September 2017 Churchwork reflection by the Rev. Tommy Dillon, rector, St. Margaret’s, Baton RougeCan you minister to the world and serve God’s people from behind closed doors? Until about six years ago, St. Margaret’s sure tried. Attendance averaged just around 15-20 people every Sunday even though our faith home was the only Episcopal Church in a growing community in South Baton Rouge.
We were very nearly forced to close for good. Money dwindled just about as much as our spirit did. But the truth was, our doors were already locked up tight. We couldn’t overcome our differences. We were not only aware of how painfully distant we were from our own community, but seemed determined to deepen that divide.
That wasn’t the end of our story. On August 13 this year, Bishop Thompson confirmed and received nine children of God into our congregation and more than 150 persons of our church family were in attendance. This miraculous transformation took place over half a decade, but it all started with one simple act: We opened our doors to the world.
Christ didn‘t call for us to remain inside the walls of the church. He commissioned His disciples to take the Word out into the world. And by connecting and serving the people in this community, we continue that Commission today.
Our renewal can be felt and seen. We have more neighbors, friends, and strangers coming into our parish than ever before. And, we have a new sanctuary where we regularly celebrate God’s love.
We haven’t come this far because we all checked the boxes on what we, as a church, agree on. Rather than focusing on any one issue, we focused on the values that brought us all here. We recommitted ourselves to the mission of our church and our Lord – to love each other and serve all of God’s people. In a way, we are all newcomers to the Faith.
We share our faith stories and express our commitment to God by embracing challenges together. Our adult faith formation classes allow us to challenge each other about what it means to walk with Christ. It’s a space where we’re not required to agree, but safely have courageous conversations about who we are and who we want to become. We’ve built a safe place where we’re free to discuss the front-page issues of our world in a healthy way. We’ve committed to each other to have a conversation rather than speak from our own personal pulpits.
And we build our faith from the beginning – our children’s faith formation prepares our young members to become members of our community. But this education happens more than once a week. We offer our home to KidCam, a space where as many as 80 children bring life to our church during the summer months and annual school holidays. Providing them a space doesn’t just fill the building, it allows our mission to be taken up and spread into the community.
KidCam helped raise money and gather supplies for our new Laundry Love Ministry. I know – laundry may not seem like a radical or spiritual act of love, but I think of it as a modern-day foot-washing. It allows us to meet our neighbors where they are in their own journey. And by partnering with a local business, we‘re helping our community prosper.
What we’ve declared here is that the baptismal waters of our Lord is open for all. That we are truly relearning to be a parish by responding to the needs of the world right outside our door and across the world. Through these activities – whether it’s nurturing our neighbors through Laundry Love or providing meals through our SPIN Feeding Ministry – we’ve said that you don’t need to be in a church building to feel God’s love.
And people feel that love. Recently, we heard from 28 newcomers who testified about why they’ve come to St. Margaret’s. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as they recounted being neglected or outright rejected from their former faith communities. Many said they had felt unwelcome at the Lord’s table.
At St. Margaret’s, we believe Christ provided the table and invited all to come. That’s our mission. It’s not always comfortable and is often messy, but that’s the work we have been called to do. We have genuinely and lovingly invited others to join in faith with us – no matter their past, their beliefs, or who they are.
When I was interviewed by the vestry of the church to possibly be their priest, I asked them what neighbors would say if St. Margaret disappeared. The vestry replied that our community probably wouldn’t even notice.
Last week, I saw a business in our community – not a member of our church, but a neighbor – fundraising for our Laundry Love ministry. I think we can say that what the vestry said is no longer true.
This is not an end, but a grand beginning. Now we must continue to be present and visible in our community and provide for our neighbors. Through our activities – whether it’s collecting more than 1,000 pairs of shoes or ministering through meals – we have more opportunities to see the face of God in each other and those we would otherwise never know.
The Lord’s grace doesn’t begin and end at the door of the church. We are called to be God’s hands of nurturing to the world. And the past few years are an example of what happens when we recognize each other’s humanity, unite in our values, and work toward our common mission.
St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge was established in 1973. The Rev. Tommy Dillon has served as priest-in-charge since August 2016. He was recently called as rector.