“As we seek to discover the true meaning of ministry, and as we struggle with what it means to be powerful servants of the servants of God, we do well to bear in mind that, as faithful Christians, we are all in this search for meaning and this struggle for wholeness together. . . This requires of us a persistent openness to the leading and urgings of God’s good Spirit. These urgings often take us down the paths of a new and surprising spirituality as we discern fresh ways of expressing the age-old faith once delivered to the saints.”—Kortright Davis, Serving with Power
Theologian Kortright Davis’s words about the birth of a “new and surprising spirituality”(1) speak to the transformation in congregations that form community amid diversity and social engagement. Many congregations offer personal support and outreach, but such efforts often reinforce homogeneity, rather than promote diversity and advocate for social change. Congregations committed to breaking from the status quo are called to develop a sense of “radical hospitality.” Rather than seeking out like members for mutual support, they seek people who consider themselves beyond the reach of organized religion. “Radical hospitality” has not only social, but political and economic implications; it is the act of extending community beyond the margins to those unserved by church, synagogue, or mosque. Rather than limiting their public theology to outreach or charity that maintains the unjust distribution of power and resources, congregations formed in radical hospitality exercise a commitment to justice. This model seeks to transform both the believer and society as a whole.
Of many congregations organized for radical hospitality, I focus on two that have experienced the transformative effects of diversity coupled with social action. In each case, the commitment to worship that provides alternative “metaphors” and challenges members to work for justice profoundly affects the congregation’s communal identity. Where old formation models were inadequate, leaders have found new ways to support members spiritually and structurally in action for justice.
Transformation—One Person at a Time
The Rev. Sara (Sally) Boyles, rector at Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, since 1993, defines her role as “animator” of the community, with a belief in the power of transformation—“one person at a time.” In a congregation devoted to radical hospitality, Boyles sees her function as that of prophetic leader, based in the process of transformation, rather than as a minister who holds the congregation together: Boyles seeks to discern where Holy Trinity “is not engaged, getting it articulated, and setting it loose.”
A “church of inclusivity,” Holy Trinity, in downtown Toronto, is part of the Anglican Church of Canada.(2) The community orders its life around worship and the arts, as well as its commitment to social justice. Though “traditional” liturgical fare is offered at an early service, contemporary worship with inclusive language and a diverse rota of laity and clergy preachers forms the core of Holy Trinity’s principal Sunday service, where the eucharistic celebration encircles the altar. During the liturgy, the worshipers—activists, theologians, tourists, writers, students, as well as those who live on the streets—share concerns and thanksgivings.
The congregation’s commitment to justice is lived out through its ministries, including two downtown affordable apartment buildings, a refugee committee, an ecumenical sanctuary coalition, and hospice care for the terminally ill. A long-standing invitation to the gay and lesbian community remains in force. “We’re not experimental,” Boyles noted; “we’re here to stay.”
Holy Trinity was founded in 1846 with a legacy designating funds for a church with pews “free and unappropriated forever,” as a protest against pew rents. The new congregation included artisans, shopkeepers, Irish laborers, and middle-class families.
During the 1930s and 1940s Holy Trinity provided food and shelter for the unemployed and servicemen, while addressing affordable housing and the racist treatment of Japanese Americans. In the 1960s and 1970s laity became involved in all aspects of the congregation’s life and governance. Pews were unbolted from the floor to allow for creative use of space. Guitars, piano, and singers in the congregation replaced organ music and a paid choir. The congregation’s agenda grew to include civil rights, feminist concerns, gay and lesbian issues, peace, and nonviolence.
The church continues to use its buildings as a resource for urban mission. An integral task is systemic analysis of the uses and abuses of power within the parish, the larger church, and the wider community. The church not only shelters the homeless; it continues to fight for affordable housing. Through worship and preaching, leaders educate and inspire.
Boyles sees the need for balance between the individual and the corporate in Holy Trinity’s life. “My primary job is to keep enough of a middle to keep the body together.” She stresses the need for social activists to nurture their inner lives and to prevent burnout through regular prayer and meditation. She also works to maintain relationships with neighbors and with the local diocese. However, she notes, the justice focus of the congregation suggests that “community” for Holy Trinity is related more to the people and needs of the wider community than to other Anglican parishes. The congregation sees its mission as providing community to the marginalized, wherever they may be, regardless of religious background.
The Experience of God as Liberation
Another congregation engaged in radical hospitality is Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, New Jersey.(3) “We live in tension with belief, book, [and] structure,” said the Rev. Philip Dana Wilson, rector since 1987. “The experience of God as liberation is the primary experience by which we make decisions and order our life.”
Redeemer calls itself “a Liberation Community in the Christian and Episcopal traditions.” The congregation has rejected traditional forms of Christian formation and church membership, widening its embrace to include those underserved by institutional religion. As Wilson noted, “It’s not written in stone. We’re not after some absolute standard for Christianity.”
The sign out front reads: “We Are One Family” and lists the diversity that comprises the congregation—males, females, children, seniors, gays, straights, infants, liberals, conservatives, dreamers, whites, blacks, Christians, non-Christians, questioners, the partnered, the single, those in recovery, searchers, youth. The congregation refers to itself as a family united by questions and dreams “rather than our answers.” Visual representations of the parish’s commitments include an “It Is a Come as You Are Party” banner, a rainbow flag, the black liberation flag, and a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like Holy Trinity, Redeemer offers a traditional worship service early Sunday morning according to The Book of Common Prayer, with an inclusive-language Eucharist as the principal Sunday service. The worship committee designs each service, often writing prayers and hymns, as well as observing a series of “liberation holy days” alongside Christian holy days, to underscore God’s work of liberation in the present. The congregation celebrates Martin Luther King Sunday, Recovery Sunday, Holocaust Sunday, and Gay and Lesbian Pride Sunday, among others.
The radical hospitality that pervades worship at Redeemer conveys the congregation’s social agenda. The former rectory houses a program for homeless people with hiv/aids. The parish house, site of a soup kitchen, houses the homeless for a month each year as part of a local Hospitality Network. A
n interracial dialogue group meets monthly. Like Holy Trinity, Redeemer extends hospitality to the gay and lesbian community; the parish has blessed same-sex unions since 1991. Redeemer was named “church of the year” in 1996 by the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, as “an ecclesiastical haven for those who have felt themselves to be outside the scope of traditional religious care.”
According to Wilson, “the Holy Spirit found” Redeemer through the life and death of Eric Johnson. The son of church members, Johnson contracted AIDS and died in 1990. Through their relationship with Eric and his family, members gained a renewed sense of compassion, and the congregation was transformed. By 1999, church membership was between 150 and 200; by 2001, it had risen to almost 400. “Really being Christian attracted people,” said Wilson, “and they responded to that integrity.” Today a broad cross-section of church leaders collaborates on ministries within and outside the parish. Members’ stewardship commitments include both a financial pledge and a ministry pledge. Larry Hamil, pastoral assistant, said that Redeemer “values liberation and really tries to become a family.” The role of the rector, he adds, “is to be the vision, the leadership, to hold us together.” Hamil said he probably would not be in the church at all without Redeemer: “Even here the church is not God—but we do have a ministry of reconciliation.” Redeemer enjoys the support of diocesan leaders, though the congregation’s identity (like that of Holy Trinity) is focused beyond its denomination, to welcome those outside organized religion.
Though Holy Trinity and Redeemer are not the only congregations to move beyond “outreach” toward radical hospitality, their stories suggest factors supporting this transformation:
- Through worship, congregations of radical hospitality are called to reevaluate and reinvent their symbolic life and metaphors. Such worship emerges from community concerns. These congregations see language as a justice issue, and are sensitive to the need for inclusive language and inclusive images. Their vibrant worship is a powerful witness and model of formation. Both congregations have collaborative worship committees central to parish life; they prepare extensive service booklets, write hymns, and craft other worship elements. Their spirituality is connected to their Christian and denominational heritage, yet they continue to reinterpret it in light of their social context.
- These congregations welcome all, especially those who would otherwise feel excluded from organized religion. Such parishes evaluate their openness by who is not included, and their response to the spiritual hunger of the marginalized.
- Their social justice ministries are “beyond outreach” because they are rooted in a systemic approach to oppression and social change. They envision radical hospitality as a way for the congregation to serve the marginalized. Leaders are conversant about the dynamics of power and teach it as part of religious formation. Moreover, for congregations the marginalized are in their midst rather than strangers who live elsewhere.
- Leadership in such congregations requires vision, as well as the capacity to cope creatively with ambiguity and risk. Skills in collaboration, the ability to hold multiple perspectives, and the capacity for discernment are important. The media-savvy leaders in these congregations effectively communicate the mission.
- Finally, ministry and stewardship are inextricably linked. All members are challenged to root their lives in worship and social justice as spiritual disciplines. These congregations strive to use their wealth for the transformation of church and society.
Radical hospitality is an important model for the transformation of today’s congregations that live amid diversity and human need. These faith communities serve to deepen the personal and corporate dimensions of faith.
1. Kortright Davis, Serving with Power: Reviving the Spirit of Christian Ministry (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 145.
2. The Church of the Holy Trinity produces a variety of publications, as well as a Web site; these discuss the congregation’s ministries. See www.holytrinitytoronto.org. The e-mail address is email@example.com. Historical information for this article is drawn from William Whitla, The Church of the Holy Trinity, 1847-1997: A Short History (Toronto: Holy Trinity Press, 1997).
3. For background information on the Church of the Redeemer and its ministries, see www.redeemermorristown.org. The congregation was named one of the 300 Outstanding Churches in the United States by a project at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, funded by Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis. See Paul Wilkes, Excellent Protestant Congregations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 234–35. See also Errol Glee and James Broderick: “Holy Unique: Rejuvenated Mission Fills Church and Other Empty Space,” Morris Magazine (October 2000): 78; Jon Block, “Study Lauds Morristown Church,” Daily Record (Feb. 19, 2001): A1; Darran Simon, “Church Focuses on Evils of Racism,” Daily Record (Jan. 29, 2001): A11; Colleen Ninz, “Cues for the journey are hidden in plain view,” The Voice (March 2001): 12.