Something incredibly wonderful happens Part two

The second of a two-part essay. Read Part One here.

By Donald Schell

In the late 1960’s, Frank Oppenheimer quit university teaching and moved to San Francisco to launch an inter-generational learning community of wonder, trial-and-error, discovery, “kindness,” nurturing others, and celebration: the Exploratorium, the world’s first interactive science museum. Here’s how interactive: K.C. Cole who writes about him in Something Wonderful Happens was a successful young journalist (a New York Times Magazine cover story to her credit) when the Saturday Review sent her to write about Oppenheimer’s offbeat new museum. Oppenheimer’s joy in discovery was a conversion experience for Cole that began her significant career as a science writer.

I understand her response. I took my kids to the Exploratorium starting in 1980. In 1981 when my wife began working night shift at a hospital near us, I spent a lot of Saturdays in the Exploratorium keeping the house quiet so she could sleep. I thought it was a great way to spend time with my two kids. The science learning was fascinating, and we talked about all kinds of other things too. What I see now in Cole’s description of the Exploratorium is work I hope the church could do, not science experiments, but community and compassion experiments, and not teaching science, but open learning and discovery. I’m looking forward to returning on my own this month and spending a day in hands-on meditation.

And this brings me back to Lizzie’s reflection on being in church with people her own age. Until we begin doing Gospel-shaped work with our younger peers, until we share leadership and unadulterated Gospel practice with them, our congregations will continue aging faster than the general population. If we don’t share real leadership with them, those who don’t simply abandon the church will gather apart from us and find their own ways to do what Jesus did (and greater works than he did).

Lizzie is in her thirties. With an American mother and an English father (both devout, committed Anglicans, and open Christian people) Lizzie grew up knowing both the C. of E. and the American Episcopal Church. She’s a regular participant now in a very good congregation near my home. She can describe how she continues to grow as professional actor, a mother of two, and spouse and soul-mate to a visionary Ph.D. candidate who travels to dangerous, burgeoning cities to re-vision city planning for the developing world. I work with Lizzie regularly under All Saints Company’s banner leading readers’ workshops, work-shopping Christmas Pageant direction and production, and trying to make safe, open space for clergy to explore their presence and communication when they’re preaching or presiding.

The amazement Lizzie felt at worshiping with people her own age came from a visit to St. Lydia’s Church in New York City, the year old ‘dinner church’ that Emily Scott and others started to gather young adult professionals and artists who are leery of church. St. Lydia’s meets weekly on Sunday evening for a Eucharist/supper based on the Didache’s early Second Century liturgy.

Emily founded St. Lydia’s after spending her life going to church with people a generation older. In social gatherings with friends doing good work in New York City, Emily kept hearing how amazed those friends were that she even attended church, let alone worked in one. Still something told her some of them would welcome the chance to go to a church that was serious enough about hospitality and community to hear their voice, offer an understanding ear, and put them to work.

With her degrees from Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Sacred Music Emily got day jobs as a church musician in big steeple churches. And that work supports her passion, gathering friends to found a church where people her age (and some older too) can welcome strangers on the Lower East Side of New York to share Eucharist within a weekly practice of cooking a meal, learning music and singing it together, reflecting, and sharing the a full, sit-down meal. Out of respect for the Episcopal and Lutheran churches that are fostering this new church, St. Lydia’s brings in ordained clergy to preside at their Eucharist. I know them from praying the Eucharist prayer as their visiting priest.

I just broke from writing this for lunch with James, a friend of Emily’s from Yale Divinity School. In his senior year of seminary, James was back home to the West Coast for Thanksgiving. James is looking for seeking people to help him shape his dream and vision to launch and lead a religious foundation that would train, encourage, and support people starting house churches and meal churches. Emily sent him to talk with me about my experience founding St. Gregory’s thirty years ago and talk together about what All Saints Company is learning now working with churches, church founders, and other clergy and lay leaders. Where is the church ready to embrace ministry innovation and mission?

Starting something new.

Young leaders taking big responsibility.

After lunch with James, I got to thinking about my younger daughter Maria who was four when we moved to San Francisco to help found St. Gregory’s Church in 1980.

When Maria was in high school our diocese tried to launch a deanery-wide youth group. She was initially excited, and kept going to the group until her growing frustration finally moved her to quit. “I was tired of playing games and discussing people’s favorite rappers.” Where church made sense to Maria was at St. Dorothy’s Rest summer camp. At St. Dorothy’s Maria worked a couple of summers as a camp counselor and then in college and for a year after she served as summer camp director. St. Dorothy’s year-round adult staff structured the summer to give huge authority (and necessary support when needed) to their young summer staff, so by her early twenties, Maria held summer-long responsibility for 15 camp staffers and supervised their work with sixty campers a session.

When he’d been Maria’s age her grandfather was flying his B-17 bomber on daylight bombing runs on German munitions factories and serving not only as a pilot for his own plane and crew of eight, but as Wing Commander, making life and death choices for his own and the crews of the cluster of planes he guided in tight formation. Dad returned form the war resolved to use his G.I. bill to pay for medical school so he could spend the rest of his own life healing other people and saving their lives.

Maria’s responsibility for the health and well-being of all those kids all summer long changed her life too. Now a bit older than Emily and a bit younger than Lizzie, she directs program year-round for Project AVARY, a support program for kids who have a parent in prison. In addition its year-round mentorship, adventure days and school enrichment programs, Maria hires and directs AVARY kids as staff and counselors for AVARY’s summer camp program. The younger kids say of Camp AVARY, “When I come to camp I feel like an ordinary person who can talk about my whole life.” And the older kids who have come up through the program and get hired as counselors say, “You’ve trusted me with big responsibility, so I know I CAN live my dreams and have a real future.”

I would love to have introduced Maria, James, Emily, and Lizzie to three young people I met this October traveling with my wife (International Programs Director for Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance) in Malawi. Near Nkhata Bay, we visited Maggy Keets from Connecticut and her husband Andy and good friend Emily from the U.K. to see the massive participation and support they’ve gathered from eighteen Malawian villages to build a birthing clinic, Healthy Mother Project] a shelter where expectant mothers can stay as they await the onset of labor, and staff house in a rural center. The clinic is sorely needed in Malawi, a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Maggy, Andy, and Emily began raising money for the project with bake sales and getting donor sponsors for running marathons. They quickly realized they needed bigger donors and contacted individuals and wrote grants, and when they had raised 2/3 of the needed funds, they contacted GAIA for help.

From its inception the Healthy Mother project has built partnerships and community, and they continued that approach when they were funded and ready to take the work to Malawi too. Villagers molded and fired the thousands of bricks needed for the clinic. Chiefs from the most distant village raised $200 cash that they walked to deliver while we were there. $200 is about three times the average annual income in Malawi. As I write, villagers ten time zones away are volunteering their labor along side the Malawian contractor and his handful of paid workers.

Healthy Mother Project bought the three ton supply truck (which will belong to the Ministry of Health when the clinic is finished), bought whatever building supplies the villagers couldn’t make, and hired the contractor and his laborers with money raised back home in the Connecticut and in the U.K. Maggy, Andy, and Emily work alongside the local crew, but their priority is to keep enough building materials on hand to keep the project moving forward.

Tribal culture in northern Malawi is heavily patriarchal which brings additional challenges and good learning for the villagers working with this woman-led team of three. Drawing on Maggy’s previous building work in Africa and her training in international development, women and men from the villages and these three foreigners work side-by-side from sunrise to sunset, breaking to share lunch and tea together.

At the end of next month when the clinic is completed, Malawi’s Ministry of Health will equip and staff it. Maggy, Andy, Emily and the villagers are proud that they’ve enabled local people to do something many said was impossible, including bring the project in ahead of schedule and under budget.

Frank Oppenheimer’s joy in learning does remind me of church, but too often we see a church cordoned off into age cohorts and not giving real collaborative responsibility to young leaders. They’re ready to make a lasting contribution and along the way to take risks big enough that real failure is possible. Too often all we think about is ‘giving them something to do.’

I’m grateful that there are people like Lizzie and Emily, like James, and like Maggy, Andy, and Emily who have found a way to do their work, but in our church setting they are few. They are so few that I wonder whether our desire to hold on to the church we know, and our fear of our children’s passion has made others of them so impatient with church that they simply took their vision elsewhere. What will it take us to make our church’s story more like the story of Frank Oppenheimer and the Exploratorium?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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