, and a dove kite with a good 15 feet of ribbon. We offer a prayer for the church, that we might restore it and welcome people there as we have been restored and welcomed. Singing an alleluia from Zimbabwe, we follow the incense-bearer around a busy corner to pray for the gas station: for all who work, buy, or sell there; for those out of work; for justice in the marketplace.
Continuing around the dumpster and pile of tires at the next corner to the fieldstone parish house—now home to a neighborhood agency serving young families as well as a meal site—we pray there that the children and adults who make use of the building may be fed with love and schooled in compassion. At the triple-decker house on the next corner we pray for families and homes that are safe havens. And finally, at the last corner, where the former rectory stands—now restored as a mission house for prayer and hospitality to young people—we pray that our vision for this place might continue to grow.
The first year we made this procession, as we walked along a particularly busy street, a car slowed down beside the group of us in long robes. The passenger rolled down his window, and I braced myself for what I assumed would be an earful. What I got instead was a polite request that we bless the car. We did, with prayer, water, and incense, in gratitude for a moment we couldn’t have anticipated and might easily have missed. Another year a columnist from the Providence Journal followed us around the block, notepad in hand, recording the experience as evidence of our neighborhood’s unlikely vitality.
The church calendar provides another opportunity for taking our liturgy outdoors during New England’s short warm-weather season—an opportunity directly related to the history of the neighborhood. A little over a mile from Epiphany in the direction of the Port of Providence stand the remains of Christ Church, Eddy Street. The church was closed and the building sold in 1982, when many Christ Church parishioners came to Epiphany. On my first Sunday at Epiphany, parishioners recounted the closing of this church and, before it, the closing of Church of the Savior. Epiphany, I was told, was the last surviving black church in the city.
|Map of one procession route through Providence’s West End followed by the congregation of Church of the Epiphany. By Jeannie Pettigrew, source courtesy of Karen Fraioli.
Former Christ Church parishioners also remember a project adjacent to their church building—a tenement purchased by the diocese during a high-water mark of its involvement in urban ministry. The building, named Church House, served neighborhood youth with its own staff and the help of seminarians, among them a young white seminarian named Jonathan Daniels. Jonathan had been stirred by his experience at Church House to make two trips to Alabama in the early ’60s to join the campaign for civil rights. On the second of these trips, while working on voter registration in rural Haynesville, Jonathan and his companions were jailed for participating in a demonstration and released a few days later without explanation. They walked from the jail to a nearby country store for something to drink. At the entrance to the store a man with a shotgun was waiting for them. Jonathan was shot and killed in the act of pushing a young black girl, Ruby Sales, out of harm’s way.
Members of our congregation’s personal memories of Jonathan led us to recognize that we could play a special role in celebrating his life and his day, August 14 (the date he was jailed), as it is set out in the church’s calendar of its saints. Again, this celebration required going outside our building and beyond the symbolic actions of traditional liturgy, expending real effort, engaging in real movement, and encountering our neighbors as they sat on their front steps in ways that invited real reactions we couldn’t control or predict.
Our celebration would begin at the former Christ Church. Singing an alleluia, we would make our way just over a mile to Epiphany. A Liberian member of the congregation made two striking banners with images of Jonathan and lettering in glitter. We prepared a story of Jonathan’s life and a set of 14 short prayers to read along the way, and made these available as handouts for bystanders.
We carried nothing but our banners and wore no vestments. We wanted to move past houses and businesses less like sandwich boards and more like potential friends. Members of our group willingly strayed and straggled behind us to talk to interested observers—bikers who paused without dismounting to ask what was up, children and families clustered on porches who had many questions and an interest in Sunday School. Two former inmates, recognizing their chaplain in our group, ran to meet us; a dazed man sitting on a concrete barrier in front of the church lifted his head to greet us as we arrived. At the front steps of Epiphany we gathered to sing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” as gas station traffic slowed around us. Inside the church we celebrated the Eucharist, inviting people to complete the sermon with their reminiscences of Jonathan and reflections on that era.
We discover the sacred in the encounter with the unexpected, the shock of recognition that there is a love we cannot fathom that draws us to each other.
Mid-August creates its own sacrificial opportunities. One year we marched in record heat. Another year we were joined by several busloads of campers from our diocesan camp; as we walked, the skies darkened and opened up, drenching us. That year the Eucharist was celebrated in the parking lot of Epiphany, with rapidly clearing skies, lightning on the horizon, and—suddenly—a flock of gulls overhead, returning to the bay from a day’s work at the local landfill.
Sacrifice is perhaps too grand a term. We willingly inconvenience ourselves because we recognize that something happens to us when we do. We recognize in this a form of prayer, an offering of ourselves to that which does not need our offering and so frees us for holy uselessness and play. Our neighbors, too, do not need us to walk among them. But when we do, we become visible to each other in the aspect of such play. We discover the sacred in the encounter with the unexpected, the shock of recognition that there is a love we cannot fathom that draws us to each other and insists that we’re connected.
Our congregation’s strength, it turns out, is in the bones of its people. It’s in the way our group life has been drenched in sacramental actions. Years of praying the Stations of the Cross have not been for naught. This congregation knows what it means to pray with one’s body.
As we enjoy our encounters with St. Gregory’s and other leaders in liturgical renewal, and soak up their lessons, we discover more about what we’re capable of doing, in shared leadership, unaccompanied singing, and dancing. We discover how the rhythm and momentum of our worship comes from us, how we’re capable of sparking each other’s energy and directing it.
We offer this discovery as we encounter the sacred in our streets. We don’t pretend that we’re transforming our streets. But if our presence sanctifies that space, then perhaps, bit by bit, the blessing that is already there is revealed to us and to anyone who wishes to notice.