Beyond the Pews
Church By The Pond
In June 2011, Church By The Pond began its ministry to the people of Hartford, Connecticut, in Bushnell Park. An outgrowth of Christ Cathedral’s Church Street Eats, a cooperative program that provides food and clothing to those in need, this congregation has gathered in the park to pray through heat, rain, snow and even a world-wide pandemic. Many in our congregation are uncomfortable with formal church settings. Some need a smaller community gathered in prayer. Quite a few of our lay leaders and steadiest congregants would be overwhelmed in a traditional church setting.
At Church By The Pond they experience the freedom to pray, to participate, to join others and hear God’s word on their own terms. Over the years we have been blessed to be led by nearly 40 pastors, priests and bishops from churches nearby and from as far away as Aberdeen and Orkney, Scotland! Our congregants appreciate the respect and loving kindness they receive from both our infrequent and frequent clergy. One day a priest may welcome the congregation with “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” while another shares the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. The gospel reflections relate to those struggling in Hartford in this time.
Our congregants come from a wide array of situations. Some are unhoused, some have experienced homelessness, some have struggled with interpersonal relationships, some with domestic abuse and with substance abuse. We have many who spend too much time alone and cherish being part of a church community. Some of us are simply happy to participate in an extra day of prayer in a lovely park setting.
Throughout the years, we have heard personal stories of growth, forgiveness and struggle. We have been blessed many times with the good news that one of our unhoused congregants has found housing. It is a gift to know that they will not spend another night in danger and in the cold or heat. We invite them to return to us, as they are our congregation wherever they reside. Most often, if their housing is a bus ride away, they do return. We have also celebrated the unemployed who have found work. We have welcomed those released from prison. We have helped some connect with agencies that will better serve their needs. Once people are housed, we connect them with food pantries in their town or city.
Our congregants join together in good times and bad. We have celebrated their milestones in sobriety, and we have attended memorial services and shared prayers for those we have lost. Several stay in the local loop and offer information about special dinners, free bicycle events, clothing giveaways, and other events that serve our community.
When a young woman, struggling early in her pregnancy and harassed by her abusive ex-husband joined us, we prayed with her and helped her make the decision to leave Connecticut. She returned home, where she was welcomed by her mother. Although we miss her, we continue to pray for her and her daughter. On another occasion, a congregant had an urgent request for a train to take him to an approved placement in a rehab facility. The cathedral’s dean, Miguelina Howell, provided the train ticket, and he is on the road toward healthy living.
And yet, in the midst of such hardships, we have heard from those who are struggling to pray – not for themselves, but for victims of hurricanes, of gun violence, of war. We have given thanks for improved health, for jobs, for new homes, for friends and families, for reconciliation with loved ones, and we have prayed for the families of those we have lost.
I began praying steadily and serving as a lay leader at Church By The Pond in 2014. Drawn in by a sense of peace in the midst of chaos in the busy park, by the fellowship amongst the congregants and the ministry of priests from throughout the state, I quickly saw that this community was special. I have always felt blessed to serve in this ministry.
That blessing was multiplied as COVID altered our way of life and our way of sharing prayer. With serious precautions we were able to safely gather with God’s people in beautiful Bushnell Park. As time went on, we transitioned from a brief prayer before lunch to a lengthier service of prayer without Holy Communion. Throughout the pandemic we prayed for our frontline workers, particularly in the health care fields.
As 2021 began, we celebrated the improvements in our way of life and shared our vaccine status. We were able to connect or schedule members of our group to vaccine clinics in Hartford and frequently celebrated those who had received the vaccine. Efforts throughout our state have helped lead to our full celebration of Holy Eucharist at this point in time. At a time when most church doors remained closed, Church By The Pond’s lack of doors has proved to be a true blessing.
Nancy Jacobs is a life-long Episcopalian and member of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, where she was baptized and participated in Sunday school and youth groups. After completing college, she taught junior high school and high school social studies in New Hampshire for 12 years, returning to Connecticut to work alongside her parents in a family-owned retail and contracting paint business. When the business closed in 2007, she retired and has since served as a volunteer at Christ Church Cathedral, Hands On Hartford, The Bushnell Center for Performing Arts, Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford and Trinity Academy, Hartford. During the pandemic she has also supported nonpartisan voting rights and various political candidates. She enjoys reading, tennis and the theater, as well as traveling with friends, which she hopes to resume as soon as possible.
- Neighbor to Neighbor, by Margaret Tjimos Goldberg, Bobbi Eggers and Sue Bodson, Vestry Papers, March 2020
- What could being church look like, post COVID-19?, by Chantal McKinney, Vestry Papers, March 2020
- Jesus Was Right There, in the Bounce House, by Bob Leopold, ECF Vital Practices blog, October 3, 2013
- Surfing and Spirituality, by Scott Claassen, Vestry Papers, March 2020