El Refugio offers learning and community to immigrants

Childcare providers teach arts and crafts to children during El Refugio's Summer Fest in 2019. The 2020 version has moved online. Photos courtesy of El Refugio

Childcare providers teach arts and crafts to children during El Refugio's Summer Fest in 2019. The 2020 version has moved online. Photos courtesy of El Refugio

A church-based resource center -- “The Refuge” in English -- works with local institutions to help immigrants build new lives in rural North Carolina. During the pandemic, that work has become even more vital.

Sandra Ruíz moved to the mainland U.S. in 2017 from Puerto Rico, just one week before Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

A longtime friend convinced her to move to Sanford, North Carolina, with her youngest son, who was then 15.

She spent the first weeks traveling. But when she settled in, she realized that not knowing English was going to be a big hurdle in finding a job, despite her 15 years of experience as a second grade teacher.

“Although in Puerto Rico we’re taught English since kindergarten, regrettably, we didn’t pay attention, because we thought of it as one more class to take with no purpose. We didn’t know how much of a necessity it really is,” she said.

Ruíz searched online for free English classes and found a local organization called El Refugio offering just that. The next month, she took a placement exam and showed up to the English as a second language class with a notebook. Her resolve, however, soon gave way to doubt.

“I felt a terrible fear that I had never felt before,” Ruíz said. “I felt fear because I didn’t know the language and I didn’t know what my life would look like in the future. I felt fear because I didn’t know if I had made the right decision to move here.”

But those fears were assuaged by El Refugio’s staff and English instructors, to whom Ruíz remains thankful. Their words of encouragement and the camaraderie with the other students in the class made her feel as though she had a personal support group during this big change in her life.

This story illustrates the benefits of trusting institutional partnerships that share a common mission of serving the local community. What factors are key to their successful collaboration?

She’s not alone. More than six years after El Refugio opened its doors, it has enrolled more than 2,000 students in its language, U.S. citizenship and computer classes; provided child care to more than 500 children; engaged 200 volunteers each year with cross-cultural experiences; and engaged more than 7,000 local residents in cultural events. English-speaking residents have the opportunity to take Spanish lessons as well.

Under the leadership of El Refugio’s dynamic and well-connected executive director, Oscar Hernandez, the organization has positioned itself as an integral resource for immigrants. It has developed relationships with local institutions, such as the school system, the city government and the community college, where Hernandez works.

El Refugio builds vital bridges, helping these institutions better serve the community’s immigrants and helping the immigrants gain access to the services they need. Currently, it is continuing to offer direct services related to needs during the pandemic, while shifting its usual activities online.

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann, standing, and local real estate agents offer a class on first-time home buying to English as a Second Language students and instructors at Summer Fest 2019.

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann, standing, and local real estate agents offer a class on first-time home buying to English as a Second Language students and instructors at Summer Fest 2019.

One of its most remarkable successes: 100% of the 35 El Refugio students who have taken the naturalization exam have become U.S. citizens.

In Ruíz’s first 2 1/2 years in the U.S., she has taken multiple ESL courses, joined El Refugio’s board of directors, obtained a full-time job with the local school district and, most recently, purchased a car.

She continues to take ESL classes because she says she still has a lot to learn. Her next goal is to start a master’s degree program in social work and purchase a house.

“Personally, El Refugio is the best thing I could’ve found here,” Ruíz said. “It’s been a support and strength. They helped me with all my questions when I was new to the county -- where do I look, where do I ask, where do I go. It changed my professional life, my personal life and my family life.”

How El Refugio started

El Refugio, which translates to “The Refuge” in English, is a resource center based at Jonesboro United Methodist Church that provides direct services to Hispanic immigrants in the area. It’s located in the town of Sanford in Lee County, about 45 minutes southwest of the state’s capital. About 26% of the local population is Hispanic or Latino.

In 2013, a local Hispanic ministry combined with Jonesboro United Methodist Church. The pastors wanted to serve not only the spiritual needs of Sanford’s Hispanic residents but also the basic needs of these people living in a new place.

Artist Janice Heller, right, and students display their artwork at Summer Fest 2019.

Artist Janice Heller, right, and students display their artwork at Summer Fest 2019.

The church worked with a consultant who helped them write a grant application to The Duke Endowment; that $150,000 grant launched the organization in 2014 with the vision of “educational, leadership and cultural programs that unite Spanish-speaking and English-speaking families in a ministry of inclusion, mutual service and support.”

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El Refugio has accomplished all of this with three part-time staff, an involved executive board of directors, the support of Jonesboro UMC and a strong partnership with the local community college, Hernandez said.

The Rev. Andi Woodhouse, the pastor of Jonesboro UMC, cites Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31 and Luke 10:27 as the reasons the church started El Refugio.

“This teaching is as radical and challenging today as it was over 2,000 years ago,” Woodhouse said.

“Jesus spent his time on earth with those who were marginalized and outcast. El Refugio continues to faithfully live into its mission of building bridges while promoting interaction with newcomers and longtime residents of Sanford and Lee County.”

‘You’re going to learn’

Teachers from Sanford Latin Dance LLC, instruct EL Refugio students, staff and Jonesboro UMC members how to dance salsa. Oscar Hernandez, far right, takes part.

Teachers from Sanford Latin Dance LLC, instruct EL Refugio students, staff and Jonesboro UMC members how to dance salsa. Oscar Hernandez, far right, takes part.

Makenna Bowers logs in to a Blackboard video call to start the class for her adult students from the deck in her backyard. An umbrella shades her face from the evening sun. It’s a mid-July Wednesday evening in rural North Carolina.

The writing assignment for the class is projected on the full screen, while Bowers’ face appears on the bottom right corner of the call.

Write about what you did over the weekend.

Make sure to have at least 5 sentences.

Reflect -- How was your weekend? How did you feel?

Normally, this Level 1 ESL class takes place in person, but the class has functioned in a virtual format since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a partnership with Central Carolina Community College, El Refugio offers free classes on English as a second language and Spanish as a second language.

Luz Felipe’s name appears on Bowers’ screen.

“Oh, hi, Luz,” Bowers says.

A few seconds later, she asks, “José, estas aquí?”

José Rámos’ name appears.

“Sometimes the microphones don’t work,” Bowers says. And sometimes the internet connection isn’t strong.

But finally, both Felipe and Rámos establish a connection. There are sometimes as many as five to eight students in the class, but attendance has dropped as some students are traveling or work schedules have changed. Others are taking care of sick family members.

Both Felipe and Rámos are residents of Sanford, Spanish speakers who recently immigrated to North Carolina. They’re taking part in El Refugio’s most popular program; it’s one that, as Ruíz discovered, can be vitally important in finding work.

Luz Felipe moved from the Dominican Republic to Florida about four years ago. She married her husband in Florida, and a year later, they moved to Sanford to live near his parents.

“Ever since I moved to the U.S., I wanted to learn English,” Felipe said.

She began to take ESL classes in Miami, but five months into her first pregnancy, the logistics became too hard to manage. Later, the couple moved to Sanford, where they had their second son, Christian.

Felipe heard of the ESL classes offered by El Refugio through a family member in the early spring.

“I’m very persistent when I want to learn something. I would call El Refugio early in the mornings. Then I finally met Mr. Oscar, and he opened the doors for me,” Felipe said.

“The classes had already started, but he gave me the opportunity. He said, ‘It’s not a problem; you’re going to learn.’ From the very beginning, El Refugio has been wonderful to me.”

Felipe began taking the language classes in person in February. Her husband, who works the second shift, would watch the kids in the mornings while she went to class.

About a month later, the classes transitioned to online as the coronavirus began to spread. As is happening in states across the U.S., Latinos in North Carolina are being hit disproportionately hard by the virus.

Felipe now attends classes by computer in the mornings and evenings from Tuesday to Thursday. Bowers, her instructor, calls her every other day so she can practice her speaking skills. Between the classes and the phone calls, Felipe dedicates about six hours a week to her English studies.

“She has so much patience,” Felipe said of Bowers. “She establishes the conversation and asks about my day -- what I cooked, how the kids are -- so I can improve my fluency with her. With her I don’t feel embarrassed. She corrects me, but she does it so sweetly, so you’re not discouraged when you say it wrong. Every day, I feel so grateful for her, because she has helped us so much.”

A ‘lifelong contract’

Oscar Hernandez, 39, is well respected in the community -- it seems that somehow everybody has his cellphone number.

He moved to Sanford from El Salvador with his parents and siblings when he was 18 years old, in 1999. His visa had come through a year before he could finish high school in El Salvador.

Oscar Hernandez is the executive director of El Refugio, a job he combines with full-time work at the local community college.

Oscar Hernandez is the executive director of El Refugio, a job he combines with full-time work at the local community college.

At Central Carolina Community College, he completed all the levels of ESL, obtained his GED and later earned a business administration degree. Now he works full time for the community college as the coordinator of ESL career pathways.

In that position, he has one-on-one meetings with people who are interested in learning English and shows them what career opportunities may be available once they’ve learned the language. He also helps recruit instructors and manages the materials that the ESL classes use.

Hernandez understands the public school system as well. Before working at the community college, he worked as an interpreter and translator for the local school district, helping improve the academic performance of ESL students.

Who are the Oscar Hernandezes in your community? How might your church recognize, appreciate and build on the gifts and service of community servants like Hernandez?

This background has proved vital in his role at El Refugio, providing both connections and insight into the community needs. During his time in the schools, for example, he observed that the students who struggled the most were those who were newest to the school system and the country.

Although Hernandez works part time for El Refugio as the executive director, he calls it a “lifelong contract.”

“I don’t consider this a job. Never. One of the things I’ve learned in rural North Carolina is that you do this type of work because it’s a calling,” he said.

Hernandez, who was raised Catholic, said he’s comfortable leading the UMC-based organization.

“El Refugio’s mission and the Methodist Church’s mission is to serve the community; that fits into what I believe. Sometimes people tell me I breathe El Refugio,” Hernandez said.

Reflecting on his work with the organization, he often switches to Spanglish -- and makes light of how much the organization has expanded during his leadership.

He jokes about “Oscar’s big ideas.”

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The U.S. citizenship and computer classes are among “Oscar’s big ideas” that eventually developed into programs. Under Hernandez’s leadership, the organization established a partnership with Apex Immigration Services -- a low-cost, ministry-based legal clinic -- that has helped more than 50 families in Sanford file applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and temporary protected status just last year.

Deb Taylor, an El Refugio board member and the organization’s treasurer, said Hernandez’s role in the community college has been pivotal to El Refugio’s growth.

“The community college has been an amazing partner for us; Oscar being in several positions in town is a real advantage to us,” she said. “Having Oscar with feet in both of those worlds is just instrumental in our success. He is face to face with the college people and decision makers, and also with the students and the community.”

The community college and El Refugio share the cost of paying the ESL instructors. Additionally, Jonesboro UMC provides the space to hold the classes and sometimes donates event space.

Beyond direct services, El Refugio puts on three big events each year to bring the community together, two of which center on culture and food.

A student and teacher work together to make an apron during Summer Fest 2019.

A student and teacher work together to make an apron during Summer Fest 2019.

Another core event is Summer Fest, a two-week session of classes (such as art, cooking, and photography), legal clinics, and more at no cost to participants. It has moved online this summer, with offerings ranging from how to make hot chicken to TikTok dancing.

Lee County was one of eight counties in North Carolina experiencing particularly high rates of positive coronavirus cases in June. In early May, a worker at the Pilgrim’s Pride meatpacking plant in Sanford died from complications of COVID-19. Although only 9% of North Carolina’s population is Latino, 44% of confirmed COVID cases are in the Latino community, in cases where the ethnicity is known.

El Refugio has taken a hands-on role during the pandemic. In just one week, the staff handled more than 80 calls and text messages from people requesting help and information, people who needed to feel reassured by connecting with someone rather than reading information.

Hernandez and the staff frequently translate messages about the coronavirus published by local government agencies into Spanish and have delivered food to the homes of people who have tested positive for the virus.

Besides its obvious impact on El Refugio’s programming, the pandemic has also complicated an important goal for the organization. More than 50% of El Refugio’s budget comes from The Duke Endowment grant.

Taylor, the board treasurer, said the organization had already begun pivoting to local fundraising this year with a fundraising committee. But the pandemic complicated those efforts, she said, because the organization didn’t want to pull away donations from businesses and individuals who could offer assistance to local residents during this time.

The death from COVID-19 of a meatpacking employee reminds us of the kind of work being done by many of the newest Americans around the country. How is this reality linked with our worship at the Lord’s Table?

Taylor expects El Refugio to be fine financially for now, as program costs are less since everything has moved online, but she does worry about the lost opportunities to reach financial independence before the grant runs out. El Refugio has grown so much that it’s considering whether it should register as a separate nonprofit.

“It is high time to tap into a stronger network of local and regional company, civic, and individual supporters, and it seems the staff and volunteers are in place to move this forward,” she said.

Its clients also are moving forward, as Angel Mills, Lee County’s ESL director, can attest. Mills serves on El Refugio’s board of directors and stresses that the relationship between El Refugio and the school district is a reciprocal one.

Mills has seen firsthand how the ESL classes prepare individuals to work in a professional setting: she hired Sandra Ruíz, the ESL student from Puerto Rico, to be the school district’s migrant recruiter for the federally funded Migrant Education Program.

“She’s smart. She understands parents. She knows people,” Mills said of Ruíz. “She has been an amazing ambassador for both Lee County Schools and El Refugio for adult education and parent involvement in children’s lives. … She is a great example of that.”

Questions to consider

  • This story illustrates the benefits of trusting institutional partnerships that share a common mission of serving the local community. What factors are key to their successful collaboration?
  • The Rev. Andi Woodhouse says that Scripture’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves is radical and challenging today. What is most challenging when you think about loving your neighbors?
  • Who are the Oscar Hernandezes in your community? How might your church recognize, appreciate and build on the gifts and service of community servants like Hernandez?
  • Hernandez comments that his (second) job as executive director of El Refugio is a “lifelong contract” and that he does this kind of work “because it’s a calling.” What work is calling to you today?
  • The article’s mention of the death from COVID-19 of an employee of the meatpacking plant reminds us of the kind of work being done by many of the newest Americans around the country. How is this reality linked with our worship at the Lord’s Table?

Detail of "Divergent Church" book cover

Detail of "Divergent Church" book cover

Dinner churches, cowboy churches, farm-to-table gatherings and much, much more. Across the United States, new and alternative ways of congregational life are emerging.

Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris of the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis took a close look at a dozen of these creatively different congregations in their new book, “Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities.”

As the book’s subtitle suggests, the two found much to admire, Faris said.

“Today, the spiritual and congregational landscape in the United States is such that somebody’s got to innovate and take some risks and try to figure out how to make Christian life relatable,” she said.

The congregations she and Shapiro studied are doing just that, she said.

Kara Faris head shot

Kara Faris

“They haven’t given up. They are driven by something outside of themselves to try this unusual thing.”

Although traditional forms of church are still greatly needed, “there are other ways,” Faris said.

Shapiro is the president of the Center for Congregations, and Faris, the center’s resource grants director and a resource consultant to congregations.

Faris spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about their book. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about the research that you and Tim Shapiro did for the book, and what you mean by “divergent church.”

We spent a little over a year identifying congregations that, at first, we didn’t call “divergent.” We called them “innovative” or “alternative” -- people who were doing something unusual and noteworthy in the congregational world but didn’t have a name for it.

We had different ways of finding them. Some were just Google searches for keywords like “creative church” or “unusual congregations” or “alternative congregations.”

We also asked people if they knew of any congregations that were doing things that were very nontraditional but still served the function of a congregation for the participants. By that we meant in some way providing spiritual formation, a connection to other people, having some sort of cohesive gathering or sense of identity, but maybe it didn’t look like a traditional church.

We ended up finding 12 congregations that ranged from what looked like pretty traditional worship gatherings to gatherings that didn’t look at all like a congregation. But they all had in common what we call “church plus” -- church plus something else.

One example is Galileo Church in Texas. They meet on Sunday evenings for a worship service that is liturgical. They don’t have a bulletin, but there’s an order of service and hymns and prayers. It’s very handcrafted, with a lot written by their worship team rather than using the denomination’s worship book or hymnal.

They’re part of the Disciples of Christ but are very consciously a Christian worship space that is about LGBTQ people and issues. That’s the “plus” part of who they are.

I went to their Sunday worship, and it’s very novel. It’s beautiful. It’s in a nontraditional space that they rent, which alone isn’t revolutionary or different. But their intentional focus on one particular slice of human experience -- the LGBTQ experience -- is their “plus.”

Another example is Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts. They’re a house church and a dinner church -- which, again, isn’t new. They have a liturgy that flows with essentially a potluck meal, so it’s a nontraditional worship experience.

But they’ve had to figure out how to be financially sustainable with a membership of 40 people. Because they were so homespun about everything they were doing, and because they are located on a farm, they started incorporating food into everything they do.

They made a conscious effort to be a farm-to-table church. Their focus is on the ethics of food and how we eat, and how we eat together. They have homed in on that.

But as they baked bread for communion, people noticed that it was exceptionally good. So they started selling it, and now a large portion of their budget comes from selling bread. They’re going to spin off a separate bread-baking business, and they’re moving into pizza making.

That doesn’t distract them from being a worshipping community, but it provides a vehicle for generating revenue and income beyond passing the plate.

That’s new. And it allows them to engage with their town and their neighbors by selling at a farmers market, and they’ve parlayed that into summer internships for kids in the juvenile correctional system in their area.

The “plus” part for them is the bread and the farming. Without it, they would be a dinner church that rents a space. They have incorporated their entire reason for existence into this other, “plus” aspect of what they do.

Q: The book says that whatever form these congregations might take, very traditional Christian practices are at their core. Tell us about that.

We revisited the work by Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass on practice. We did a lot of work on spiritual practices and named quite a few -- things like eating together, welcoming the stranger, and music, which we’ve expanded into broader and creative practices.

Some of these practices are a natural part of the DNA of the Christian tradition but maybe, over time, have lost the sense of feeling like deeply spiritual practices.

Eating together is a simple one to explain. You don’t need a big program about food for eating together to be a spiritual practice, but it does require an intentional awareness of what we’re doing when we sit down together.

Welcoming the stranger is another. For cowboy church, the stranger may be the person who’s out at the horse pavilion who happens to smoke, which is verboten, however moderately, in some strains of Christianity. In other divergent congregations, expected cultural norms lose their significance in light of the “church plus” and other key congregational values.

In other words, adherence to moralistic cultural norms isn’t the pivot point upon which a person’s welcome depends.

Q: What’s the role of innovation in these churches?

Built into the word “innovation” is a sense of risk taking. Major companies recognize the need to take risks. They know there will be risk and failure and learning, but it’s in pursuit of some long-term goal -- profit or perfecting a craft or something -- so the risk is accepted.

But in the religion world, we don’t have a place to give permission for risk taking in the way that some of these innovative clergy do. They are willing to take the risk of, for example, being criticized by their denominational counterparts or by others in the Christian world.

I respect the heck out of their willingness to take a risk. They’re not getting a whole lot out of it. These aren’t big, fancy places. They don’t have big salaries. Some are sticking around long enough and meeting traditional metrics of success, like people in the seats and dollars in the bank.

But it is a conundrum. You can talk about welcoming the stranger, but if you don’t have a viable model to pay for the cowboy pastor, how do you make it happen? In the religion world, that sense of innovation doesn’t happen on such a formalized level.

People can be skeptical: “This is a flash in the pan and isn’t lasting. How are they successful? Show me their metrics.”

Part of my response to that is, yes, it looks different and it’s innovative. It might even seem kooky, and it may not last. But what they’re doing is deeply rooted in tried-and-true faith practices.

Today, the spiritual and congregational landscape in the United States is such that somebody’s got to innovate and take some risks and try to figure out how to make Christian life relatable.

Q: The book says that “meaning making” is one the most deeply innovative aspects of these churches but that many congregations today are so focused on surviving, they’ve lost the ability to do that. Speak some to that.

My hunch is that for many congregations, everything worked well in a different generation, where institutions matched the social fabric. There was a social capital that matched the world that people experienced in their work and in their social life.

That memory gets ingrained and passes from generation to generation but doesn’t get updated. So many congregations get in this pickle where their numbers are dwindling. They’ve got this rich history and a great facility, but they’re in a quagmire about how to stay alive.

Even if they have enough money, they may lack vitality or purpose or identity. They can genuinely want to figure it out and be relevant, but it’s hard to dislodge people from an ingrained way of being.

You get good at doing what you know. It’s not that it’s bad, but they haven’t found a compelling reason to do something different.

Q: What does all this mean for churches, now and in the future? What are the lessons we can learn from divergent churches?

First, if the people featured in “Divergent Church” all fold in a few years, I would see that as a natural evolution of humans figuring out the best way to survive. All these people are tinkering around and doing unusual stuff out of a sense of great conviction.

Even if [their churches] all die, it is still a necessary part of the organism renewing itself. Somebody’s got to do it. It’s a natural function. Certain cells die off; certain cells get rejuvenated. It’s a natural, basic function.

But another part of me thinks that people can learn from these divergent churches to give themselves permission to do something different. If they read about these other people, maybe they will be willing to take a chance and do it too.

There is a place for them. There is a growing community of people like the divergent church leaders who are connecting and doing the work. It’s just more subtle than some other expressions of church.

Q: At some level, the book is about the question of what constitutes a church. So what does a church look like? What will it look like in the future?

There’s still a huge need for a traditional church with a Sunday morning time slot. But there are other ways.

We talked in the book about WAYfinding in Indianapolis, which is the farthest from what anybody would identify as a congregation, because they’re so decentralized.

WAYfinding is a group that identifies as spiritual seekers. They meet in small groups for eight to 10 weeks on a topic that usually has nothing to do with religion, but the curriculum comes at that topic from a faith or a spiritual point of view. The groups meet all around Indianapolis and come together a couple of times a year for larger gatherings.

It’s not a house church, and it’s not like a congregation. It’s not a book club, because they are engaging in some spiritual practices and doing the meaning-making work.

There’s not a liturgy, but there is a flow to every meeting that’s more than an agenda. It’s not a worship service, though the gatherings can be seen as worship to some.

Some would say, “No way.”

But I think, “Yeah, those people are engaging with ultimate questions of meaning. They are talking about God and reading different scriptures and texts that tap into the other or ultimate concerns.”

Are they a congregation? Are they a movement? Are they an alternative gathering for people who want to be spiritual but not religious?

I don’t know. People used to be derogatory about the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” but that phrase isn’t going away.

It may sound spacey, because it’s not rooted in traditional faith language, but those people aren’t going away. They want community. They want leadership and expertise and opportunity to give and to connect with their spirituality.

They’re not going to find it at a megachurch where they can’t get on board with the theology. And they may not find it at a mainline Protestant church where they can’t feel a connection because they didn’t grow up with it or it’s stale or something.

Q: In the book, you say that divergent churches are a summons to the church to loosen up.

Yes. Because it’s going to be OK.

We gathered together many of the pastors featured in the book earlier this year. They’re a fun group, which is delightful, but the intellect and theological knowledge and the heart that was present in those gatherings was deeply serious.

A lot of traditional church concerns and hang-ups like whether to have a beer at dinner are ancient history for people involved with divergent church. Like, “Why are we worrying about this stuff? Let’s think about what really matters.”

Some of it is a reaction to some of the moralistic strains of Christianity.

Q: What do you admire about these congregations?

The hopeful part is that somebody is willing to try. They haven’t given up. They are driven by something outside of themselves to try this unusual thing.

That feels really hopeful. Because otherwise, the only options are what currently exist, which are working for many and aren’t working for many others.

It also feels hopeful because they’re finding people. They’re finding kindred spirits who resonate with doing church differently, people who are willing to give it a go.

Another part that was really interesting is that many of these churches are attached to denominations. I was surprised by how many of them are connected to denominations and are getting substantial denominational support, both financial and otherwise.

Q: How can traditional congregations use this book? What’s in it for them?

It’s a tough question, because the book isn’t a how-to. But you don’t need to duplicate what they’re doing.

Sharing these stories contributes to a greater awareness that other ways are available to express yourself as a person of faith. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to create that sort of space, there are predecessors. You can take heart from what these other people have done.

Humans have a very strong need to make meaning, and they’re going to get that need met, one way or the other.

It’s not going away. It’s just changing, and somebody’s got to figure it out, which is where I get back to these divergent church leaders. I’m proud of them and admire them, because they’re willing to figure it out in the midst of a lot of ambiguity. There’s no formula, but they’re still trying.

"Divergent Church" book cover

In this excerpt from the introduction to their new book, Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris say that congregations aren’t going away, and neither is congregating. Creative, alternative faith communities are finding new ways to connect to the Divine.

A new kind of congregation is emerging, one in which tried and true practices are expressed in creative ways. To develop innovative ways of expressing these practices, talented leaders -- both clergy and laity -- are developing congregations shaped by unique, contemporary expressions of time-honored religious practices.

The focus of these new, emerging congregations unfolds naturally from their setting. These congregations almost always have a focus beyond worship itself: growing and serving food, collaborating with other nonprofits, providing resources for musical and theatrical performance, befriending the homeless, celebrating Appalachian culture, and much more. The focus itself does not constitute the tried and true practices expressed in creative ways. However, the focus is upheld by time-honored practices such as shaping community, conversation, artistic expression, breaking bread, community engagement, and hospitality. The creativity comes from the stuff of the community, not from something that can be acquired off the shelf from a distant location. This juxtaposition of tried and true religious practices expressed in a highly contextualized manner leads to what we call divergent churches.

The kinds of congregations we learned from take many different forms. These divergent communities include nonprofit/congregation hybrids; multicultural communities; coffee shop, pub, and food-oriented churches; businesses combined with churches; churches focused on a particular social need like homelessness or housing; congregations of particular groups of people like cowboys or members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) community; house churches or dinner table churches; gatherings that have a spiritual intent but may or may not meet the definition of a congregation; satellites and multisites; denominational church plants that do not look like previous efforts; and so forth.

Yet, the visible innovations aren’t the only creative expression of these congregations. What is most striking about these divergent congregations is how the leadership has taken a time-tested practice and made it shiny and new in their present context. Such reconstituted practices bring people closer to one another and to God.

We wrote this book as a witness for these congregations. We believe they represent a bright future for faith communities. That bright promise is born out of discontent and critique of some expressions of Christian religious life, but also -- and more importantly -- ingenuity, persistence, risk-taking, patience, urgency, and deep tugs on the soul for something new. The premise of this book is that people from many representations of religiosity and belief are creating faith communities that reflect the basic human need for connection to the Divine, for connection to one another, and to contribute to the flourishing of the world. …

Through this book, we are witnesses to an awakening. We’re asking others to be awake to it as well. Our aim is to demonstrate the importance of simply (or not so simply) being aware to what changes are happening and who’s making them and why. Listening to another and then telling a story is a simple concept in terms of human interaction. Yet, we think bearing witness to something that is good and life-giving has an exquisite purpose.

Something essential to being human is at stake. What is at stake is more than the survival of the church. What is at stake is more than organizational vibrancy as it relates to congregational life. What is at stake is the human yearning for meaning and transcendence.

Making meaning out of life is a basic human impulse, and connecting with and understanding the Divine is part of that quest for meaning-making. Because gathering with others to experience the Divine is a basic human impulse, formalized religion and spirituality is a foundational element of human experience. Congregations aren’t going away; neither is congregating. Healthy, organized expressions of religion and spirituality contribute to human flourishing.

As these divergent churches emerge with new ways to connect to the Divine, the people involved in these will touch their cities, neighborhoods, workplaces, families, and friends. Supporting the health of these expressions is both a validation of these faith communities and an immersion into vibrant religious experience.

Excerpted from "Divergent Church: The Bright Promise of Alternative Faith Communities," by Tim Shapiro and Kara Faris, published by Abingdon Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.