Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

May the Lord Deal Kindly with You: Our First Meeting

Max Sklar

On Sunday we held our first re-imagining church meeting at Trinity on the Green, New Haven.  As we sat down in the upper room behind the beautiful stained glass windows above the front doors of the church, we noticed that hanging on the wall was a portrait of Rev. Harry Croswell, illustrious rector of Trinity from the first half of the nineteenth century. Remembering our storytelling workshop with Sharon Fenema, we realized that one of the church’s ghosts would be looking down on our meeting.  It became apparent in this meeting how the ghosts of Trinity’s past are still haunting us today, and that re-imagining church for us will involve coming to terms with that history.

So, with stories and history in mind we practiced Lectio Divina with the first chapter of the Book of Ruth. Our reflections were too rich and varied to fully summarize here, but certain strands stood out. We noticed how the Book of Ruth is a story of border crossings, risk taking, and the unlikely mingling of peoples. We reflected on how Trinity, being in the center of the city and right in front of a bus stop, is a place of immense power to bring people together. Within Trinity itself many borders are crossed constantly; people from widely different backgrounds sit together at Trinity’s services and events who would never share the same spaces in other contexts. Any re-imagining we do will have to build on this strength that is already very much present in this community.

Reflection on border crossing also got us thinking about division. It stood out to us that Ruth is a Moabite, and that the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel. In the Book of Exodus, they refused hospitality to the fugitive Hebrews, and that initial act of separation and denial spiraled into continual enmity, and mutual recriminations; a cycle that in some ways is broken in the Book of Ruth by the courage of both Naomi and Ruth. Reflecting on this, our group members got to thinking about their own experiences. We shared stories about growing up in segregated North Carolina in the 60’s, and stories of racial divisions in West Haven.

These personal stories all flowed into reflections on Trinity confronting its own ghosts. We observed that despite the great potential and the good work we have done at Trinity to cross borders of class, race, and ethnicity, we are still perceived very much as a white and privileged church, and as Ed pointedly remarked, “if they are perceiving us that way, there must be some truth to it.” Phylis noted that one first-time visitor just last week told her, “isn’t this the church black people weren’t allowed at.” The visitor was referring to an incident from the 1830’s-1840, when the African American members decided to leave and found their own church, St. Luke’s, when the vestry relegated them to pews in the back. Despite the work that has been done already to confront this history, the group agreed that there is more work to be done. 

After Lectio Divina, Phylis shared her testimony. We are going to have one person share their testimony every time we meet. Phylis shared how she was born into a Christian family in Pakistan. She then shared her experience growing up in mostly evangelical churches since she moved to the US as a child. She shared how she found the Episcopal church around the time she was leaving the Evangelical churches, particularly a church she attended in New York that quite dramatically “re-imagined” the liturgy, and this has given Phylis hope for the re-imagining church project. In many ways the trajectory of Phylis’ faith journey has been less of a distancing from church, but a re-imagining of what the church can be. When she came to New Haven she attended Trinity, committed to the ideal of the church as a place that is transparent, compassionate, and welcoming to all.

Whatever we discern in future meetings, we are all agreed, as Patricia pointed out, that Trinity has great potential to be a place that sincerely lives into Naomi’s blessing, “May the Lord deal kindly with you”, offering hospitality to all people in diverse ways, and changing lives for the better. 

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Our first meeting in the “upper room.”

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The ghost is on the left. The man depicted on the right is the retired but very much alive rector of Trinity, Andy Fiddler. He served for 37 years prior the current rector Luk De Volder.