August 17, 2015

Holy Trinity, Holy Gifts

First of a three part series... 

In one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Bend, Indiana, the Feast of the Virgin Mary was celebrated this month with ecumenical neighborhood joy radiating from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Since 1948, Holy Trinity worship has valued catholic traditions, but the church’s relationship with its neighbors is an even bigger part of its ministry story. The story is so compelling that I’d like to tell it in a three-part series on Vital Posts.

Most mainstream churches in Holy Trinity’s neighborhood moved out to the newer parts of town decades ago. As is often the case, the parish struggled to survive, and was the subject of a “What are we going to do about Holy Trinity when the rector retires?” discussion at the diocesan level.   

Meanwhile, back in the summer of 2011, violence in the deteriorated neighborhood escalated at an alarming rate. Parishioner Susan Adamek tells the story best…

“On a regular basis, [neighbors] witnessed gun fire, homicide, and serious injury almost in their front yards. …neighbors felt abandoned by the city and believed they had no power to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. 
“So here we are! Good Christians sitting in the middle of mayhem! Several times, gun fire and robberies to persons, were taking place as we were having Sunday services and on one Saturday as a bride was walking down the aisle to meet her groom! What to do? We could continue to deny everything and go right on as if nothing is happening, or we can take up the call and stand up in protest! Our neighbors were asking us for help! Then we definitely received a collect call from God! Now what? Scary!! You must realize that we are a very aging church with small numbers and few youthful energies, to answer this call.
“Letters and emails were written to city officials in all departments, all media was notified, fliers were personally handed out to neighbors and big hand printed signs went up in the church yard, notifying everyone that our church was to be the scene of a Neighborhood Community Meeting.. My personal fear was that there would be lots of city officials attending and a handful of neighbors. How embarrassing, and I lost lots of sleep…oh ye woman of little faith!
“Well, they started arriving in droves, forty-five minutes before the appointed 6:30 PM meeting time. …The pews soon filled, and some folks had to stand! There was definitely a sense of urgency and frustration in the air. Several people arrived announcing themselves with great anger and were ready to pick a fight with the city, many came with little hope of anything being accomplished, some were just curious and wanted to be on the evening news, and then there were those who were ready to volunteer for any task.”

From this awesome beginning, Holy Trinity has remained a beacon of light and relationship-building in the neighborhood. Working with neighbors, the church has organized community dinners, invited police officers and neighbors to meet and talk over coffee, and has prayed for its neighbors.

Terri Bays, priest-in-charge today, explains that the people of Holy Trinity know their ministry strengths (“We love bells and smells and feeding the poor”). They intentionally decided to focus those strengths within the five block radius surrounding the church.

"Our ministry is to those who perhaps haven’t felt ‘holy enough’ to go to church. They may not feel welcome in other churches, but here we ask, ‘How can we be with you and help you hear God speaking to you?’” explains Mother Terri.

 Over and over, God has provided resources and connections to bless Holy Trinity’s ministry. Mother Terri says that while finances are always tight, “We are not a dying parish. We don’t have to wait for someone to come rescue us. Our job is to find our own ministry gifts and use them."

When the people of Holy Trinity and the neighborhood process around the church on the Feast of the Virgin Mary, they sing a blues anthem written especially for the service. They pause after each verse, asking Mary to join them in praying for people in the neighborhood who are suffering as Mary did… for a child who is missing, for a son who is wandering without a job and who some think is crazy, for a son they saw die, and for a resurrection and joyful reunion with that son. 

Holy Trinity reflects the essence of congregational strategic thinking: recognizing your gifts for ministry, then keeping eyes, ears and hearts open to discover the needs around you that God is calling you to address.

Read part 2...

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