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An experiment in urban church building in Seattle

An experiment in urban church building in Seattle

The Rev. Peter Strimer, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, writes regularly for the Vital Posts blog at ecfvp.org. Since June, he has been chronicling his parish’s efforts to re-establish a mission in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood. The series, which began with this installment in June is well worth following.

The mission is daunting. We start from zero in a neighborhood new to us in a fairly broken-down old building. Our assignment from the bishop is to maintain the former church’s heart for the poor and to engage young adults as ministry leaders in the new mission work.

In a second installment, written in mid-September, Peter captures the neighborhood’s initial enthusiasm for the project:

As soon as word was out that a new way of being church – Church in the Round – was taking root at old St. George’s, new groups came forward and wanted to play. So in one short week we now have a Fiji Islander Bible Alliance Church worshipping weekly as well as St. Brigid’s Circle, a Catholic/Celtic renegade fellowship with a newly ordained woman priest who will enact their ritual monthly beginning on Samhain/Halloween. A very fascinating deep ecumenism is emerging before our very eyes and we have only been officially open for business 24 hours.

The third installment began to examine the organizational aspects of the challenge that St. Andrew’s had taken on.

We recruited a design team of 22 members, half of whom are young adults. We paired up a young adult with an “elder,” trained them in door-knocking and informal interview skills, and sent them out in the first week to conduct 30 interviews with neighbors around the church. We appointed a workgroup on communications. We recruited a staff that includes some hours from me to facilitate the process, some hours from my 32-year-old associate rector to be the “clergy collar” of the effort, five hours a week from a 30-year-old parishioner to manage the office plus a bunch of interns. We have a seminarian from Seattle University helping with the design process, an aspirant to the priesthood helping with administration and buildings and grounds, a 40-year-old deacon, and a late-20s deacon postulant. If I weren’t in the mix, the average age of our staff would hover around 33.

And:

At our second session, the feedback from the first round of interviews helped us identify some emerging themes.

These are the areas we have identified:

Alternative worship

The young adult community, including young families

Food, gardens, and green space

Homelessness services

A community center (coffee house, theater, multi-cultural meeting place)

Jobs

This week, the teams will go back out into the community to interview providers, ministries, and resource people already working on these themes.

Peter’s most recent dispatch examines the difficult question of how a community, built in some measure through the use of secular community organizing techniques should express its Episcopal identity in worship.

Two possibilities have emerged and we are wrestling with whether both can find a home at the Church in the Round.

One is our already established Sunday Evening Taize Eucharist. It is a beautiful service of candlelight, chant, and silence. Average attendance is around 20 with some young adults and a majority of baby boomers. The leaders of this service are discussing a move from our present campus to the new mission center.

The other is to convene a new young-adult led emerging church worshipping community. My young (32) associate rector has wanted to start such a service for some time. Others on the design team are also interested. However, it would need to start from scratch and at present we have precious little staff time available given how much work it will take to organize the community center part of our new project.

I can’t help thinking that there are lessons for the entire Church in the experiment that Peter and his community are involved in, and that we should keep our eye on future developments.

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A dozen years ago I house-called most of the clergy in this same far north Seattle Lake City neighborhood to have a conversation with them about workers at a local hospital who were organizing their union. Most all of the congregations were struggling--their members were aging, the younger families moving out to the suburbs. Some of the pastors told me they were establishing new churches further out. I suspect that in the last 12 years, much of the neighborhood has turned over generationally. Like much of Seattle, it's full of smaller homes, some on leafy lots, few with sidewalks; Lake City is known for its new and used car sales lots. (Another nearby Episcopal parish serves the wealthier section.)

My very best wishes and prayers for Pete Strimer and his team as they undertake this important and eye-opening work.

--Gretchen Donart

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