Agile Grace?

This year, members and groups at Grace, from the Vestry on down, have been reading The Agile Church by Dwight Zscheile. I reached for it when I was looking for something that would change the conversation at Grace. We’ve done a lot of good work during my nine-years’ tenure here. We’ve welcomed lots of new members, seen significant growth in our Christian Formation program for children and youth, undertaken the first major renovation and capital campaign in 30 years. We have a task force, “Creating More Just Community” that is focused on issues of racism and inequity and is doing significant advocacy work around criminal justice reform through MOSES and has also formed partnerships with the Madison Jail Ministry.

We could do and must do more. My goals in this process are two-fold: 1) to leverage our location and building to connect with our neighborhood, and especially our neighbors at the State Capitol; and 2) to move beyond our walls and our property and build relationships with our neighbors in places and contexts other than our building. But to do that, we need to think beyond and outside our walls.

The former goal is rather obvious but nebulous and at the same time a potential mine field given the current dynamics in our state and nation concerning the relationship of Christianity and the political sphere. Our Creating More Just Community group is working on it, having reached out to legislators and legislative staff, and through our connections with other groups, we’ve hosted a forum for governors’ candidates, numerous gatherings on criminal justice reform, and are currently hosting the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign.

The second goal presents its own set of challenges. While our building and our lovely courtyard garden are an enormous asset. We have, quite literally, the best location in the city, even if we don’t have adequate parking. We are beautiful, visible, and those who enter our spaces, whether it’s the nave or our gardens, experience beauty and transcendence, and a palpable sense of the divine.

We’ve been here for 175 years. Our nave was completed in 1858. It’s the oldest building on Capitol Square; the oldest church in continuous use in Madison. Its stone walls speak of stability, permanence, immobility. What might agility look like in our context?

Today, after our 10:00 service, we had the first of what will likely be a number of conversations about our future, about adapting and innovating our ministry and mission for the next decades. Almost 50 people participated. There were people who have been members of Grace for decades. Others who participated have been attending for only a few months; one person, a neighbor, has attended a few times over the years, but had the courage to join our conversation and to participate.

We heard stories; stories of how people came to Grace; the familiar, and powerful story of how the Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984, on a one-year trial basis (It’s been here ever since). We heard the story of the food pantry, and of the people, the visionaries who created it and those other visionaries who advocated for the shelter.

We talked about our neighbors–the many 20 and 30 somethings who live in our neighborhood and are looking for community and connection, and looking to help those in need. We talked about the demographic and cultural changes facing Christianity in the US, and Grace Church.

Vilas Guild Hall, constructed in 1894 as a memorial to Cornelia Vilas, was filled with the sound of animated conversation for almost an hour. We didn’t make it through all of the questions I had laid out to guide our conversations but conscious of the time, I began to bring the meeting to a close.

It was at that minute, as I began talking about next steps, about having a welcoming process in place before the fall, that someone stopped me and said, “Let’s get started right now. If you’re interested in forming a welcoming committee, come over to this table after the meeting’s over and we’ll start making plans.”

We have a great deal of work to do. Welcoming visitors is only one of many tasks ahead. We need to get out in the neighborhood, talk with the people who live, work, and play here, to listen to their needs, their passions, and dreams and find a way of connecting their stories with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can do that successfully, we will be well on our way to becoming more faithful followers of Jesus and showing others the transforming power of Jesus’ love in their lives and in the world.

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Hospitals and the homeless

One of my great frustrations over the years has been the practice of Madison hospitals to discharge patients to homeless shelters. It’s something we’ve had to deal from time to time, especially when those discharges take place outside of the shelter’s hours of operation. Patients are given cab fare and it becomes the cabby’s responsibility to help them to the doors of the shelter. When, as is so often the case, the shelter isn’t open, Grace staff and volunteers are left with the responsibility of helping the discharged patient until the shelter opens. Sometimes, patients are brought in wheelchairs; occasionally they might have oxygen tanks or catheters. More than once, I have called the hospital in question and expressed my frustration verbally. It’s not just that we aren’t in a position to deal with the situation; it’s that the hospital staff can’t be bothered to find out or know what the shelter hours are before discharging someone to the street; and also don’t seem to care that the patient may not be physically able to negotiate homelessness.

Fortunately, in recent years, I haven’t encountered many such incidents but I attribute that more to chance than to the reduction of the practice. It may also be that with the opening last fall of The Beacon, Madison’s new day resource center, the hospitals have sent discharged patients there rather than to the men’s drop-in shelter at Grace.

Whatever the case, in recent weeks, I have spoken with several men and cab drivers, who arrived at Grace outside of shelter hours. On at least one occasion, I invited a man in to sit in our reception area to wait until the shelter opened. On another occasion, on a warm, sunny day, I simply told him when the shelter would open and where else he might go to wait (the Beacon, the Central Library). I was on my way to an appointment; it was after our offices had closed, and there was nothing more I could do.

A recent piece on Huffington Post explores the phenomenon; hospitals’ usual  denials that they discharge patients to the streets, and the growth of recuperative care facilities for homeless people. Such facilities have proven to be cheaper and more effective than the alternatives:

A survey among 98 homeless people who had been hospitalized in New Haven found that 67 percent stayed in a homeless shelter the first night after being discharged from the hospital, while 11 percent slept on the street.

Both crowded, chaotic shelters and the street are obviously inappropriate places for medical recovery, which can have serious consequences for the patient, including a return to the hospital. Being homeless can increase the odds of re-hospitalization within 30 days almost four-fold.

Madison homeless advocates and agencies have been working for a number of years to develop respite care facilities here. Recently, it was announced that Healing House, a proposed facility for homeless families and created by Madison Area Urban Ministries, received a $500000 grant from CUNA/Mutual to help with the  renovation and operation of its facility. Grace Church provided significant financial support to the early efforts to create such a facility. Healing House will serve families experiencing homelessness with a family member who is receiving medical treatment or recovering after hospitalization. It will fill an important gap in homeless services, but the population served by Grace’s Drop-In Shelter will continue to lack a similar facility. Here’s hoping that such a facility will soon be operational for them as well.

Being a community of resurrection in an age of fear: Reflections on an Active Shooter Training at Grace Episcopal Church, the Second Sunday after Easter, 2018.

On Sunday afternoon, we had an Active Shooter Training led by members of the Madison Police Department. It took several months to coordinate our calendars, so it was sheer coincidence that it occurred on the Sunday when the gospel reading began, “…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (John 20:19) but the contrast between the content of the afternoon’s presentation and the gospel text couldn’t have been more extreme.

To be honest, I was quite uncomfortable with the whole idea. When I heard other clergy discussing such trainings last fall in the aftermath of the Texas mass shooting, I was surprised, shocked, and saddened. I wondered why anyone would do such a thing. Not only do weapons not belong in houses of worship, but as people of peace and love, to discuss what might happen and how to respond to a mass shooting seemed inappropriate, even unfaithful to God and to the witness we are called to be in the world.

But as I continued mulling it over, and as the mass shootings continued to occur, it seemed more and more important that we think the unthinkable. Given our prominent location opposite the State Capitol, the possibility that we might be a random target of such an event is hardly unthinkable.

With a food pantry and men’s homeless shelter on site, in the center of Madison’s downtown, Grace staff and volunteers deal regularly with difficult situations during the week and on Sundays.  It’s easy to imagine someone experiencing substance abuse or mental illness might suddenly pull out a weapon in a confrontation. And as mass shootings have become more commonplace, it seemed to me an unfortunate necessity in contemporary life, especially for churches, the sort of training we need to provide for staff and volunteers.

My uneasy feeling going into the training was deepened when the instructor started out by talking about the importance of visualizing such events in daily life. He suggested that when we enter a restaurant, we should locate emergency exits and escape routes. It struck me then that doing so would require that I reorient my perspective on the world, that I look at my environment as fraught with peril at every turn. I had a visceral, overly negative reaction to that suggestion. To walk through the world with my senses focused on danger seems not only an overreaction to the possibility of catastrophe but would also rewire my brain to avoid risk or new experiences.

As the afternoon progressed, I continued to struggle with the training and with my response to the content that was being presented. There were some useful tips, or, should I say, some helpful suggestions on how to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter. Addressing our likely responses in such situations (duck and cover, run away, or run toward gun shots) and helping us strategize better, more effective responses was really quite helpful. The afternoon also included some first aid tips and self-defense.

I came away from the afternoon feeling like we had made the right decision in offering the training. To have even a few staff members and volunteers who might have learned some things that could help in emergency situations is an important step.. But at the same time, I was both angry and disheartened that such training is increasingly a necessity in our culture. We require volunteers and staff to participate in sexual abuse and sexual harassment training, and if our political culture doesn’t change, it’s likely that active shooter trainings will become commonplace for communities of faith.

But at what cost? Will the message of fear and preparedness inoculate us against the gospel of love and peace? Bible verses ran through my head throughout the afternoon: “Perfect love casts out fear;” “Be wise as serpent and gentle as doves;” “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” What is the appropriate stance for followers of Jesus in our climate of fear and our violent culture?

 

In a way, to prepare for the unthinkable, as our instructor called it, is just further down the continuum from our usual preparedness. We balance our openness to the community with a need to provide safe space and security for our members and visitors. Our doors may be open on Sundays to all, but we have policies and procedures in place to address difficult situations and challenging behaviors. I’ve had to call the police more than once to deal with a disruptive situation. At the same time, we try to welcome anyone who does walk through our doors, offering them respite, whatever food we might have available, a friendly smile or conversation.

To be prepared, but not fearful, aware but not anxious, welcoming, open, and watchful. Perhaps this is the appropriate perspective to maintain when we don’t know whether the next active shooter event will occur inside, or outside of our doors.

 

Protests, processions, Palm Sunday

One of those interesting confluences this week as the March for Our Lives took place in Madison today, a day after Madison Episcopalians walked the Stations of the Cross in Madison, a day before Palm Sunday and our re-enactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Three consecutive days, and three very different scenes on the steps of Grace Church.

In my nine years at Grace, I have witnessed and participated in many marches and rallies. There were the Act 10 protests in 2011; the demonstrations after Tony Robinson’s death in 2015, the Women’s March in 2017. There were many others. Some passed unnoticed. Often, we open our doors and welcome protestors inside, even spontaneously, as we did on the Day without Latinos in 2016. Equally often, the protests pass barely unnoticed. It’s a rare day when the state legislature is in session when there aren’t a few people walking around the Capitol waving signs. Some days, the Solidarity Singers are loud; other times, they can barely be heard.

Walking the Stations of the Cross in this setting is always jarring to me. I encounter people whose faces I know. We pass by the food trucks where I often buy my lunch. But our route is also disorienting. There are blocks that we walk down that I rarely walk in my regular routine, and I have the opportunity to look around and contemplate the square from a different perspective than the one I have as I typically make my rounds.

Yesterday, we paused for one of the stations on N. Carroll St, just in front of Grace Church.  Across the street, on the Capitol sidewalk, the Solidarity Singers were in full voice. A few steps away from them, three police officers were talking with a homeless man. As we contemplated Jesus’ suffering and death, one of those little moments that occur regularly in downtown Madison was taking place. A man, likely intoxicated or high, possibly mentally ill, was dealing with police officers. As I watched, they called for additional assistance. EMT’s? I don’t know. We had to move on to the next station.

I wondered how many other incidents like that were taking place even as we were connecting the events of Jesus’ suffering and death with the violence, oppression, and inequality in our community and nation.

There were a handful of us yesterday–fifteen or so, who spent the hour tracing a path from Grace to the Dane County Jail, the City-County Building, and around Capitol Square. As we walked, bearing witness to injustice and oppression, remembering Jesus’ suffering and death, we passed by suffering that was occurring on the sidewalks beside us and the suffering  and oppression behind the walls of the jail, the courthouse. We walked past banks and law offices, and the museums that tell the official, sanitized version of Wisconsin history: The institutions that oppress, and in which we are enmeshed and implicated, the forces that oppress and marginalize vulnerable populations. All of these surround us and shape us. They are the air we breathe.

Today, there were thousands who marched from the Library Mall to the State Capitol to rally for gun control. As we do at Grace, we opened our doors on this cold day to offer  warmth and respite from the cold, rest for the weary. Before the march arrived at the Capitol, police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs made a round of the square and there was  a heavy visible presence of law enforcement.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will process through our courtyard to the very doors that were held open today. We will reenact Jesus’ protest march in the streets of Jerusalem, a march that proclaimed the coming of God’s reign, the overturning of the system of domination that crushed the poor, the outsider, the widow and orphan, the coming of a new way of being, a new world of justice and peace. I’m guessing that in terms of numbers, it looked more like the little group of us who walked the Stations of the Cross than the thousands that marched today. A small group of those men and women who had come with Jesus from Galilee, and perhaps a few locals who had heard about him.

On Good Friday, the whole weight of Rome’s imperial power fell on Jesus and his little band of followers. Many of us feel like an even more powerful weight of hatred and oppression looms over us and even now is crushing the most vulnerable in our society–people of color, LGBTQ persons, undocumented immigrants; the power of cynicism and the super-wealthy that have rigged the system in their favor.

But at the same time, the voices and energy of children have been raised to challenge one of the most powerful special interests in our land, and have mobilized millions across our country to cry out for justice and change.

Christians this Holy Week remember and re-enact the events of the last days of Jesus’ life; we remember the oppression and injustice that he fought with love. As Americans, we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his martyrdom for the cause of equality, justice, and freedom, and the hatred that opposed him and brought an end to his life. The forces arrayed against change are more powerful now than ever before.

Watching events unfold this week against a backdrop of oppression, injustice, and violence, fearful for those who speak out and remember the deaths of Jesus and MLK, despairing for the future of our nation and world, my faith is rekindled by the witness of school children who, having experienced the worst of humanity, are showing us the possibility of a new way, a new America.

We witness in many ways to the power of love and justice. In protests, in processions, as we walk the way of the cross. We witness in our words and in our actions, in worship and prayer. And we bear witness and offer support to the voices of those who cry out for justice and change. Through it all, my faith in God who is justice, peace, and love, sustains and strengthens me.

Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly light: A sermon for Christmas Day, 2017

One morning in the first week of December, I was walking back to my office after having coffee with a colleague on State St. It was around 10 am and a bright sunny day. As I came toward the church, I looked up and saw something remarkable, perhaps miraculous. The sun was at the perfect angle in the sky so that it shone directly through the tower windows. I had never seen this before. It filled the tower with light that shone even more brightly than the sun.

But that wasn’t the remarkable thing. On the tower walls, and I have no idea how this occurred, there was reflected light from the sun; it was patchy but it went up the tower walls. I had no idea where the light was coming from but it was a sight that was so ethereal, so bright, so beautiful, that it took my breath away.

 

I’ve been around this place for over eight years. I thought I was familiar with all of its nooks and crannies (well, to be sure, I’ve never climbed up the tower to see the bells). I thought I had seen it from every angle, at every time of day or night. As beautiful as Grace Church is, it’s become so very familiar to me that I don’t expect to see something new, I don’t expect to encounter and experience beauty in a new way. Continue reading

Entering into God’s Joy: Annual Meeting 2017

 

 

Rector’s Report, Grace Episcopal Church Annual Meeting, November 19, 2017

The marvelous slide show we just saw, created by our own Peggy Frain, has shown images of all the things that we’ve done over the last year, our outreach projects large and small, our fellowship and worship, our open houses and opportunities to connect with the community. I would love to know how many people have come through our doors over the last year, were served by the Food Pantry, slept in the men’s shelter, enjoyed the beauty of our courtyard garden, attended a wedding, a service.

 

We are a relatively small congregation with amazing resources—a prime location on Madison’s Capitol Square, a building that is on the National Register of Historic Places, and with our recent renovations, more accessible and inviting than ever. We have financial resources that many congregations much larger than ours do not have. And we have our members, a group of incredibly talented and committed people who do everything from pick up trash to advocate the legislature for criminal justice reform.

 

It is appropriate, in this season of Thanksgiving, to take a moment and give thanks for those resources that make all of this possible, the people, the building and gardens, the financial gifts and stewardship of so many over the more than 175 years of our existence. We have much to celebrate. We should be proud, not only of what we have done this year, but proud of our impact on the wider community. For ultimately, that impact is also part of who we are, part of our mission—to share the love of Jesus Christ.

The video/slide show that we presented helps us to remember everything that we’ve accomplished over the last year. Wonderful events like the Annual Christmas Pageant, or our welcoming of people from throughout the city and much further at Open Doors Madison, the Halloween Open House or during the Women’s March on Washington. There’s the scarf tree project, the Little Free Library, our work with the Madison Jail Ministry, the Beacon. There’s our Food Pantry and Porchlight’s Drop-In Men’s Shelter.

We have an amazing staff who are growing into their roles and using their creativity, skills, and talent to expand those roles, help to build a stronger congregation and more effective outreach into the community. I’d especially like to thank our Parish Administrator, Christina, who is the sparkplug and catalyst for everything we do here, supporting all of our work, helping us to accomplish big ideas, and remove roadblocks that arise. Our Food Pantry Coordinator, Vikki Enright, in less than a year has put her own stamp on the pantry, especially by building connections in the neighborhood and wider community, and connecting with a donor network that includes downtown businesses. Peggy Frain, whose creativity is an inspiration—just think of that slide show we just saw, and Pat Werk, who is constantly coming up with new ideas, and her boundless energy and enthusiasm turns those ideas into reality. Many of them, if not most, are as much about connecting with the community as they have to do with her official position description as Christian Formation Director. And I would also especially like to thank Deacon Carol Smith, who in many ways is the heart and soul of Grace Church, quietly and compassionately offering pastoral care to those who need it, and jumping to help other staff and programs whenever asked.

All of this is outreach. Over the last year and a half, the Outreach Committee has been gathering information from our congregation, from the leaders of our various outreach programs, and from other stakeholders in the community about the effectiveness of our current programs and what new opportunities and unmet needs exist in our neighborhood. You will hear a bit more from them in a few minutes, but I anticipate that one of our main areas of focus in the coming year will have to do with discerning the next steps in this process.

The Toward a More Just Community task force has been inspirational in the ideas and excitement it has generated, the relationships its members have created with members of other communities of faith, across the racial divide, and especially the Madison Jail Ministry. Their current work as they seek ways to build relationships with legislators and staff at the State Capitol to build relationships across the deep divides in our state, racial, urban-rural, and political could ultimately be transformative, not just in our city and state, but nationally.

There are other equally transformative efforts underway at Grace. New interior signage will provide the final touches on our renovation and new exterior signage will not only offer improved way finding but will increase our street visibility. And something that we’ve let languish too long will be restored—Our bells, we have 23 of them have needed maintenance for many years. Many we can’t play at all because the electrical system that operates the bell-ringers is out of date and out of repair. Thanks to new member Peter Schultz-Burkel and a few others, we are working with a number of vendors as we seek to bring them back into working condition. New technology would allow us to program them to ring at the beginning and end of services and for special events like weddings and funerals. Bells not only announce our presence in the neighborhood but serve as a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our lives and city. I see their silence and neglect over the last years as a symbol of our shyness, our unwillingness to proclaim boldly who we are and who Jesus Christ is.

Greg Rogers, who with his wife Jan, have led the effort to maintain and improve our gardens shared with me something that happened this week. He was stopped by someone who had come to Grace for an AA meeting. He thanked Greg for the beautiful gardens which meant so much to him. He went on to thank Greg for all that we do, saying, “When I needed food, I came to your pantry; when I needed somewhere to sleep, I used the shelter. Now, I come to AA meetings here. I might not be alive if it weren’t for you.”

We have done a great job of opening our building to the community, of using it to help people in need and to offer a space of beauty and spiritual respite in a busy city. In the coming months and years, we will continue to ask the questions that drove our renovation project: How can we make our buildings more accessible and inviting to the community? How can we use this asset to connect with our community? What new possibilities for connecting are coming to light? In so many ways, the things we’ve done this year—from the scarf trees to Open Doors, the Halloween Open House, the Little Free Library, even our lighting display, are all intended to connect with our downtown neighborhood, to help our neighbors see us in new light and new ways, to invite them to think of and experience Grace as a place of beauty and spiritual respite.

But now, I think we have to begin to explore another set of questions. I have emphasized the changing nature of Religion in America for almost as many years as I’ve been your Rector. The decline in the Episcopal Church, the decline in American Christianity has been precipitous over the last decade or so. A study that was released just this past week confirms these trends. The largest grouping in American religion is not Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, or mainline Protestant. The largest grouping is now the religiously-unaffiliated, those who claim no membership or adherence to any religious tradition. That’s remarkable in itself but it for me it raises other questions.

In my sermon this morning, I talked about taking risks, about a God who is by nature creative but who has created us to participate in that creativity by giving us space to imagine, explore, create for ourselves and for God. Grace Church is blessed with one of the best locations in the city; with a beautiful and historic building, lovely grounds, and skilled and committed congregation. But none of that will ensure our survival, let alone a faithful witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

We cannot expect that people will come to church simply because we open our doors. We cannot expect that we will maintain stable membership; that our members will be able to fund the programs that are important to us now. We can’t expect that “membership” will be a meaningful term in twenty or thirty years.

We have to take risks. We have to venture out into the future, asking what God is calling us to do and to be in the next era of our life as Grace Church. We need to ask if there are new ways that we might connect with our neighbors downtown, to build relationships and encourage people to follow their desire to connect with God. We need to take risks with the resources we have, to reimagine how they might be used most effectively in this vibrant city and in this changing religious landscape. We need to focus our attention on those outside our doors today, rich and poor, black and white, young and old.

I hope that in the coming year, you will join with me as we discern our way into this exciting and uncertain future. Let us explore how we might use all of our resources to take risks as we try to connect in new and creative ways with our neighbors in this city. As we do this work, may we continue to be grateful for all that God has given us and conscious of our task to be wise stewards of those gifts. May we also be courageous and creative in our thinking, and responsive to God’s call to be faithful witnesses to the love of Christ in an ever-changing world.