Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows: Congregations should see their buildings as assets, not albatrosses

Talking about church buildings is fun for the bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis -- not just because she is trained in architecture and historic preservation, but also because it leads to questions like, “What is this congregation for?”

When Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows was growing up in New York, she walked all over the city, reveling in the historic buildings all around her.

She was inspired to study architecture, urban planning and historic preservation as an undergraduate and graduate student. Then, encouraged to discern a call to ministry by leaders at Trinity Church Wall Street, where she was an active member, she earned an M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows

Photo courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis

“I was being called to be a priest who also knew something about preserving all of these old church buildings,” said Baskerville-Burrows, who wrote her master’s thesis at Cornell University on the role of church buildings in revitalizing downtown communities.

In her current role as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, she continues to combine these areas of expertise.

“Instead of seeing buildings as albatrosses, I have always seen them as opportunities for ministry,” she said. “To me, they are part and parcel of the work of being bishop.”

Baskerville-Burrows, the first Black woman to be elected diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church, oversees 48 churches in central and southern Indiana. She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the role of religious buildings in ministry, in communities and in the work of racial justice.

Faith & Leadership: How do these interests combine in your work now?

Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows: Bishops have oversight over people and assets that make ministry possible, and buildings are usually the largest asset that congregations hold if they don’t have endowment funds.

If a congregation is going to have a place out of which to do ministry and worship, then it’s got to have a building that’s connected to and appropriate for that purpose. And if a congregation is going to be planted in a community that it has relationships with, then ideally the building is serving a role in the community beyond that of just the congregation.

I am always asking the question, “Who else shares your space?

“Who else has access? I entered your building, and I didn’t know even how to get in. How are you thinking about your signage? How are you thinking about your neighbors who are adjacent to your property?”

Those are all signs and signals about the vitality and possibility for ministry of a congregation, to me.

Buildings come with all kinds of anxiety, because often people don’t know what to do about them. I see that part of my role pastorally is to help congregations and their leaders not see them only as sources of anxiety.

F&L: How do you do this?

JBB: I talk about it a lot. We try to create a context where the building is not just a topic for when there’s an emergency -- the roof fell in or there’s a flood or we can’t get in our buildings because there’s a pandemic.

I meet with all the priests and deacons of the diocese who are active every year. We talk a lot about how if you’re going to have a building, it’s got to be tied to the mission. And congregations then need to know what their mission is.

This time that we’re in a pandemic, we’re saying, “Well, what kind of use do you want these buildings to serve, now that you’ve been out of them for all this time?”

I can set the conversation. It’s a lot of fun to be able to do that.

F&L: How can you help folks reframe their thinking about the building, moving it from liability to asset?

JBB: I think part of it is talking about it that way. It’s complicated. There’s no one easy thing to do.

A lot of the talk in the church is that the building is always a problem -- except for our worship space, which we love and we never want to change.

If we think about the building as an asset, which has been a lot of the work of Partners for Sacred Places and a couple of other statewide preservation groups, [we change that conversation].

They’ve been saying that buildings are a lot of work and they were built to do things that we no longer do and they were built to hold congregation sizes that we no longer have.

So how do we use them for the ways in which they can be an asset not just to us but to the rest of the community -- which is an ethic the church should have all along, right?

To those who are in small congregations struggling with big buildings, I think first of all trying to help them see that yes, it’s a burden, but there are also some opportunities, and it may be that that congregation shouldn’t be in that building anymore.

As a preservationist and an ordained person, I’ve never been fundamentalist about it.

I’d say many of our church buildings are not best cared for by our own people. I’d rather see them be put in the hands of somebody else who can take care of it better -- a different denomination, a different use -- than to see what our churches do by letting them crumble around them because they can’t let them go. The demolition by neglect -- that’s the train wreck.

We’re going to go over that cliff very quickly in the next five or six years, with the number of buildings that will not be able to be sustained by the congregations that have title to them.

F&L: Do you think the pandemic will hasten congregations’ going over the cliff?

JBB: Absolutely. The pandemic is an amplifier and accelerator, and it’s going to amplify and accelerate some of the trends that are troubling. But it can also amplify and accelerate some good things, so let’s try to get more in the driver’s seat on this.

Not all of the congregations are going to make it through this pandemic in the way that they were before. And that’s ultimately a hopeful thing for the church.

Because we’re finally asking the questions, “What is this congregation for? What is the building for now that we’re not in it?”

Most of our congregations, and I think this is true in other denominations and faith groups as well, to the extent that they’ve kept their buildings open, it’s been primarily for serving the community.

Food pantries have continued to function. Meal programs have been adapted and continue to distribute meals to people who are used to coming to a sit-down for lunch every week. We have a clinic in one of our churches that has continued to function. It’s the only place to get free health care in the county.

People have been worshipping online, but the ministry and presence has continued. That’s teaching us something we should be paying attention to, I think.

Clearly, we don’t need the buildings to be a church community. We need to be able to gather, but we may not need to do it in the buildings we’ve historically done that in. And if the buildings are hampering our ability to do the ministry, then we need to ask some hard questions about that and confront the answers.

We have 48 congregations [in our diocese], and so we’re small enough that we can check on all of our congregations each month.

We know what’s going on on the ground, because we’re checking in on them on a rotating basis. We are trying to have congregation leaders check in on their people between my visitations, the visitation of my canons, just watching carefully what’s happening. We meet every other week with the clergy and wardens who are serving churches who don’t have settled clergy.

It’s not a survey, but we’ve got good anecdotal data to give us a sense of what’s happening.

I’d rather have a small diocese in terms of numbers of congregations that are really clear about who they are, why they exist, what their call to walk with Christ is about and what their building can do to help support that mission than to have 48 churches half of which don’t know why they’re there and their building is just empty most of the week.

That’s not edifying to God. It just isn’t. The work of my episcopate is to help shape that conversation.

F&L: What’s your vision for your diocese, which has a lot of small-membership congregations?

JBB: That’s a really big question.

What I say to people in the diocese is that we have started churches, congregations, and we have closed buildings over the whole of our 180-some-year history. We’re going to continue to do that, and we’re not going to be afraid of it.

So we can start a congregation like Good Samaritan, which has got some land banked. They’re probably going to build a building that has a ministry-center focus with a space for the congregation to worship. It’s not going to be a big worship space with a small parish hall.

They’re flipping that script, because they’re a community that’s built upon the notion that they serve.

We have St. John’s, Speedway, which is worshipping at the golf course clubhouse next to the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They’re a pretty healthy congregation of some 30 people that is about as vibrant and active as I would want some of our most long-standing congregations with stone buildings to be.

The mission we have as a diocese is to be beacons of Jesus Christ, to be inviting people to join us in the work of transformation, to stand with the marginalized and vulnerable and be working to transform systems of injustice and to be networking with anybody who will come along with that vision, people of faith or none.

That’s the work, and to be raising up leaders, lay and ordained, to do that.

When I get up in the morning, my question is -- after thanking God for a new day -- how are we doing that?

Because of the legacy of the Lilly family over the years, we have resources to say, “Your roof has caved in? We can give you a revolving loan and help you with that.”

[My predecessors and other leaders] set up that fund because they understood the value of having some resources set aside for building emergencies -- because those things happen -- so we don’t have 48 emergencies all the time with the buildings.

The conversation I have with other bishops is, “How do you put in place some of those mechanisms? How do you change that conversation in the diocese around the buildings?”

When I think about most of my colleagues in the Northeast, [I know that] their problems are outsized compared with ours, because of the size of their buildings, the price of the real estate, the price of living and all of that stuff. I just need to say that upfront.

But I don’t think that any of that gets us out of the conversation of “How does our building serve our mission?”

F&L: How is your work with buildings connected to your commitment to racial justice?

JBB: I just think racial justice is the work that has to be done 24 hours a day, all the time, every place. To the extent that buildings can host conversations, I think this is a gift that the church is learning to step into, even now in this pandemic.

The place where social justice and racial justice issues come into play with church buildings is really more about the fact that in the Episcopal Church and lots of mainline churches, we have decided that we don’t need churches in poor, Black and brown neighborhoods and we’ve opened up churches in suburbs. This is the story across Protestantism.

The fact is that particularly in poor, Black and brown communities, a church building plays a lot of roles for that community way beyond what the small congregation that’s using it on Sunday [may need].

We now thankfully have this Lilly Thriving Congregations [grant] that we’re starting in partnership with Partners for Sacred Places. We have this grant in partnership with them and with our statewide historic preservation office, Indiana Landmarks, which has a Sacred Places Indiana program.

Collaboratively, we’re going to work with those institutions and with the Diocese of Northern Indiana to do this asset mapping. We talk about the assets of our leadership, and now we’re saying, “Well, what are the assets that the building has -- and every building has them -- that provide opportunities for a more effective mission?”

Bigstock/Daria Nipot

Using a method from anthropology, a pastor and researcher studies congregations through “deep hanging out” online.

Erin Raffety combines her training as a cultural anthropologist and a Presbyterian pastor to understand and inform her theology -- and to understand what’s going on in congregations.

As the pandemic forced churches online, Raffety and researchers she’s working with on an ethnographic project pivoted online too, adapting their in-person methods to the digital world.

“I helped train student researchers in doing ethnography, and then we had to take all of that ethnographic work online suddenly, as everything happened with COVID,” she said. “Because we still wanted to get to know these congregations and work with them.”

This effort is part of a national study, headed by Gordon S. Mikoski of Princeton Theological Seminary, in which a team of researchers is working with 23 congregations to learn about ecclesial imagination and how it helps congregations adapt and reinvent themselves.

“Honestly, it’s been one of the most hopeful things in my life, doing this research over the last several months,” Raffety said. “We want people to be encouraged by it.”

Erin RaffetyRaffety is a research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. Her primary research interest is congregations and people with disabilities. She spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the ethnographic research project and how ethnography is helpful even to nonresearchers. The following is an edited transcript.

F&L: Briefly describe what ethnography is, and explain your usual methods in nonpandemic times.

Erin Raffety: “Ethnography” is a confusing term. It’s both an epistemology and a methodology, so it’s both a way of knowing and a way of being in the world. It’s the process by which we do research, and the books that anthropologists write we also call “ethnography.”

The method that I was taught and I use is participant observation. While we come to congregations or to people with particular questions or concerns, we really try to have humility about what the congregation or the people we’re studying think is important -- what concerns they have, and what they have to teach us. It’s a really dialogical process.

I always refer to it as “deep hanging out.” Typically in ethnographic research, I would spend as much time as possible with the people I’m trying to get to know and study, and that would be in both formal and informal settings.

I would be following them around through lots of experiences and processes in their lives. That means actually participating in worship and the life of the congregation and the other things that they’re up to.

We ourselves are the instrument of research, so the goal is to actually be aware of and embrace your bias and then to participate as a full person and, through your dialogue with the people that you’re studying, to really get to see something true and real about human life.

F&L: Could this approach be helpful for folks in congregations who aren’t researchers?

ER: The work of ethnography is really slow, so you have to take a lot of time to get to know people. I think that there’s this really important thing that happened in our research, where we didn’t have the anxiety of having to solve all the problems that COVID presented to these congregations.

We’re just walking with them through it. And so we have a very different point of view in terms of being open to watching God move among them.

When you are a pastor, you’re just experiencing, “This is so impossible and this is so hard, and nothing I’m doing is making a difference.”

When you’re a researcher, you have a different perspective. These congregations are continuing to do ministry amid circumstances that we couldn’t have even imagined. They’re now creating community online.

I’ve definitely talked to pastors who have said, “When we break out into Zoom groups and people are in groups that they normally wouldn’t sit in in coffee hour, they’re having conversations that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

I don’t want to be too trite and say, “Take on this researcher role with your congregation and it will be easy.”

Because it’s actually really, really hard right now. What we’re hoping is that our research is able to say, “Here are some ways that God is helping congregations thrive despite all these challenging circumstances.”

Beyond just experiencing it as a moment of challenge or stress, I think there’s this question in my mind: Isn’t this an incredible moment of reformation for the church?

And who are we becoming? And what is God doing?

When you get to ask questions like that, you just experience everything so differently. I think curiosity is a way of loving the world and being in love with the world and being in love with what God is doing.

That sounds quite simplistic, but I do think that reorientation to being curious about what God is doing can sometimes be a real resource in ministry and leadership.

F&L: What can you and others learn from this kind of study?

ER: I never say I do research on people, because I just think that’s really inaccurate. I always say that I need people and I need congregations to better understand the world, so I do research with people. I think it’s a really important reorientation, especially for budding ministers.

I think in theological education, one of the things that sometimes we’ve maybe failed to teach our students is that congregations have a lot of wisdom and resources to offer them, and they’ve been around a lot longer than the pastors that come to them.

F&L: What are the challenges when you move to the digital space? Are there best practices?

ER: There are people that have been doing studies of lived religion and religious communities that are online for decades. One of the things that they have pointed out is very few communities exist only online.

There’s this fluidity between the online and the offline lived experience that’s important to get at and to not simplify into this binary. We’re already living in this hybrid world.

Because of the pandemic, many more practices of sociality have gone online. People rapidly moved services online, and so we said, “OK, well, we’re going to use the methods that people are using to worship -- like Zoom -- to participate in and observe their worship.”

In some ways, this entire experience of the pandemic has been like a crash course for any ethnographer in how to do digital ethnography, because it’s all you have. Obviously, this has some differences in a digital environment, but it’s still very relevant, I think.

It certainly creates challenges. Part of it is because of our biases. We have this sense that -- and a lot of churches have the sense that -- what’s happening online right now isn’t a real reflection of who they are.

One of the challenges is that people in congregations, but also researchers, tend to have this suspicion around, “Is what is happening online real? Does it matter?” There’s all this nostalgia about the way we were doing things before the pandemic.

That’s all relevant, because that’s actually how people are feeling.

But it takes away from the fact that what’s happening right now is actually people are having to worship online. So there’s this incredible gift that we’re getting to study it in real time and experience it as they experience the challenge of it, and some of the emotions that come with it.

There’s something so significant about getting to study this particular cultural moment -- and what other methods would you use? Of course you would use Zoom.

F&L: So the switch could be as simple as going into a Zoom service to observe and participate versus going to a congregation’s in-person Sunday worship?

ER: Yes.

F&L: What are you learning?

ER: I can tell you about one of the preliminary hunches that we have about the research.

One of the things that we noticed when our researchers started attending Zoom worship services or going to Bible study online or going to staff meetings with the churches is they were saying, “Hey, I’m feeling I can connect with the pastors and staff” -- because when you’re watching a Zoom service, they’re all visible. “I’m getting to know the leadership of this congregation really well, but I can’t see the people, so I’m having a hard time getting to know the congregation.”

This is what I think your average worshipper is complaining about too.

I can put on gallery view in Zoom, but I don’t have that experience of looking around the entire service and experiencing the body of Christ.

Because worshippers are having the same challenge that our researchers are having, a lot of churches have made adjustments and have found their own ways to make the church, make the congregation, visible.

In one congregation we’re studying, they’ll all unmute at certain times in the service and pray contemporaneously all together. You have that cacophony of voices, and you have that sense of being surrounded by people that for them is very familiar. They are creating familiar routines, rituals, contexts.

Heidi Campbell has been doing digital religious studies forever. She talks about different modes of either transferring or translating practices online, versus transforming.

That might be an example of transforming, where a congregation is saying, “OK, what are people really looking for? What are they looking to connect to? We’re not just going to put our service online.”

F&L: Have you all faced issues with people who don’t have access to technology?

ER: That’s a really important constraint of our study. Pretty early in the game, we decided we’re not really going to be able to do this type of research very well if a congregation doesn’t have an established website or doesn’t have some sort of video presence and isn’t doing these things remotely.

One of the goals of our study is to include a very diverse sample, so we have a lot of racial, ethnic diversity. We have a lot of geographic diversity. I think we definitely have a decent amount of diversity in terms of size, and also socioeconomic, but [technology] certainly was a constraint, because we just don’t have any other way of getting to know churches.

F&L: How are congregations adapting?

We have a researcher who, when he started to work with a congregation in Arizona, they mailed him a seed packet, a wildflower seed packet, and a little cactus. The church has a “Touchpoints” ministry where they are using tangible items to connect people during COVID. The wildflower seed packet and cactus were part of a package they mailed to all new members. Another thing they’re doing for existing members is exchanging small painted rocks to feel members connected in a “touchable” way across screens.

I think that that’s just an interesting example of how they’re working -- the online versus the offline space.

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.

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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.

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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.”

What work is calling to you today?

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?

A portion of the North Star window at Chicago's New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. It represents the great migration of African Americans leaving the South and includes images of the church's longest-serving pastors. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers

A Chicago church has installed a trio of stained-glass windows to help its members reclaim their past, honor their present and look ahead to their future.

The praise dancers, dressed in black, moved in a sea of color, surrounded by the jewel tones of the sanctuary’s rose windows and the parishioners’ attire. In a space now shared with their ancestors, the girls embodied the strength and resilience they had inherited, their choreographed movements amplifying the message of a song from the movie “Harriet.”

“I’m gonna stand up, take my people with me … I hear freedom calling, calling me to answer.”

Members of Chicago’s New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, where the young women danced, are well-practiced in telling their story through art. That includes the trio of 25-foot rose windows, through which the church has embraced the tradition of stained glass as a teaching tool while depicting the unexpected.

An early March Sunday service at Chicago's New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

The Maafa Remembrance, North Star and Sankofa Peace windows capture narratives from the past and present. In this season when the Christian church celebrates resurrection, the people of New Mount Pilgrim visibly honor both pain and promise through them in ways that are heartbreaking, breathtaking and unavoidable.

“To be spiritually healthy, a person has to have a healthy sense of remembrance,” said the Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch Sr., the church’s pastor.

To celebrate the Lord’s Supper is “to remember the places where we have fallen and been lifted, the suffering and sacrifice it has taken,” Hatch said. “We often deal with the abolition of slavery movement and liberation for black people from bondage in America and the way the exodus or the Passover story undergirds the Lord’s Supper.

“We’re part of a continuum of that liberation narrative of God.”

Taken together, the trinity of windows represents many things to New Mount Pilgrim: the claiming of the worship space as their own, the fuller representation of narratives too often ignored by broader culture, and a willingness to confront unimaginable grief by putting it at their spiritual center.

The Maafa Remembrance window. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

In the Maafa Remembrance window, the Christ figure’s outstretched arms are shackled and his face turned upward. The sacrificed one is an African man whose body is depicted as a slave ship. Each of the figures within it is a human being, confined while being transported across the Atlantic.

“Maafa” is a Swahili word meaning great disaster or calamity, and the word “remembrance” encircles the window’s center, melding the suffering of millions during the middle passage with the passion of Christ.

The North Star window represents the great migration of African Americans leaving the American South in the first half of the 20th century. It also commemorates the congregation’s story, with images of its three longest-serving pastors.

The Sankofa Peace window, the most recent addition, takes its name from a word of the Akan people of Ghana meaning “go back and retrieve it.” It memorializes young African Americans killed by violence during the civil rights movement and, more recently, in Chicago neighborhoods. At the same time, it offers a vision of restoration -- a dark-skinned Jesus leading children to green pastures and still waters lined with thatched-roof homes.

“It’s about the journey back to reclaiming the value of the village, which is the way we see the Bible,” Hatch said. “More than art, though, it has driven our community ministry [with a vision of] hospitality, family, extended family, mutual support, the centrality of children and the elders, and people in the margins being brought to the center.”

The Sankofa Peace window. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

New Mount Pilgrim, which has 1,200 members on the rolls, belongs to the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. For almost three decades now, members have been transforming the sanctuary -- previously home to an Irish Catholic congregation, before redlining and white flight flipped the neighborhood’s demographics -- into a space that reflects the ethnicity of its present flock.

When they purchased the building in 1993, they acquired with it years of deferred maintenance. The rose windows in place at that time were buckling, and the congregation had two options: repair them with the existing fair-skinned depictions of Jesus, Mary and other models of faith or create their own stained-glass art reflecting the current congregation’s heritage.

“We had the trilogy in mind 20 years ago, not knowing it would take that long,” Hatch said.

As the members set out to make the sanctuary their own, church leaders found new homes for the existing rose windows. The congregation also raised $35,000 from the sale of a marble altar and used those funds for the roof and other exterior work. They sold two statues to a convent for an additional $8,000 for repairs.

In the late 1990s, Hatch was on sabbatical at Harvard Divinity School when he came across an art book by Tom Feelings, an African American artist from New York, about the transport of African slaves across the Atlantic to the New World. The images in “The Middle Passage” had a deep effect on Hatch, and his congregation would eventually choose one of them for the Maafa window.

The congregation gathers at New Mount Pilgrim. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

Feelings attended New Mount Pilgrim’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2000, at which the window installation was dedicated, and he was so moved by the power of such an image in a church that he refused the money the church had offered him for its use, Hatch said.

“We became friends after that,” he said. When Feelings died in 2003, Hatch delivered his eulogy.

The schematic of the slave ship Brookes that Feelings incorporated into his art originated with the British abolitionists. In a history of that movement, one of the activists is said to have noted that it never failed to evoke horror.

Centuries later, New Mount Pilgrim’s window is thought to be the largest representation of the slave ship diagram in the world, according to Cheryl Finley, an art historian and the author of “Committed to Memory: The Art of the Slave Ship Icon,” which traces the use of the icon from abolitionist posters to more-recent visual arts and pop culture.

Finley writes: “Undoubtedly, the crucifixion offers a compelling parallel, for both images have been repeatedly rendered and reworked over the centuries, but they simultaneously embody death and rebirth. The slave ship … is a site of death, of dying Africans, and of new life, of a people who would persevere in the face of slavery and unspeakable cruelty to become a free people who helped define the modern era.”

The Rev. Marshall Hatch Jr., the executive director of the Maafa Redemption Project, a ministry of the church, wrote his master of divinity thesis on the Maafa window. It is a communal symbol, he said, for people who have experienced “the crucifixion of black people in America” through not only slavery but also Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police violence and other oppression.

The Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr. preaches at New Mount Pilgrim. Photo courtesy of Charissa Johnson Photography

“It’s iconic in that it’s a relationship between the art and the congregation that produced it,” he said. “It invites constant reflection and wrestling over time.”

The North Star window, also completed 20 years ago, bears witness to the journeys of millions of African Americans in the early to mid-20th century who moved to urban areas in the North and West seeking economic opportunity and safety. That history includes the Hatch family’s ancestors, as well as longtime New Mount Pilgrim pastor the Rev. James McCoy, who came to Chicago from the same Mississippi town as Hatch Sr.’s father.

At the North Star window’s center is a scene inspired by the 1970s Alex Haley book and related TV miniseries “Roots,” with the ritual of an African father lifting his newborn child to the heavens and saying, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself!” The New Mount Pilgrim congregation sees a similar moment embodied in its baby blessings as the infant to be blessed is lifted by the pastor.

“That’s the true north of any community, … the lifting up of the next generation as its hope,” Hatch Jr. said.

After the first two rose windows were replaced and the necessary maintenance completed, the third window was allowed to remain as clear glass with a sun film for the next 19 years.

The North Star window. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers

Planning for the Sankofa Peace window began in late 2016. New Mount Pilgrim’s youth chose five young people killed by violence in Chicago to be represented in the window, alongside the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At the times of their deaths, the youth in the window ranged in age from 11 to 17. They are depicted in African garb, surrounding an image of Jesus.

The North Star window speaks to the Sankofa window, Hatch Jr. said, calling the people to create policies that lift children up and prevent violence and tragedy.

“It’s a call to action … to recreate, reconceive, reimagine beloved community,” he said. “It’s the Sankofa window that imagines the day after resurrection.”

Among those in the window the congregation remembers as martyrs is one of its own. Demetrius Griffin Jr., who was christened and baptized at New Mount Pilgrim, was murdered in 2016 not far from the church. He was 15.

Rochelle Sykes, his aunt, also grew up in the congregation and is now on staff. She said his death is agonizing for the family -- many of whom are part of the congregation -- and the community. To have a family member die “at someone else’s hands -- it’s like something has been snatched from you,” she said, looking up from a pew between the Maafa and Sankofa windows. “Sitting in this sanctuary, sometimes it just eases that pain, it eases that ‘Why?’”

Sykes was present when the Sankofa window was installed. It gives her hope to offer children and youth the experience she had of feeling embraced by the congregation, “showing you how God loves you and how to spread that love to others.”

The building previously housed a Catholic congregation. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

Though Griffin’s murder remains unsolved, that of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, another of the window’s youth, led to the controversial prosecution and conviction of the Chicago police officer who fatally shot him in 2014. Jason Van Dyke was sentenced in 2019 to less than seven years in prison. Several youth connected to the congregation knew McDonald and asked for his image to be in the window, church leaders said.

Yet McDonald’s death had power far beyond those who knew him, explained the Rev. Stephen G. Ray Jr., the president of Chicago Theological Seminary and of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. Because a Chicago police officer shot McDonald 16 times, and because of the city government’s efforts to cover up Van Dyke’s actions, Ray said, the murder resonates with the vulnerability that young black people feel, faced with structures of white power and violence.

“He then becomes a martyr to all black lives that are lost for no other reason than because they were black,” Ray said. In the context of the larger window, this is the way the community expresses and passes along to future generations that “the lives of all of our children are sacred,” he said.

Worshippers at New Mount Pilgrim. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

For all three windows, the church collaborated with Botti Studio of Architectural Arts, a company that has worked on high-profile projects such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Botti Studio designers helped New Mount Pilgrim leaders adapt images they had in mind and translate them into stained glass.

The church raised more than $110,000 in donations from within and outside the congregation for the final window. It was dedicated in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first African enslaved people’s reaching the English colony of Virginia.

In New Mount Pilgrim’s sanctuary, the newer art lifting up black life and the resilience of black people stands in contrast to the preexisting stained-glass windows and murals closer to the floor, which depict Jesus, saints and others as European in appearance. For the church’s black congregants, appreciating such devotional art requires an ability learned growing up in a white supremacist society, Ray said.

Some stained glass predates the current congregation. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

“Part of what the system of white supremacy does is it gives black people the capacity to see the humanity of white people even if that’s not reciprocated,” he said.

As a result, black people can look at white depictions of Jesus, the apostles and other models of faith and see through the white skin to the humanity, he said. Black Christians don’t make a one-to-one correspondence between a fair-skinned Jesus and the real Jesus. In contrast, many white Christians have simply looked at ancient models of faith depicted with European features “like a stylized photograph,” he said.

These tensions exist across the country, especially with respect to the role and function of stained glass, Ray said. Since the great migration, there has been a national phenomenon in black church life of sacred spaces, both synagogues and churches, not having been built by the black congregations, he said.

Some Afrocentric congregations, such as Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago, constructed their own buildings rather than worship with religious art created by European congregations.

Though the transformation of New Mount Pilgrim’s sanctuary is incomplete, the messages of the rose windows resound in the space.

The church belongs to the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Photo by Charissa Johnson Photography

Robert Ervin, a deacon, said that when he looks at the windows, “it humbles you seeing where you came from and all we’ve been through.”

Ervin noted that the bird’s head in the Sankofa window is turned around and reaching toward its back, symbolizing that “we have to look to the past and glean from it in order to move forward.”

Questions to consider

  • The members of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church are “long-practiced with telling their story through art.” What kinds of art  -- visual, musical, dramatic, etc.-- tell the story of your institution?
  • How does your church or organization “honor both pain and promise” in its history and future? In what ways does it take part in the “continuation of the liberation narrative of God”?
  • How are the “values of your village” visible or made clear to everyone who walks into your work or home space? How might this clarity enhance hospitality, outreach or stewardship ministries?
  • What is it your institution needs to remember in order to be healthy? What grief needs to be confronted or lifted up? Who has been excluded from your institution’s prominent story, based on race, class, gender or sexual orientation?
  • The rose windows are set in a building that also still reflects its white, Roman Catholic history. Do you think this contrast would be disruptive or constructive for worshippers? What contrasts do you experience as you worship or work?