A Church Doing New Things

Artwork of An Artist In Residence at Spindleworks in Maine

When I came to serve at Church of the Holy Comforter; like so many other parishes in the Episcopal Church, the world had changed out from under what had once been a large, vibrant faith community in Montgomery. Something had to be done and so much of the effort in the 90s and the first decade of this century was to try to figure out how to do what we’d always done, just better enough to bring new people in. At least for this congregation, that simply did not work well enough.

About six months after I arrived here, we began a process of discernment. I often return to the root of this word: it is derived from the Latin word for sieve or sifting. That first round of discernment had to do with figuring out what we had always done in the past, that was entrenched and taken for granted, and now mainly wore people out. As our numbers got smaller, fewer and fewer people had to do more and they were tired.

Then, towards the end of 2019, we were selected to participate in an ecumenical program that was intended to help congregations like ours find the way to leverage our facilities in support of a social enterprise of some sort. This approach saw the effort as a way to create a new revenue stream for the participating churches while working to meet a genuine social need in the community. Then, the pandemic hit and everything began to get bogged down. It just didn’t seem like exercises and activities we engaged in gave us any real clarity about the way forward. Finally in January of this year, we came to the conclusion that it was not a sustainable process for our congregation. With real regret, we bowed out.

Just because that process hadn’t worked didn’t mean we could quit trying, just wait for God to send a nicely wrapped miracle our way. First with a very small group, then with the vestry (leadership team of our church), we started a very tough conversation about the future. In a sense we had to be willing to face into the very worst-case scenario, the possibility that our church would not make it. Those early conversations were as raw and heartbreaking as any I have been a part of. And at the same time, I was so proud of the resoluteness and courage with which leadership team was so honest as it tried to discern a way forward.

In an unexpected way, the despair and sorrow that were articulated opened space for one of the leaders of our church to say that, regardless of what happened, he hoped we would not use the resources we have left to simply postpone the inevitable. Instead, he hoped we would find the way to use all the blessings we have received over time, as well as a pretty magnificent facility, differently. Would it be possible to find a way, whether we live or whether we die, so this little corner of Montgomery could still be a place of blessing to the community? All through the earlier part of the conversation, it had felt like we were sitting at the foot of the cross and then, by the grave on Holy Saturday. Now, that hope started to roll away the stone from the grave.

The conversation became much more generative as we started brainstorming what we might do with the things that we have to work with. I think we ended up with a list of six or seven different ministry possibilities. In the midst of all that, I happened to watch an episode of a fun and silly travelogue series on Netflix called “Somebody Feed Phil.” In that particular episode, Phil was in Maine, highlighting the food scene in Portland and beyond. About midway through the episode, he made a stop in a town called Brunswick about an hour away from Portland. He explained he was going to visit with a relative of his and came to a very New England looking kind of clapboard house. A woman, clearly born with Down syndrome, came out to hug on his neck with great glee and delight. She led him in to a place that I continue to find simply miraculous.

Spindleworks is a community arts center that brings together people who are cognitively and neurologically divergent to the extent that they are unable to function independently in a “mainstream” environment. During the work week, people who fall under this general category come to Spindleworks for the day. They are there as artists in residence and are joined by a variety of local artists who serve as artist mentors. The house is quite large and has an area for the textile arts, a pottery studio, a shop with the kinds of tools that allow for sculpting and woodwork, a music studio with lots of rhythm instruments so local musicians can jam with the artists in residence. I was able to visit Spindleworks on the day my vacation ended. What follows are a few pictures of that visit.

After the leadership team and I discussed this possibility extensively, and after the other ideas we had identified couldn’t quite come together, we agreed we would try to create a similar community arts center in Montgomery. A remarkable number of pieces are coming together; I tell people it feels like a warm knife cutting through soft butter. Of necessity, our program will not be identical to Spindleworks. For this to have a chance to thrive, partnerships are going to be essential. Our first partners are a small nonprofit that serves families of children with autism. Because there are so few services for people of all ages challenged by neurosensory and cognitive limitations, we are simply exploring the range of people we will be able to serve.

One of our local universities, Auburn University – Montgomery is very interested in helping us develop this into a training center for students who anticipate working with special needs individuals like the ones we will serve. I will meet with a couple of key leaders from the Montgomery School System next week because they too see an urgent need. I have not lost sight of the needs of adults. Last week, I took a course offered by the state for organizations that want to offer services to the “developmentally disabled” adults in our community. If we get certified by the state, we will be able to become providers who can be reimbursed by Medicaid for services to this part of the population. There also seem to be quite a few grant opportunities that we will pursue.

The only way forward is one small step at a time. In January, we will pilot a monthly respite program for elementary school children with autism and/or significant cognitive challenges. Will it all come together to become our own community arts center? Is it possible this is what resurrection looks like in our time and place? Time will tell. What I know for certain comes straight from the Bible: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” May it be that the Spirit of Truth and Light will give this vision of ours joyful life…