Reclaiming Relevance

By Lori Mills-Curran, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Cultivating Leaders (March 2013)

Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.

Wealthy 19th century mill owners founded St. Andrew’s Church in Framingham, Massachusetts: for their workers. Desiring to worship apart, the owners built them their own church. The new parish matured to have a glorious history. One parishioner was a famous Black sculptress of the 1920’s. Another was a nationally-known champion of women’s prison reform. Parishioners marched for civil rights in Selma. A 1963 roster lists 568 children, and the parish boomed well into the 1980’s.

But when I arrived in 2007, this success was long past. I run St. Andrew’s church school. For two years I tried every trick in my bag, but could not grow it. Half our eighteen grubby basement classrooms were closed off, and the fifteen kids we had left were afraid to enter the unused wing. Upstairs was more discouragement. Our 30-something rector worried that she was trained to lead a church that didn’t exist anymore.

Framingham has changed, and there is no consensus that it’s for the better. The north side is a pretty bedroom suburb of Boston. On the south side, near downtown, the General Motors plant and Dennison label factory stood empty for many years. Today, one third of Framingham’s population is Brazilian immigrants and ethnic tensions have surfaced. Some dislike the many Portuguese shop signs, or the excited crowds that ran through downtown when Brazil won the World Cup. The Southern Poverty Law Center investigated a group airing “Brazilian weather reports” on local cable TV, with a “reporter” dressed as an ape.

St. Andrew’s straddles the Route 9 barrier between north and south. What did we have to offer this newly complex community?

In 2009, we heard about the new diocesan Leadership Development Initiative or LDI, which teaches faith-based community organizing. We sent a team to investigate, but the concepts of this new way of being church were so unfamiliar we could not understand them.

Nothing changed. In the fall of 2010, we tried LDI again. This time, we learned a new definition of leadership. It wasn’t a talent individuals had. Leadership was a decision to take responsibility to enable others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty. There was set of skills that could help you lead in uncertainty, and they could be taught.

At first, community organizing seemed pretty fuzzy. Our initial organizing goal was laughably simple: give a party for our Brazilian neighbors. LDI was rigorous, with a two-day boot camp, monthly coaching, and bi-weekly team meetings. We learned new skills, such as public narrative, group norm-setting, and house meetings. Could reserved New Englanders ever get comfortable presenting a personal story about our faith? Was it really necessary to formulate such disciplined team norms? Could community organizing really transform our faithful remnant into a thriving body rooted in a fresh reality? We felt by turns dazed and defiant.

But we learned the skills and planned a festival for Dia Das Crianças, Brazilian Children’s Day. Over five months, we recruited fifty parishioners and helpers from Brazilian organizations and businesses, Scouts, Masons, an athletic club, and the local university, library, and hospital. We all learned enough Portuguese to direct people to the restrooms. We flew in a Brazilian priest from California, and threw open the doors of the church.

Rio chorus girls opened our party with a samba parade. Our teens re-enacted Jesus’ hometown, herding farm animals through Nazaré. Workshops about workers’ rights, green cleaning, and immigrant mental health vied for attention with bands, capoeira demos, and soccer clinics. We tested for osteoporosis, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

The power of God is a terrible thing. On a brilliant October day, over 500 Brazilians came to our party. We were stunned.

Suddenly, we were all over the Brazilian papers and radio. We discovered that if you act like a friend, people treat you as one. Brazilian community members approached us for help providing Portuguese literacy for their children. Our vestry approved hosting a parent cooperative and we soon registered 123 students in our Núcleo Educacionista. Our halls again rang with the shouts of children.

By late 2011, we had many new friends. Our run-down basement, home to both the Núcleo and church school, still needed refurbishing. We returned to LDI to field a team of parish and Núcleo parents, gathered to help professionals paint the basement for free. Brazilian and Anglo parents worked side by side for a cause that benefitted both.

The community organizing tools we learned in LDI have transformed our leadership, and our parish. Several LDI folks are now on vestry. Even our Property Committee used LDI tools to recruit twelve members! A spirit of possibility pervades our church. It’s common to hear people discussing parish problems say, “We should field an LDI team for that.”

People often ask me, “How many Brazilians worship at St. Andrew’s?” The answer is: none yet. Best practices say such efforts should be Brazilian-initiated, anyway. Our goal was not evangelism per se. It was making St. Andrew’s count for Christ again in our local setting.

But for us, growth has been the natural consequence of well-discerned and executed local mission. We baptized 17 children in 2012. Our classrooms are all open now. Bright yellow paint covers the walls. A mural depicting Cristo Redentor, the statue on the mountain above Rio de Janeiro, graces the hallway. And this month, we’re ordering six more chairs for the church school. We didn’t have enough.

The Rev. Deacon Lori Mills-Curran coaches parish teams involved in the Leadership Development Initiative, a hands-on training program in the Diocese of Massachusetts designed to develop spiritual leaders empowered for social action. A Christian educator for 30 years, she coordinates Episcopal efforts for Brazilian outreach in the Metro west area of Massachusetts. She is the incoming Executive Director of the Association for Episcopal Deacons, beginning June 1, 2013.

The Rev. Julie Carson has served as rector of St. Andrew's, Framingham since 2007 and led the 2010 LDI team. The Rev. Sam Dessordi Leite (ECF Fellow 2011 and priest-in-charge of St. James/Santiago, Oakland, Calif. was "the Brazilian priest from California" who assisted St. Andrew's in their work.


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