After a period of discernment and community engagement, a congregation takes a risk and finds its way back home.
Donna Budway wasn’t certain her daughter was ready to spend her first night away from home. Emma Budway is 22 and has autism. As the young woman prepared for bed after moving into her new apartment, Donna lay down next to her.
Emma can speak, but does so unreliably, preferring to communicate by spelling on an iPad or a laminated sheet. But she was abundantly clear on that evening in early December when she turned to her mother and declared her long-awaited independence.
“No sharing,” she said, insisting that her mother sleep in the family’s Arlington, Virginia, home, about 2 miles away.
“We haven’t looked back since,” said Donna, whose daughter is among the first residents at Gilliam Place, an affordable housing complex born of one congregation’s quest to discern their calling in a community with changing needs.
“This is just a wonderful source of good in our community,” Donna said.
The 173 apartments reserved for low-income families, seniors and those with disabilities are the result of a yearslong -- and at times contentious -- discernment process by Arlington Presbyterian Church. The complex, built where the church once stood, is named for Ronda A. Gilliam (1906-1970) who served the church and presbytery as an elder and was a neighborhood conservationist. Gilliam founded the congregation’s community clothing ministry, which still distributes thousands of items each year.
Arlington Presbyterian’s stone sanctuary had occupied a lot near a busy intersection west of the Pentagon for more than 80 years. Like many churches, the congregation had seen its numbers dwindle, and its aging infrastructure had become an increasing burden. But what happened next wasn’t driven by finances, said Susan Etherton, a ruling elder and member for nearly 40 years. Arlington Presbyterian could have sold its property -- worth more than $10 million just a few years ago -- and built a new sanctuary elsewhere, she said.
“We weren’t looking to save ourselves,” said Etherton, who was deeply involved in the church’s effort to discover the community’s needs and discern how best to meet them.
“It had to be grounded in that spiritual sense of, How is God calling us to be? What can we do, not for people really, but with people? How can we be in relationship with the community by doing something bold and courageous?”
Have you ever wandered the streets of your community with the only purpose being to listen and learn?
To that end, church members wandered the streets of Arlington, gathering stories at bus stops, dog parks, farmers markets and coffee shops. They heard repeated concerns about the loss of community and the high cost of housing -- how servers, teachers, cashiers and first responders could no longer afford to live where they worked.
The congregation decided to join forces with the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which shepherded the church through difficult conversations with its neighbors -- and plenty of its own members -- as well as negotiations with the local presbytery and the county. The organization then bought the land and constructed a six-story building where the church once stood, with five floors of affordable housing above retail space on the first floor.
Nina Janopaul, APAH’s president and CEO, estimates that more than 400 people have made Gilliam Place their home since it opened in August 2019. Hundreds more remain on a waiting list.
It’s hard to overstate the need for dedicated affordable housing, Janopaul said. Between 2000 and 2017, Arlington lost nearly 85% of its market-rate affordable housing units, largely because of increasing rent prices.
Nationwide, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a shortage of 7.4 million affordable housing units for households living at or below 50% of an area’s median income. In the Washington, D.C., region, that was about $121,000 for a family of four last year.
But faith communities, many of them longtime property owners, are uniquely positioned to address the crisis and expand their missions, said Janopaul, who also serves on the board of trustees for Virginia Diocesan Homes, a nonprofit affiliated with the Episcopal church that explores ways to provide affordable housing to seniors.
What risks might your organization be willing to take for the sake of your neighbors?
“Rather than getting caught up in ‘How can we salvage a building?’ it could be a really sweet opportunity to think big,” she said.
The entire process for Arlington Presbyterian, according to members, was an exercise in allowing God to reveal their purpose. They now rent space on the first floor of Gilliam Place, but that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. After selling the property to APAH, they gave away hymnals, pews and even the church organ, moved into a temporary worship space, and contemplated whether the congregation should continue to exist.
“It’s almost like they became curious about death, the curiosity of how to die well, not where do we go after -- because honestly we have no idea,” said the Rev. Ashley Goff, who became the pastor at Arlington Presbyterian in July 2018.
Goff, who was previously the minister for spiritual formation at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., said she was attracted to Arlington Presbyterian by the church’s steady commitment to doing something radical.
“They risked it all for the sake of their neighbors. They took a building, blessed it, broke it and shared it, poured it out. What they did, for me, was very sacramental.”
‘What does this community need us to be?’
In 2008, Arlington Presbyterian celebrated its centennial, ushering in a period of deep reflection, said Jon Etherton, Susan’s husband. While membership had reached about 1,000 in the mid-1950s, that had steadily dropped; by 2008, a typical Sunday saw fewer than 200 worshippers, many of whom were wondering, “What’s next?”
In fall 2009, the church’s governing board -- its session -- held a retreat to brainstorm possibilities. Selling or leasing its land was among the suggestions the group planned to float at the congregation’s annual meeting. But rough winter weather delayed that meeting by weeks, and by the time it actually happened in late February 2010, members were anxious about the bits and pieces of information that had already dribbled out.
Over the next two and a half years, the church increased its efforts to engage members in the decision-making process, organizing meetings in members’ homes and churchwide retreats where people were invited to share their memories of the congregation and help plot its future.
The resulting consensus, though far from unanimous, was that Arlington Presbyterian should act as if it were a new church in the community, asking itself, “Why are we here? What does this community need us to be?”
With guidance from a coach who specialized in helping congregations become more missional, a vision team from Arlington Presbyterian ventured into the community in pairs to hear the stories of their neighbors. Many of the people they spoke with had grown up in Arlington and still worked there but could no longer afford to live in the community. The team shared its experiences with others in the church.
“The response [of the congregation] was, ‘Wow.’ It was compelling,” said Susan Etherton. “We had tears. Hearts were broken open for these people. This was our ‘why.’”
Initially, the congregation voted to support a plan to preserve the church building while leasing rights above it for an affordable housing development built by APAH. The National Capital Presbytery, which holds the region’s church land in trust, rejected that proposal in early 2014.
“When the presbytery received it, all they could see was the risk,” Susan Etherton said.
The church was urged to consider instead selling the property outright , a simpler process by far but an emotionally difficult one for many in the congregation, who had married, baptized their children or marked the passing of loved ones within its walls.
For whom are the hearts of your organization breaking?
“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Jon Etherton said. “A lot of Sundays, I dreaded coming to church.”
The Rev. Karen Chamis, former director of congregational development and mission for the National Capital Presbytery, said she heard from plenty of members who were upset about the sale. But she was struck by the time and effort the congregation had devoted to uncovering the community’s greatest needs -- and by its commitment to serving them, even if it meant losing members.
“Their focus was not on preserving themselves, preserving the status quo. Instead, they tried to discover what God was calling them to do in the Arlington area, and that was persuasive,” said Chamis, who now serves with a presbytery in New York.
APAH’s Janopaul understood the kind of pressure the church was under, from within and without. In other projects, she had seen firsthand the “natural tension between a church and a neighborhood”; citizens feel entitled to tell a church what it can and can’t do with its property, she said.
At Arlington Presbyterian, APAH encouraged project supporters to counter opposition at public meetings. To further temper concerns, the agency embarked on a public education campaign, explaining the extreme need for affordable housing, offering tours of their other properties and introducing community members to those projects’ residents to “de-escalate the otherness of the equation,” Janopaul said.
The National Capital Presbytery ultimately approved selling the site to APAH for $8.5 million, about 80% of its market value. Since then, the presbytery has established a network to support church-backed affordable housing projects, endorsing one in Washington, D.C., and another in Alexandria. A third proposal from a congregation in Fairfax, Virginia, is in the pipeline.
How might your programs and outreach change if they were done with people rather than for people?
On June 5, 2016, the Arlington Presbyterian congregation held its last service in its longtime home before moving to temporary space nearby. At that point, there was no guarantee that they would continue to operate as a congregation, Susan Etherton said.
“We really had to stop and say, ‘Are we done? Was this what we were called to do, and it’s done? Or is there more for us here in South Arlington?’” she said.
‘We are who we say we are’
Once again in search of clarity, the congregation took to the streets in pairs. Strolling through their old neighborhood, they noticed a lack of green space. As it turned out, APAH didn’t need all the land it had purchased from the church and was planning to sell a grassy plot at the northeast corner of the property to a single-family home developer.
At Arlington Presbyterian’s request, APAH delayed the sale to see whether the church could generate enough support within the congregation to buy back the land for the full listed price, $700,000, which APAH needed to finish Gilliam Place.
Using proceeds from the original sale, the congregation reclaimed the land, setting up colorful Adirondack chairs beneath a shade tree, hanging bird feeders, building raised garden beds and stringing up a banner with an invitation to passersby: “Sit. Pause. Rest.”
Susan Etherton describes the effort as tithing back to the neighborhood that had nourished them for so long. At least monthly, church members began gathering in the tranquil green space to worship.
Securing the land only days before it was scheduled to be sold to a developer felt like a “God moment,” Etherton said, one of many over the years that seemed to point the congregation toward its mission. To continue to care for that land, the congregation decided it needed to move home.
How might your organization use its property to offer pause and rest to the community?
When the Gilliam Place construction was complete, Arlington Presbyterian leased 3,500 square feet on the complex’s ground floor and -- more than three years after leaving the property -- returned for its first service there on November 17, 2019.
On a recent Sunday, about 25 worshippers gathered for a morning service. Seated around the sunny room, they shook tambourines, shaker eggs and maracas as they joined in singing hymns. The space is open and inviting, with a bank of windows down one side, gender-neutral bathrooms, and a wall covered in navy blue Braille wallpaper stamped with words like kindness, compassion, love and courage.
Not everything is brand-new. Two communion cups that sit on a table with the Christ candle were fashioned by a local artist from copper piping and a lightning rod salvaged from the old structure. The copper cross that once graced the church’s spire, felled by the wrecking ball, now leans in a corner, battered, tarnished and green with age, but still striking.
Several church members are becoming active on the Gilliam Place intake team, which assesses the needs of new tenants and helps fill the gaps, Jon Etherton said. And there are still plenty of people in South Arlington who could use assistance.
“We can’t sit here and just rest. We’ve got to move forward,” he said. “This is what believers do. This is what people of faith do.”
Chamis said she folds the tale of Arlington Presbyterian into just about every sermon she preaches. Not every congregation can provide affordable housing, she said. But each can be intentional about becoming the hands and feet of Christ in its own community.
“The values of that church never changed. They just communicated them in a new way: ‘We are who we were. But more importantly, we are who we say we are.’”
Questions to consider
- How might your programs and outreach change if they were done with people rather than for people?
- Have you ever wandered the streets of your community with the only purpose being to listen and learn?
- What risks might your organization be willing to take for the sake of your neighbors?
- Members of Arlington Presbyterian Church reacted to the impact the lack of affordable housing was having on their neighbors. When you consider the needs in your community, for whom are the hearts of your organization breaking?
- How might your organization use its property to offer pause and rest to the community?
For the past three years, members of a Mennonite church in San Antonio have welcomed people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The experience has changed them and their understanding of the gospel.
Around the beginning of Advent in December 2016, a small church in downtown San Antonio, Texas, was transformed into a live-action nativity scene. The drama was unplanned, and it was not make-believe: pilgrimming people were seeking shelter, and San Antonio Mennonite Church became an inn.
Over the course of a long weekend, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement buses unloaded scores of women, men and children who had been released without warning from detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We had ICE buses just pulling up, right out front, and letting people off. It was days of bus after bus,” said the Rev. John Garland, the 38-year-old pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Church.
At the peak, about 500 people crammed into the church. The building looms large over its corner lot thanks to a high sanctuary ceiling and bell tower, but it is narrowly constructed and can feel full with just a few dozen people on Sunday mornings. On this weekend, people squeezed into every square inch -- pews, altar, fellowship hall.
The surge subsided over the course of several days, but as the congregation put the building back in order, they realized that something had changed.
Garland said they weren’t sure what to do next, but they had a core conviction: “It’s our building, but it’s not really our building. We’re going to offer it back to God.”
What are your organization’s core convictions?
Garland was speaking literally -- the church houses pro bono lawyers and other struggling nonprofit groups within its space. But he also was speaking figuratively; ever since that December, the church has funneled resources of all kinds into the care of the migrants and asylum-seekers who pass through San Antonio daily.
The approach to this ministry is necessarily shape shifting; it’s less a fine-tuned system and more a state of mind, a fixed but flexible commitment to respond to needs that are both constant and constantly changing.
The volume of families who get across the border and are released into the United States varies from month to month or even from day to day, depending on a range of factors: the time of year, the weather in Mexico, federal and city policy changes, and more.
But most weeks, anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred recently arrived families show up in San Antonio and need a night or two of safety, quiet and rest -- plus food, a change of clothes, and perhaps help navigating medical and legal issues, as well as planning for the next stage of their journey.
San Antonio Mennonite volunteers do not ask about legal status but presume that virtually all the new arrivals are asylum seekers.
The congregation tries to make a long-term difference in people’s lives by employing an approach called trauma-informed care, which draws on the behavioral sciences to help people heal from the ways that traumatic experiences can shape the brain, producing certain modes of belief and action.
The primary intent when working with traumatized people, Garland said, is to offer “a nonanxious presence.” He explains the practices to volunteers and to the travelers themselves, in hopes that they will absorb healing techniques they can take with them as they journey on.
“Many are moving into situations where they will be surrounded by more traumatized people,” he said. “So they can pick up some tools that they can use for themselves and others.”
All this reflection has come to imbue not just the migrant care ministry but also the way the gospel is presented at the church.
“You realize -- this is what the Bible is about!” Garland said. “Christianity is a trauma-healing movement.”
Welcoming the future leaders of the church
San Antonio Mennonite Church is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, a denomination that is Anabaptist in theology and practice.
Mitzi Moore, a longtime member of the congregation, said that what’s crucial to her about Mennonite faith involves a commitment to the practical work of peacemaking, or reconciliation, working on behalf of vulnerable people.
As Garland puts it, quoting the Anabaptist theologian Palmer Becker, “Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives, and reconciliation is the center of our work.”
What is at the center of your organization’s work?
At Sunday services, this is visible as the congregation blends socioeconomic classes and ethnicities, from longtime Texan congregants to just-arrived, passing-through families from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti or even the Democratic Republic of Congo, which saw 300,000 people flee ethnic violence this summer, many of whom made their way to the southern U.S. border.
Most of these congregants are temporary; their names and faces change from week to week as they pass through the city.
“On any given Sunday morning,” congregant Nick Garcia said, “maybe a quarter are the folks who have not always been there. Then there’s another big percentage that are there because of what [the church] is doing.”
He said that for his part, he’s always looking for ways for the congregation to become even more welcoming and “to bring more of the voices of immigrants into the life of the church.”
Depending on the makeup of the congregation on Sundays, the songs, preaching and announcements are delivered in a mix of Spanish and English.
Then there’s the even more literal work of reconciliation: reuniting families that have become separated from each other, either by the travails of a country-crossing journey or by U.S. officials at the border.
At a temporary shelter called La Casa de Maria y Marta, a couple of blocks from the building, the church houses families who just need a night or two in town.
Families who require a longer stay may be housed a few miles south on a small ranch that offers a couple of multibedroom trailer homes.
Pending funding, the church’s plans also call for a hostel-like facility that could host more families and that would include an on-site counselor and access to legal help.
How adaptive is your organization? Could you quickly respond to a humanitarian crisis?
When the work pays off, Sunday services include stories of family reunification.
In fall 2018, a woman from Honduras named Dolores arrived at La Casa. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.) Dolores is a mother of four who had been separated from one of her children, a 15-year-old girl, at the border.
Her youngest boy was still with her, but her two other boys had stayed behind in Honduras. Later, one was killed by a cartel member. The other, a 10-year-old, decided to make his way north with his uncle, ultimately crossing the border alone.
“Yo llegué a La Casa María y Marta como una gallina comprarado,” Dolores said. I arrived at La Casa de Maria y Marta like a bought hen. Garland, translating for Dolores, said she described herself as a just-purchased chicken, uncertain of her surroundings, ready to peck at anything.
For months, the church worked to help reunite Dolores with her children. Her daughter was held in detention for three months before being released, and her young son was held for a month after his crossing. Each time, Garland accompanied Dolores back to the border, witnessing the mother’s long-awaited embrace of her surviving children.
And each time, Dolores proclaimed that the reunification was the work of a God who had called her into this journey, given her protection and -- even in the face of great loss -- answered her prayers.
Meanwhile, Dolores began to serve at La Casa de Maria y Marta, the church’s shelter. With Garland translating, she described her work.
“The families that come don’t have much, and a lot has happened to them along the way. They’ve suffered a lot,” she said. “But … they think it’s going to be a lot worse here,” where the setting is unfamiliar, next steps are unclear, and they’re surrounded by mostly white strangers.
Dolores serves them, she said, “as a fellow immigrant, giving them advice, giving them my love, my support, hugging, giving them a lot of love.”
Garland said he watches the stories of the immigrant families unfold as lessons in what it means to have faith, to persevere through great trials and to serve -- teaching him and the congregation what it means to be Christian.
“They are better Christians than we are,” he said. “This is the pilgrim church passing through,” and by dint of their growing numbers and their powerful displays of faith, they are also “the future leaders of the church.”
Practicing trauma-informed care
Even when the families manage to cross over and get through processing together, “they are shells when they arrive,” Garland said. “All of them have experienced extreme trauma.”
Some have gone ages without proper nutrition or medical attention, or without washing their bodies or their clothes.
As the congregation has come to know their stories, Garland has introduced trauma-informed practices into the church’s work. In time, Garland hopes trauma-informed care will become an even more explicit aspect of their ministry to recent immigrants, complete with a full-time counselor on-site.
As a framework for dealing with individuals and groups of people, trauma-informed care has for years been a growing trend. From education to criminal justice to professional ministry, caregivers are learning how trauma can produce certain modes of belief and behavior. Trauma-informed practices are designed to take into account the lasting effects of adverse experiences in deciding how to care for people.
Garland came upon trauma-informed care after experiencing trauma himself. He lost his mother to a “terrible, painful death” from pancreatic cancer in 2015. Then, in early 2017, he and his wife, Abby, were involved in a serious traffic accident that left her with several broken ribs and him concussed, with a fractured spine.
Weeks later, well after he’d returned to work, Garland felt like he was “in a trap.”
“I was staring at the wall, not able to parent well or do anything, and not being able to fix it,” he said.
During this time, he was also absorbing the tragic stories of the people coming into the city each day. Trauma studies note the effects of “secondary traumatic stress” from hearing the trauma accounts of others -- a hazard for caregivers.
Eventually, Garland began to study trauma-informed therapy by talking to psychologists with whom the church was partnered, reading trauma theologians such as Shelly Rambo and drawing on resources like the American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute.
Over time, he began to incorporate what he was learning into the way San Antonio Mennonite Church worked with the folks coming to them.
When first-time volunteers -- whether church congregants or other locals who have heard about the ministry -- show up at the shelter, Garland gives them a brief overview.
He explains that a person may be traumatized by the absence of good: hunger, extreme poverty. Or a person may be traumatized by the presence of evil: violence, abuse.
“Either way,” said Garland, “trauma will cause you to experience some situations as if you’re in a hole and the hole is filling with water and you’re drowning.”
Living the trauma-healing gospel
Garland stresses precise behaviors to ease fear when working with people who have just crossed the border or been released from detention: “Always remember that when you approach a woman, you’re going to approach them sideways, like this,” he instructs, angling his body perpendicular to the person standing next to him.
“And you’re looking down; … you’re not making direct eye contact. And you’re not going to stand over them, but you’re going to bend down.”
How does your organization approach people? Do you take into consideration what individuals may have experienced prior to approaching them?
Also: “Never take something out of their hands. Let them hand it to you.”
The work of caring for the folks coming through their city has brought renewed focus and purpose to the members of San Antonio Mennonite Church, both by giving them a mission and by pushing them to be “more grounded and mature” in the faith, Garland said.
This work has also given rise to the church’s growing sense that Christianity itself is a faith and practice designed to heal trauma.
“The Christian movement was birthed out of horrific violence. Paul … was always at risk. He describes being beaten severely and jailed unjustly and in shipwrecks, and [he becomes] this person who has dealt with a ton of trauma writing to people who are dealing with trauma.”
Garland has lately preached the Gospel of Mark as a trauma-informed text, reframing key sacraments and symbols in terms of how they touch on trauma: a “public torture instrument hangs in every church,” he said, and each week Christians consume a broken body and poured-out blood.
The more we understand the impact of trauma on people, Garland said, and the more we’re reoriented in how we approach them and care for them, the closer we’re getting to the heart of what it means to live the gospel.
“I’ve certainly not suffered like Paul suffered,” he said. “But I work with people who have.”
How to ask new -- Christian -- questions about immigration
Because of the local visibility of the work of San Antonio Mennonite Church, the Rev. John Garland is often called upon to discuss and debate this topic that has been roiling American political culture, especially since the 2016 election. When he does so, Garland addresses three types of questions about the immigrants crossing into the United States at the southern border.
1. The legal question: Aren’t we a nation of laws? Can’t we defend ourselves against illegal immigration?
2. The fear question: What if the people crossing the border take our jobs? What if they are violent? What if they change our culture?
3. The scarcity question: How are we supposed to take care of these people? Why can’t they take care of themselves?
“These are good questions,” Garland said. “But they are political questions or economic questions or policy questions.
“They are not good Christian questions. And we, as Christians, have to ask really good Christian questions.”
So what are good Christian questions? Garland returns to the three perpetual questions and applies a Christian filter -- the filter of the gospel -- which transforms them.
Through a Christian filter, the legal question becomes, How are we fulfilling the law to love your neighbor as yourself?
The fear question, which is about “how they are affecting us,” he said, becomes, How is God transforming us and them? How are we all being transformed by the kingdom of God?
And the scarcity question? Well, said Garland, that question could be almost directly lifted from the Gospel accounts of the miraculous feeding with loaves and fishes. “‘How are we supposed to take care of all these people?’ Two times the disciples ask Jesus that exact question,” he said. And in both cases, God expands the available resources to meet the need.
Through a Christian filter, then, the scarcity question shifts to, What is God expanding?
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners receive $10,000 to continue their work.
The Rev. Audra Abt started a Spanish-language Mass and a health access ministry, meeting neighbors’ needs and rejuvenating a small church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In an apartment in Greensboro, North Carolina, fresh fuchsia crepe myrtle flowers brightened the front left corner of a table serving as a makeshift altar. The Rev. Audra Abt, dressed in a clerical collar and a rainbow stole, lifted her hands as she presided over the Spanish-language “Misa,” or Mass.
Most of the nine people crammed into the living room were immigrants from Central America, including host José David Garay, who came from Honduras in 2013. Some sat on sofas next to the photos of his three children, while he and his son sat on the temporarily repurposed dining chairs.
Earlier, Abt had led a discussion about the meaning of the baptismal vows, translating as she went for those who didn’t speak Spanish.
“Buscarás y servirás a Cristo en todas las personas, amando a tu prójimo como a ti mismo?” Abt asked the group. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
The next morning, Abt stood in the pulpit of Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, preaching a Sunday sermon on the good Samaritan to the 20-member congregation, where she serves as part-time vicar.
“Your neighbor is anyone who has need or suffering that lays a claim on your love and care,” she preached. “But your neighbor is also the person that shows up when you’re suffering, even if they cussed you out last week.”
Two days later, Abt greeted visitors to the church’s weekly health access ministry in the rearranged sanctuary, where community members come to meet with a nurse and share a meal. The chairs now surrounded plastic tables instead of the pulpit, and adults chatted while kids chased each other around the room.
The 40-year-old priest’s ministry has multiple strands -- presiding at the Misa for a Latinx house church, mostly because she enjoys it; serving a small, multiracial congregation as a part-time vicar; and organizing a community health access ministry in the church building for the congregation’s neighbors.
How could you adopt a posture of listening in your church? In your neighborhood?
The common thread is engagement with the community, an approach that has benefited both the church and those who live near it.
Spanish-speaking immigrants have found community in a new country, and members of the city’s Episcopal churches have helped out during housing crises and immigration scares.
The small congregation at Holy Spirit has gotten a needed boost of life and energy with the arrival of the new priest, her partner and the new connections to its community.
For Abt, the practice of listening is vital to making these connections.
“Listening is saving me,” she said. “It can break open the church. When the church doesn’t have to be the one to provide salvation or provide answers or fix people, when we need our neighbors and community as much as we think that they might need us, God can do some amazing things.”
Piecing together a career
Abt moved from Ohio to Greensboro in 2010, when her partner, Jen Feather, took a teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, Abt admired the priests, who did the sacramental work of the Mass but were also deeply involved in the congregation’s life. She began asking about the priesthood in the third grade, but quickly learned that women can’t be Catholic priests.
“If I were a boy, they would have helped me discern a call to the priesthood, but for a girl, it was like, ‘Don’t ask those questions,’” she said.
Then at 25, she was invited to an Episcopal church for the first time and began to consider the priesthood again, eventually earning an M.Div. at Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.
She finished her degree after arriving in Greensboro, then began piecing together a career as a priest.
“I’ve never had just one job since I’ve been ordained, nor have I had a full-time position,” she said.
During her time in the city, she has worked at multiple churches and as an area missioner. Currently, she serves half time at Holy Spirit and half time as a mission developer for the diocese, working with three churches in North Greensboro to help them think about their future.
Are there language or other skills you could pursue that would help connect you to your neighbors?
One of the skills she brings to the job is proficiency in languages. Abt learned Portuguese living in Brazil and has spent the past 15 years learning Spanish “backward,” through Portuguese and “lots and lots of patient friends,” she said.
Among those patient friends is José David Garay.
A friendship flourishes
Garay, the host of the Spanish-speaking Misa, arrived in the U.S. with his family in May 2013, eventually settling in Greensboro. He hadn’t wanted to leave El Progreso, the city in northwestern Honduras where he lived; he was a social sciences teacher and enjoyed the life he led. But he left the country when he saw the increase of corruption and drug trafficking.
Garay and his family attended an Episcopal church in Honduras, so when they arrived in Greensboro, he set out to find another one.
He found St. Andrew’s -- the most accessible Episcopal church by bus from his new apartment -- where Abt was working at the time.
Arriving in the middle of the week, he knocked on the door and met a confused secretary who could not speak Spanish. The secretary invited him in to talk to Abt, and the two quickly became friends -- a young priest with a passion for migrant communities and an immigrant looking for a faith community.
Garay and Abt registered his children for school and shopped for the family’s first winter coats. He taught her Spanish songs, and they eventually started a Spanish service at the church.
But after a few months, the services started meeting in homes instead of the church. Garay told Abt that families would gather in people’s homes week by week and then meet at the church occasionally. The house gatherings provided more opportunity for direct conversation and deeper relationships, he said.
“Audra’s enthusiasm helped,” he said. “I appreciate being able to support Audra’s mission. There’s personal fulfillment there.”
The friendship between Audra Abt and José David Garay was vital to their work of connecting communities. Are there friendships that might bear this kind of fruit in your work?
Even though he now attends a Spanish-speaking Baptist service, Garay continues to host the Spanish Misa at his apartment. On a recent Saturday, Fatima Flores, an immigrant from El Salvador, rocked 11-month-old Jair -- who sported red baby Air Jordans and a red snapback hat -- as Abt opened up a discussion of the meaning of the baptismal vows in anticipation of the baby’s Sept. 1 baptism.
Abt asked what it meant to love your neighbor, your “prójimo,” as the vow said.
Flores struggled aloud with the term. In her home country of El Salvador, she said, “prójimo” didn’t always have a positive connotation. It could refer to the victim of a murder, for example -- as when a man was stabbed in front of her in a bakery.
Abt nodded, providing space for the parishioners to process the vows through their own experiences.
The Misa is a place where recent immigrants have found a faith community, something especially important in the current anti-immigrant climate.
As of 2017, an estimated 325,000 undocumented immigrants live in North Carolina, some 40% of the state’s immigrant population and 3% of its population total. Another Episcopal church in Greensboro has made national headlines for housing Juana Tobar Ortega in sanctuary for the past two years to avoid deportation.
The Rev. David Fraccaro, executive director of Greensboro’s FaithAction International House, said he appreciated Abt’s call to welcome the stranger. She is a former board member of the immigrant advocacy organization and has referred people and served as chaplain there.
“She recognizes that the Holy Spirit is moving in new and deep relationships between existing citizens and newcomers -- that there is spiritual gold to be found there,” Fraccaro said.
In Abt’s community, undocumented people face economic insecurity, having to change jobs frequently because employers treat them poorly or won’t keep them long, in view of their lack of papers. Other challenges arise when someone is deported. Abt remembers a mother who was arrested and deported, leaving two children without a parent. Immigration officials neglected to relocate them, but Abt and the community mobilized quickly to find them a new home.
For Garay, support from Abt and Greensboro’s Episcopalians has been critical.
Of meeting Abt in 2013, he said: “God put her there."
‘Playful and neighborly’
At the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, about 20 people gather any given Sunday in a church that once was a house. The wood-floor kitchen holds snacks and tea as the parishioners trickle into the sanctuary, a converted garage that has been expanded and carpeted. Founded 36 years ago, the church has stayed small.
“I’m assuming that when a priest starts a church, there’s probably a number that they’re reaching for. But for whatever reason, we’ve never gotten to that number,” said longtime parishioner Gail Stroud.
Unlike some vicars before her, Abt has not focused on size, but instead on engaging the community around the church.
“I see my role as a clergyperson ... as not just cultivating the internal community of this congregation but to be really present in the neighborhood and in businesses and to encourage the members of the congregation to just be present and know people,” Abt said. “To experiment with different ways of being playful and neighborly to see where those relationships might lead us.”
One of those experiments is the health center, which meets every Tuesday evening at the church.
Abt first started working with Holy Spirit as the area missioner before she became vicar in 2017. The congregation was wrestling with whether to keep doing the same programs or to try something new, even risky. To help them discern what to do, Abt went out with the parishioners and knocked on doors, asking people to share prayers, dreams and concerns.
How could you ask people in your community what they need?
They heard a lot of health concerns: people needed surgeries they couldn’t afford; people had relatives who were depressed and isolated and they didn’t know how to talk to them about it; others had pain that had not been diagnosed; still others were struggling with alcohol. Many of the people they met did not have insurance, and some did not have immigration documents, another barrier to receiving quality medical care.
Partnering with Cone Health’s congregational nurse program, the church began offering an on-site community nurse to help diagnose illnesses, connect people to financial assistance and have conversations about mental health, work and stress. The health access ministry opened in spring 2019.
Then they began wondering what people might do while waiting for health care -- so they decided to start a free dinner.
Some church members were initially unsure whether they could really pull off a free health center and free meal as a 20-member church, Abt said.
“They asked, ‘Can we really do this on our own?’ And the answer is no, we can’t do it on our own. … I was confident God was already sending us the friends we needed.”
Other churches in the area bring food, caterers give leftovers, and a community program called Share the Harvest provides fresh vegetables.
Abt cobbled together free resources and hoped people would come and enjoy them. They did.
Forty-five people have been showing up weekly for the health center and dinner -- double the Sunday service, and the maximum capacity of the sanctuary.
When asked about the explosion of numbers over the course of a few months, Abt said: “That is both the Holy Spirit at work and the result of several years of relationship building."
“On Tuesday, this place is full -- full with people you didn’t even know were our neighbors,” said Margaret Akingbade, a parishioner who helped plant the church 36 years ago. She is an immigrant herself, from Nigeria.
The health center draws many African immigrants and African Americans from the surrounding neighborhoods. Abt and church members are conscious about offering a space for community, not just a space to provide services, and the result is that those who come experience a sense of dignity that they rarely do in other spaces, where they’re treated as cases or clients.
What decisions could you make to humanize those in need?
For example, the church decided to use ceramic plates and metal silverware and have those who come serve themselves. They saw impact that they did not expect.
After a few weeks, as people started to feel comfortable, they began inviting their friends. Neighbors began bringing their own food to share and started a diaper pantry.
Many people arrive on buses, taking sometimes an hour to get to the church, but everyone makes sure that each person has a ride home.
“I feel like I’m being invited into a community, and I feel like I’m meeting Christ,” Abt said.
And seeing this vibrant community form as an offshoot of Holy Spirit has reinvigorated the Sunday congregation as well.
“It’s the most neighbors that I’ve seen in this church in almost 36 years,” Akingbade said.
The church has long lingered with a small membership. The pressure to grow has often caused anxiety, but this gathering of neighbors on Tuesdays has caused a glimmer of hope, not of increased membership or a more secure financial future, but that “church can be fun and enjoyable, and not scary and always praying that God won’t close us down,” Abt said.
Membership numbers have not grown, but the congregation’s sense of purpose has been renewed. They are learning to be better neighbors.