Building a “Beloved Community”

Part 1: From the beginning to Easter 2016


This is a story about a community of love and justice, an example of the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King talked about. It’s a community trying to follow Jesus and the prayer he gave us: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” For today’s world that communityat any large scale – is a fantasy. On a small, local scale all kinds of beloved communities are possible – and I have no doubt that St. Paul’s Willimantic is one of them!

There are all kinds of needs that a church or nonprofit can supply in love. We all need food, clothing, a place to sleep. St. Paul’s has been there: it founded the Covenant Soup Kitchen in 1981, set it free in 2006. However there’s much more to life than food and shelter. Community is another basic human need that rarely is considered – and it’s one that’s in short supply in our “I did it my way” culture. One result is that for many young men the only communities available to them are gangs – not a life giving answer!

Building a true community of love and justice is not quick or easy. The first thing to remember is that the beloved community is not a destination – it’s a journey. Everything evolves and where it’s evolution takes it isn’t necessarily a good place. People, insights, opportunities come and go. Real progress requires the community recognize the potential for love and justice in whatever is happening at the moment, embracing the positive and  rejecting the wrong.


From all accounts St. Paul’s was a busy church when it hit a rough patch in the early 2000’s. Conflict over LGBT issues, Soup Kitchen relations, and priest related issues, resulted in perhaps half of the congregation leaving. This of course had a serious negative effect on finances – but also had a very positive effect on the congregation’s ability to move forward. Decisions could be and were made essentially by consensus. Basic issues had been settled with general agreement that the role of the church is to bring healing, compassion, respect, acceptance, sanctuary – love – to everyone in the community.

I arrived around 2005 in a state of general disillusion with the mainstream church and no intention of ever becoming involved with a church. But St. Paul’s was very different. The congregation skewed to males in their middle years but women seemed to do most of the work and provide most of the leadership. The big difference was that there were a number of people, obviously on society’s margins, that were fully accepted and were respected enough to feel free to forcefully voice their opinions. Not only were LGB people fully accepted but so was a transgendered woman (remember, at that time her appearance would have been quite shocking! to most mainstream congregations . Soup Kitchen guests were a separate community with some overlap and were accepted as well. The doors between Sanctuary and community room were open except during the service itself. I stayed.

The next stage

Rev. Jaclyn Sheldon arrived in late 2008 and became our 1/3 time Priest-in-Charge in July of 2009. More serious efforts to connect with the Soup Kitchen guest community were made (eg the doors between Sanctuary and community room never were closed) and interactions between the communities were encouraged.

In 2010 the parish did a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). The number one goal for 2011 that emerged was “crossing the divide.” That was our first formal decision to concentrate on building a true blended community out of the two friendly but separate groups. Then, in March 2012, 100 years after the church cornerstone was laid, the Vestry approved “Ministry in Motion” as a new, ever evolving, cornerstone for St. Paul’s ministry. This was an attempt to put an organizational structure around our community building work. In the long run it was not especially useful.


Welcoming the stranger has been a scriptural obligation from well before the time of Jesus. Eating with outcasts was central to Jesus’ ministry. Hospitality was a defining characteristic of the early church – the “people of the way.” Of course, exactly how it was practiced varied as Christianity evolved through the centuries (not always in a good way). The Seder, celebrating our ancestors liberation from bondage, and the Eucharist, a meal through which the life of Jesus enters our lives, are sacramental shared meals central to our scriptural tradition.

For St. Paul’s the lesson was that sharing meals would be an effective and honest basis for developing real community. It’s important to note that we’re talking about sharing a meal – not serving a meal. It’s not about calories, it’s not the Soup Kitchen on Sunday. It’s about sitting down and eating together, about developing a family relationship by acting as a family. A big family, sometimes dysfunctional, with lots of prodigal sons and daughters. And a few crazy uncles.

For clarity we put everything anything in the parish involving food under the heading of hospitality. In a family someone can bring a dish or help pay for the fixings but there’s no charge, and you never have to buy a ticket. That brings us to hospitality rule #1 and its corollary:

  • There’s never a charge for food –
    • but contributions are gratefully accepted

Another basic rule is that everyone who walks in through the door is welcome:

  • Everyone – even if they’re stoned or obviously have serious mental or hygiene issues – is treated with respect
  • It’s a safe place where where it’s safe to be who you are wherever you are on your journey through life
  • We eat together, all on an equal footing
  • Everyone has a voice in community affairs
  • Everyone is welcome and encouraged to participate in family activities:
    • menu planning
    • kitchen chores from cooking to dish-washing
    • cleanup from taking out the trash to mopping the floor
  • Since many of us have addiction issues no alcohol is served at any event and the communion wine is nonalcoholic.

There also are a few rules of behavior:

  • No fighting, serious unresolved arguments, or other disruptive behavior
  • No alcohol or drugs on premises
  • No stealing

Violation means you have to leave but there is no permanent banishment. A violator is welcome to come back when he or she feels capable of appropriate behavior. Problems are rare – and it’s been quite a while since anyone has been asked to leave. Problems tend to come up when there is a lot of tension in the community such as when NoFreeze is full and people are sleeping in chairs. Close quarters and a long winter can trigger all sorts of issues between people! Fortunately, though once named “heroin town” by the Courant, Willimatic is not a particularly violent place and personal safety is not an issue.

The community in operation

The service: The community room is next to the sanctuary with two doors connecting them. There’s a kitchen (residential not commercial) at the rear of the community room. The Soup Kitchen is downstairs. In the beginning, services were held in the Sanctuary, as usual, with some back and forth between sanctuary and community room. There was lots of experimentation: for example, how best to share the Prayers of the People between rooms. Communion was distributed in the community room as well as downstairs in the Soup Kitchen.

At a later point we decided that on every fifth Sunday the service would be held in the community room with everyone gathered in a single space. These services were quite nontraditional and usually built around an activity. Then a winter came complete with unresolved heating system issues. The church itself is a tall, modest sized stone building of 1913 vintage. It is not easily warmed after a rather cold standby setting! The need to wear winter hat and coat does not make for a positive worship experience, so the cold weather service was moved to the somewhat warmer community room.

St. Paul’s Sunday service tends to be quite long (2 hours +/-). The community room service basically followed the traditional structure of the Eucharist but with lots of congregational interaction, especially around the readings of the day. Community involvement was surprisingly high. Of course, a visitor expecting a traditional Episcopal service probably would have viewed the scene as chaos: people coming and going, getting coffee, using the rest rooms, etc.

On Sundays the doors open and the coffee goes on around 8am. The main service traditionally has been at 9am. For some time we’ve also had an 8am Bible Study, (Another Study is held in the Soup Kitchen on Wednesday mornings.) The 8am community room Bible Study started with just a few people around a table. In time it grew to involve most of the room and essentially blend into the service. Along with that, the details of the structure evolved to make the space more functional and feel more like a sacred worship space.

There were other kinds of changes as well. The community room basically is T shaped. The Soup Kitchen, in great need of storage space, converted the base of the T to a mini warehouse separated from the rest of the room with movable screens. At the same time attendance went down somewhat so resultant crowding was not too bad. However, considerable experimenting with room arrangement – circulation patterns, altar style and placement, etc – was required.

In the last few weeks consideration of how the Bible Study and Service combination could be organized more rationally took our attention. The result was a decision to have two services: the first a more informal service wrapped around Bible Study; the second, a more formal Eucharist with a tighter focus on just one lesson. The goals are to have the Bible Study Service run from 8:15 to 9:15, and the Eucharist from 9:30 to 10:30. Experimentation will start right after the Easter season with June 26 as the official start date for the new service configuration.

Eating together: Eating together has some history at St. Paul’s. About the time I started attending, Al Scott, a long time member, decided to organize a monthly breakfast for everyone. It was held after the service. Cooking and cleanup were done by the men’s group, and group dues paid for the food. It worked very well. As people and circumstances changed it morphed into our popular fourth Sunday breakfast supported by donations. (Fourth Sunday because that’s when your SNAP benefits likely are used up.)

A typical breakfast shopping list now would be: 8 dozen eggs, 8 lb potato puffs, 8 lb sausage and 4 loaves bread. Coffee consumption is very variable but usually approaches 100 cups. After breakfast the kitchen is cleared, tables are wiped down, bathrooms are cleaned, and the floor swept and mopped.

The success of the fourth Sunday led to our Second Sunday Neighborhood Brunch with the goal of increasing the community’s involvement. It started as a kind of pot luck event. However, this is a difficult problem when a significant part of your community is homeless or has very limited access to kitchen facilities – and certainly has little money. Another issue has been that planning for an upcoming brunch has tended to be very short range. Whoever is around when the subject does come up picks a theme and basic menu and enough food does appear. This is an activity that is not going to stop but it is on the priority list for reorganization.

Our family

A few of our community members have family roots in St. Paul’s that go back several generations. On the other end of the scale, most of our homeless members have no long term attachment to the area, never mind to St. Paul’s. People come and go for many reasons. They may see greener pastures elsewhere; perhaps they need a different kind of church; they may be at a different stage in a recovery/relapse cycle; some need to serve jail time or are hospitalized. Very often people disappear for a while then one day they’re back.

Attendance has gone down somewhat with typically 20+ people in the room at any one time, and 45 or so different people involved in the service through the morning. Lots of factors are involved: For example, a more crowded space with less room to move around, the Soup Kitchen downstairs now is open for Sunday AM hangout, chronic homelessness is down, and some of our people now have their own space. With the changes in the worship structure there is more of a “religious” atmosphere in the community room. An interesting question is how this trend is affecting the community.

Participation in the various Sunday jobs also varies, probably for some of the same reasons. The kitchen crew by its nature has some privileges and there are times when we have too many people in the kitchen – and other times when somebody who is supposed to show doesn’t. Sometimes the reliable, hard working people start taking ownership of the kitchen and that can become a problem. Sometimes people working together in the kitchen don’t get along – another set of potential problems.

On breakfast days, we need two people doing the heavy duty cooking with others helping out as required. When things are going well – as they have been lately – the lead person already is at the door every Sunday when the first person with a key arrives. Getting servers is not a problem but getting volunteers for the cleanup crew sometimes requires a little arm twisting.

We do have a serious problem that has been simmering for some time. It’s high on the list of topics we plan to address. We all are members of several different communities and sometimes those communities aren’t compatible. For example, consider someone who spent the winter sleeping at NoFreeze and then finally gets an apartment of his/her own. There is a NoFreeze user community that you were a member of – but once you’re on your own that community becomes just a reminder of really bad times.

Probably the major conflict is between those in recovery and those who are users. Recovery is very difficult! Extended conversations on drug availability source, use, new versions, etc, by users just stir up all the old desires. Conversations can be difficult to avoid. Most everybody in both recovery and user communities smoke and people regularly go out the front door for a cigarette. There they’ll probably find people having those conversations. That leaves us with the big question – how do we best minister to both communities???

Our structure

Our organizational structure is a variation on the classic tribe. It fits into the Episcopal parish rule book (I think) but there are differences between St. Paul’s and the typical Episcopal parish. The fundamental structure is similar. It consists of a chief (warden), sub-chiefs (officers, etc), a council of elders (vestry), and a priest. In the traditional parish the priest also is the chief.

A tribe also needs to have a shared story or vision. Without that, operation by consensus or near consensus would be impossible. For St. Paul’s, the basic vision is that our mission is to bring healing, compassion, respect, acceptance, sanctuary – God’s love – to everyone in the community.

In this time of major institutional change – especially the movement towards part time priests – it is difficult to see how the church can take as a basic model the full time priest as father in charge. The roles of the parish chief and the parish priest need to be reconsidered – with a responsibility split becoming more like the division in the traditional tribal version. St. Paul’s hasn’t come up with any firm conclusions on this though there has been some role shift between priest and chief. In the end, it probably comes down to the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of the players in any individual situation.

There are all sorts of significant governance variations possible within the basic organizational structure. St. Paul’s is a democracy in the sense that everyone has a voice. Vestry meetings are open and anyone in the room can join in the discussions. Decisions officially are by vote of the vestry but they almost always reflect the consensus of the room. Leadership is elected, but again, in reality it is by a consensus view of who is best able and willing to accept a position.

There also is a size limit for this kind of community. As it grows larger it becomes more and more difficult to keep everyone on the same page. A quick look at the literature suggests somewhere around 50 people is optimum, anything above 100 requires a great deal of effort to maintain needed group cohesion, and 150 is a practical upper limit. For St. Paul’s this has not been an issue.

~ To be continued ~

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