by Lola Michael Russell.
The Church of the Nativity, New Castle, began life as a barn, home to dairy cows and other farm animals. In 1952 it was converted to a church with the design of its sanctuary inspired by the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The transformation from stable to sanctuary recalls the biblical story of Mary and Joseph, the holy family finding a safe place for the birth of Jesus and a manger for a crib. From that joyful birth, the Church of the Nativity flourished as it served its community. But over time the surrounding community changed, and in recent years the church has declined and experienced a form of death. Now, a different kind of transformation is taking place.
Donna Cain, Nativity’s senior warden, explained that its members approached the challenges they faced with a thorough review of the church’s life cycle. They went through a rigorous three-year process of analysis, exercises, and discussion about the state of the church building, its revenue and expenses, and its current programs and activities. During the process they took a walk down memory lane with some of the members who have been there almost since its birth. They took a detailed building tour, assessed a realistic budget, and tallied their membership to approximately 23 regular congregants. The process was powerful and each of the steps was undertaken by the whole parish which, though small, is very giving. Everybody had the opportunity to share their concerns and worries, to open up and look at where they were. Along the way they learned how to have genuine communion with each other.
At the end of the process, they recognized that they were a small church with little money and a large property. Although that may sound unhealthy, they decided to take a vigorous stance and continue on with some very definite markers to guide their future based upon financial, membership, and building safety considerations. They determined to monitor these markers regularly with the agreement that if they got to a certain tipping point, the church would celebrate its life and accept a peaceful death. Essentially, they took a healthy look at death, what it would mean, and the life that would come out of death.
The Rev. Margie Pumphrey was their main clergy support during this time, serving a couple of Sundays a month. Cain worked with her and facilitated meetings. Markers were reviewed every six months and vestry meetings were re-shaped to address business in a different way through stewardship, fellowship, and outreach. The process changed the mindset of how people looked at everything. At their annual meetings they would review and remind each other of where they were against the proscribed markers. When Pumphrey fully retired one and a half years ago, she left the members in a very strong situation. They were organized, not burdened by their situation, and blessed by wonderful supply priests.
Lessons from the review process continue to be reflected through vestry and whole congregation meetings. The parishioners recognize that their two major resources, a large property and the huge development wherein it sits, were the original framework for the birth of Nativity. As the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood changed, the church became dissociated from the community. Through extensive and challenging conversations amongst themselves and with their priests they discussed the need for a Hispanic ministry, and because of the communion established through their review process, all members could express their ideas and concerns in a safe place while being supportive and considerate of everyone’s needs.
A member from birth, Cain found herself asking, what am I being called to do? Is Nativity in a healthy state? Are we meant to close our doors? There have been some interesting experiences that have led her, for the first time in her life, to feel completely aware that the Holy Spirit is working at Nativity to say you have more to do. Sentiments such as feed them and they will come, or come and see, spoke to her. She expressed a sense that although they have no clear idea of where the church is going or quite what is happening, they are experiencing something infinitely more than sitting still. “The Spirit is stirring us up,” she commented. “People have been made aware that the Holy Spirit works in our lives every day. Whether we’re aware of it or not we’re being charged to listen and to hear each day. That’s what we’re being challenged to do – listen, reflect, and act on what we hear. Does Nativity look any different now in membership or finances? No, but there is a lot of difference in the Spirit at work.”
For example, the church needed a new roof and they had no means to pay for it. This hit a structural and financial marker that could have meant death. But it was pointed out to them that the damage to the roof resulted from a particular storm. As a result, insurance covered the loss and the church got a new roof for $1,000. “It’s a very interesting experience,” exclaimed Cain, “when you think there’s no way forward and then unexpectedly something wonderful happens. Recently a check for $2,500 arrived in the mail from the state. We thought it was a mistake but it turns out we were entitled to it, and it came completely out of the blue.”
The church has taken some initial steps into the community. One parishioner, a high school teacher, is seeking different resources to improve education to non-documented immigrants. Outreach donations have been going to the senior center next door, which has programs for people with dementia, and to a back-to-school program in support of local schools. A thriving thrift shop serves the neighborhood two days a week, and the parish wants to see the property used more by the local community throughout the week.
Members have met with the Rt. Rev. Kevin S. Brown about actively exploring a Hispanic ministry. As a result, the bishop is in conversation with the Revs. Patricia Downing and Juan George of Trinity Parish, Wilmington, where there has been a flourishing Hispanic ministry for 25 years. Brown commented, “I am excited about connecting the energy and openness for Hispanic ministry at Nativity with the existing ministry at Trinity, where they are blessed to have a vibrant worshipping community and strong leadership. They would be a great source of support and wisdom for the members of Nativity as they begin their work.”
The people of Nativity are placing no judgment upon themselves. They are grateful for the blessings they’ve received over and over again. They are being patient and trying to spend time in meditation, reading scripture, and sharing with each other. “Listening is crucial to discern where we’re being led,” Cain said. “I feel like my entire perception has been flipped upside down after my whole life here. There is transformation here. This is a great group of people. Some are nervous, some are cautious, but having gone through the life cycle process and spending that time together in communion, we are able to have the necessary discussions and to feel safe about opening up to new ideas.”
When Cain told me that approximately 80 percent of their small congregation is over 70, I was reminded of Abram who, at the age of 75, was called by God to leave his home and set out with all his people and no clear idea of where he was going. Nativity’s parishioners are leaving their comfort zone, listening to the Holy Spirit, and being led they know not where, toward resurrection.
Lola Michael Russell is the editorial assistant for the Episcopal Church in Delaware and a regular contributor to the Delaware Communion and the weekly eNewsletter, The Net.firstname.lastname@example.org