Friday, July 29, 2011

Transforming Parish Outreach

By Michael Giansiracusa

The students of St. Elizabeth’s, a small women’s college in New Jersey, watched the women dressed in orange jumpsuits tell them their stories of losing children, drug addiction, and lost potential. The young students were overwhelmed by the tenacious resolve of the women in the Philadelphia prison to warn others not to descend into the brokenness that had become their lives.

Afterward, the students and I engaged in a roundtable discussion with the prison chaplain about the dehumanization of those in the prison system. The young women at St. Elizabeth’s talked of their own struggles growing up in East Orange, an economically struggling mid-sized city with a history of violence, and how they had so far had steered clear of the ever-lurking landmine that is drugs.

Throughout the visit and processing session, grace-filled voices of women, both students and prisoners, talked of God and the strength their faith provided to break free of the structural and self-inflicted demons that they had to face.

True faith cannot remain static and I believe these cross-boundary moments of interpersonal contact and reflection is where the church of the future is headed The application of experiences of prayer, direct contact with struggling people, and deep reflection on the presence of God to new and existing parish structures formed the content of most of my doctoral work at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS).

Can parochial structures facilitate meaningful contact between seemingly different persons in the light of faith? Can these experiences lead from charity to transformation to advocacy? Currently, I am putting my thesis to work in a suburban parish outside of Chester, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities in the state.

A large number of churches, regardless of denomination, have “outreach” efforts that consist of local, regional, and international charitable efforts. Collections for ministries that help children, the poor, and the international community make up a majority of outreach activities. There may even be a trip to another country. Sadly, some parishes only have collections and those are organized by a handful of people where there is little or no reflection/follow-up to the outreach efforts or trips and no explicit connection with justice issues in the United States. While all of these efforts are commendable and certainly engage Christian charity, these efforts alone will not transform hearts and prompt engagement with “the other.”

As associate rector for St. John’s Church in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, I am primarily responsible for outreach and youth. Our outreach efforts have included collections for a food ministry in Chester, donations of book bags for public school children, and a trip to a new Episcopal sponsored school for underserved children in Philadelphia. These efforts appear to follow the script in terms of how Episcopal parishes do outreach. But my EDS education and my own faith commitment to transformation will not allow our efforts stick to the script. During our Sunday’s services, there are updates about how many people we are serving each time we donate food in Chester; our sermons highlight the names and plight of those struggling to pay for groceries; and the education statistics in Philadelphia and Chester are weaved into the Gospel call to engage those society considers least.

Recently, parishioners have answered the invitation not to simply donate food, but to travel to Chester to meet those receiving donations and learn about food insecurity for themselves. The trip to the new Episcopal school has sparked a planned follow-up meeting about how we can help the school and advocate for better education. Lastly, parishioners are talking about hosting homeless families as part of Delaware County’s Interfaith Hospitality Network.

There are many congregations that go deeper into direct contact with those very different than themselves. But, the true test of a deep and profound commitment is when that contact translates into advocacy and structural change for both the community and parish. Through relationship, good-hearted charitable Christians can become justice seeking companions walking side by side with those whom God called “Blessed.”

As some efforts grow effortlessly and others present more of a challenge, I constantly hear the prayer attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero that reminds me, and all of us, of the work we do. “We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

* The Rev. Dr. Michael Giansiracusa, DMin. ’10 is associate rector at St. John’s Church in Glen Mills, PA, and adjunct professor of philosophy at Holy Family University and Neumann University. He has served as Director of the Romero Center in Camden, NJ, and as Volunteer Coordinator at Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia. An advocate for urban ministry, he believes that if our sacramental worship reflects God’s mission, then all of our ministries must have, as their justification, a relationship with the most vulnerable.