Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Faith & Works Bring New Life

In 2013, Louisville officials delivered an ultimatum to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ: repair your spectacular, though dilapidated, turn-of-the-century German Evangelical church building -- or we will close it down.

Pastor Jamesetta Ferguson, Senior Pastor of St. Peter’s, and her leadership team had spent years patching up the building for a growing 165-member congregation in the local Russell community. Beecher Terrace, a 760-unit public housing development built in 1941, is directly across the street from St Peter’s.  Beecher gained national recognition in 2014 when PBS’ Frontline reported that one of every six residents spends time in prison each year.

St. Peter’s is an anchor in a neighborhood plagued with poverty and violence. The church serves over 1,000 local residents through 12-step meetings, food and clothes distribution, child abuse prevention education, volunteerism, Summer Enrichment Programs and employment, on-site childcare, nutritional and exercise programs. Recently, the church founded Molo Village, a Community Development Corporation which envisions the church as a shelter, a place of transformation, a place where families care for each other as they are nurtured and taught through education, community service and healthy living.

In 2013, with rehabilitation no longer a choice, Pastor Ferguson turned to the Church Building & Loan Fund’s Partners In Vision (PIV) program. PIV was created to assist congregations make the most of their undeveloped resources – in many cases, land or property – and help them bring to life projects that are sustainable, innovative and mission-driven.  Help also came from master architect Hal Kovert, founding partner at Kovert Hawkins Architects, which has served southern Indiana and northern Kentucky since 1985.

When Hal, a member of St. Marks UCC in New Albany, learned of the challenges facing St. Peter’s, he provided pro-bono architecture services throughout the project. “St. Peters serves a different membership than the one I grew up in. I have empathy for people who want to make improvements and accomplish more, but for some reason are getting stuck.” Hal’s work, financing from the Church Building and Loan Fund, and PIV consultant services enabled St. Peter’s to move to a leased, temporary space while it works with PIV to plan for bold, transformative partnership and ministry opportunities on the original church site.

St. Peter’s timing couldn’t be better. The city of Louisville recently decided to turn Beecher Terrace into a mixed-income community funded in part through the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. The city has asked St. Peter’s to not only rebuild its church building, but help create a new way of life in Russell. St. Peter’s and Molo Village are working with Partners In Vision consultants, AIM Development Group, to develop part of its vacant land into a new mixed-use building that will serve local residents.

Hal’s contribution has given a new lease on life to St. Peter’s and the neighborhood it serves.  His generosity exemplifies stewardship and is an example of how UCC volunteers can extend their giving beyond tithing and impact the broader network of churches and communities.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What is "Church"?

This Easter, I looked up “church” on Google and found over 239 million results.  Because computers and smartphones are more sophisticated now than ever, the results from a Google search are both location- and device-specific.  From my home office desktop, the first page of my search resulted in a list of nearby churches (or at least those churches that know how to optimize their websites. Nine pages in, my church was nowhere to be found).  On my phone, our church was the third “hit” on the list of results.  It really bothered me to see the big Baptist church in the neighborhood at the top of the list (even though that Baptist pastor is a friend of mine).   Forty six feet from where I’m standing, why isn’t our church at the top?

What was more interesting about my search for “church” was that regardless of the device, every search yielded the following result somewhere in the top ten:  “a church building, often simply called a church, is a building used for religious activities, particularly worship…”  Those words were accompanied by a picture of an all-white, New England-style chapel.

You would think that result would make me happy, given the work that I do. As much as I love church buildings however, my little unscientific research project underscored how far we have strayed from what Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 “…upon this rock I will build my ekklÄ“sia.”  Certainly, Jesus was not talking about a building. And I doubt that he had in mind the twisted meanings of “church” today.

People have been abused by “church”, welcomed by “church”, oppressed by “church”, affirmed by “church”, frustrated by “church”, embraced, rejected, loved, neglected, saved or maligned by “church”.   The “church” at once blesses marriage between any two people, and also says that there can only be marriage between man and woman. The church condones violence, condemns violence, commits violence and advocates for peace. No wonder so many people claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’, or ‘Christians who don’t believe in organized religion’. Why would anyone want to associate with folks who can’t figure out who the hell they are?

In a recent board/staff retreat of the Church Building and Loan Fund, we embraced the reality that spaces and places that facilitate ministry today must be created from  a renewed understanding of “church” that is not building-centered.  In the spirit of sankofa, the church must go back so that we may go forward.  No, not back to ‘old-time religion’ and antiquated ways, but back to the vision of the beloved community that Jesus called forth in his first century conversation with Peter.  “Church” is NOT a building.  “Church” is God’s people, sharing the Good News of Jesus with all of humanity, until all creation is overcome with God’s love.  That is the “church” that the spiritually hungry are searching for. Worship can no longer be what we do.  Worship must be who we are.  Let the church say, “Amen”.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday? Really? Really.

Today Christians everywhere celebrate Good Friday. The irony in that thought is one that has always intrigued me.

Think about these words: “celebrate Good Friday”.   In some church traditions we do not have funerals.  We “celebrate a home-going”.   Whenever I preside at a “home-going” I find myself explaining this for non-church goers.  “I know most of us are sad today, but we are not here to mourn a death, but to celebrate the life of our dearly departed friend and loved one. We are here to celebrate a home-going!  Somebody say “Amen”!”

Of course, there is a little amateur psychology in changing the tone of a funeral service.   But the idea comes straight from the theology of Good Friday.  We mark the day of the horrific assassination of the Son of God by calling it “Good”.  We know his death and suffering were the outcomes of fear and injustice.  But we also know that Jesus came here to die.  And in his ugly death, all of Creation obtains access to eternal life.  Oh yes that is good.

Whenever I talk about the Mainline Christian tradition, I say that we are in the midst of a “Good Friday” season.  It looks like death and decline. But in truth, God is doing a new thing in our midst; God is not through with us yet.  It is Good Friday!  Hallelujah!

Questions for Reflection
·       How might church leaders think, plan and lead differently if we changed the language of decline to a conversation of resurrection?
·       How is God calling all settings of the church to live into a Good Friday season?

·       How do we imagine and envision the future of the church on the other side?