by the Rev. Shirley Bowen
I would like to tell you a love story. A story that begins with a small, semi-urban parish that has experienced a downward spiral of membership, beginning with the closing of the textile mills that sustained the “English” church members. Formed for and attended by the blue collar working class of Biddeford, the parish has always been an active contributor to the community.
The years of declining membership have taken a toll on this tiny faithful parish. In 2008 they found themselves looking at making a decision. They could make further reductions and stretch out their existence for 5-6 more years. Or they could take a leap of faith. Calling together all of the organizations that met at or contributed toward the small outreach efforts from the parish, it became clear that the working poor and generationally impoverished residents of the city were falling deeper into despair, and that they could do much more if they collaborated on their efforts. With the collective commitment of a sister parish and local organizations, the second Diocesan Jubilee Center was formed.
From the beginning, the parish knew that their endowment accounts would only support them for no greater than 3 years. But they believed to their core that God was calling them to be a new kind of witness in the city. The entire downstairs, the parish hall, the nursery, and the kitchen are dedicated primarily to the Neighborhood Center. They welcome everyone who walks in the doors. They gave up a critical piece of their physical identity to highlight their spiritual conviction. Repeatedly they are asked, how they could give up so much for all of the headaches they have taken on. But their answer is clear: because the Baptismal Covenant demands it. How do they love thee, Biddeford? Let me count the ways…
This tiny little parish has never wavered from their conviction that they are an outpouring of the love that flows from and between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
They are faithful in their corporate worship, understanding that it is in worship that they are sustained to give so much, to so many, with so little resources.
They recognize that each of us individually can lose sight of God’s plan for us and that our own egos can interrupt our vocation; they courageously seek support from each other to remain faithful to God’s call.
Although all of the programs and services of both the parish and the Neighborhood Center are available to anyone who walks through their doors, they are unapologetically Christian, unabashedly disciples of Jesus. When asked, the source of their compassion is enthusiastically shared. They have freed up their Rector to provide pastoral care and the sacraments to anyone who seeks them, either through weekly worship, through daily interactions at the Center, and special services including weddings, funerals, ministry to the sick and reconciliation. In the past three years the partnerships have increased fourfold. They are both sought and invited.
They welcome, with arms wide open, everyone who walks through their doors. They understand that the young woman with significant psychological challenges who wanders in at coffee hour seeking a cup of coffee and a hug is their opportunity to see Christ that day. They shrug off the repeated theft of “things” around the Center, understanding that desperate people will sometimes do desperate acts. They welcome the homeless, the broken, the druggie and the pierced and tattooed teens. They provide a space for the poor to mourn tragic deaths and for the invisible to find their voice. They love, and love again. And even when it’s hard, they love again.
They envisioned a Center where volunteers strive to learn the names of the guests who walk through the door, understanding that for many, it might be the only time a guest hears their name that day. They look into people’s eyes, hold out a hand of welcome and share a warm cup of coffee. They make possible services which are foundational in Jubilee Ministry, mercy and justice, offering assistance where ever possible and working with the guests to interrupt those patterns which continue to oppress. They welcome all and expect much, insuring that the parish and the Center are a safe haven in the city.
Membership isn’t determined by the number of pledge cards submitted each fall, or in weekly attendance at worship. Rather, the measure of the ministry is in the ongoing relationships with those whose lives that are in some way transformed through the programs, services and sacraments offered. Christ Church in Biddeford practices Baptismal Hospitality. Radical? They don’t think so; it’s just an authentic outpouring of their understanding of discipleship. And they offer it to everyone.
The Rev. Shirley Bowen is the rector of Christ Church, Biddeford, and the Director of Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center.