Back when I attended Grace Episcopal, I listened with envy—and not holy envy—just plain human envy about the offerings of Central Church. Without stepping foot in the building, I knew that Central trained Stephen Ministers; served outreach breakfasts from a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, featured talented musicians, and had money to spare.
The modest church I attended could never match these offerings, and that led me to less-than-Christian comparisons—Communion offered just once a month instead of weekly; the liturgy condensed into one scripture reading for an entire service, instead of the many fixed prayers that comprise an Anglican mass.
I made the mistake of comparing the “best” of my faith to what I considered the “worst” of my neighbor’s. I might never have been enlightened, never changed my narrow point of view. But then a budget cut eliminated my job at Grace and I came to work at Central Church. That was three years ago.
By now, my plain old envy has been replaced by Holy Envy, first identified by 20th century theologian Krister Stendahl and artfully described by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book of the same name. For me, holy envy has come to mean embracing good practices from other faiths—like mindfulness in Buddhism—and closer to home, Methodist practices that resonate with me. Here are a few of the things I have come to cherish about Central Church:
I love the music. When enumerating the blessings of this church, an easy place to begin is with the music. Jeff Cobb and Tom Bara represent two ends of a spectrum that spans contemporary jazz to classical organ music and epitomizes passionate worship. I love to hear the young ladies at the Well singing popular songs accompanied by guitar, horns, and percussion. And then for traditional worship, I am treated to the best of classical composers like Bach and Beethoven accompanied by a full choir. Trading prayer time for more music is a good bargain I now believe.
I love the outreach. Central Church has a big heart for the homeless, whom Pastor Jane has aptly described as “spiritual but not religious,” and Central serves this community with respect and understanding. When COVID closed the fellowship hall, Central responded by serving a hot to-go lunch out the front doors and continues to jump through hoops to make a hot breakfast available on most weekdays. Guests can pick up their mail and will soon be able to take showers at church again—a critical service when all other shower sites are closed. This speaks to social justice.
I love the acceptance. Voting to become a Reconciling Ministry was the formal stamp on Central’s commitment to radical welcoming of the LGBTQ community. But Central hasn’t stopped there. The church wants its more traditional members to feel welcome, too, and will be embarking this fall on a Colossian Way class that helps Christians practice loving God and each other while engaging in difficult disagreements. If a church can teach me to respect perspectives I don’t agree with, that’s a path I want to walk.
I love the creativity. Three weeks into the pandemic I realized that the drastic, “temporary” changes to my job would be in place for a long, long time. I felt nauseous. Pastor Chris was eager to experiment with online classes, but my feeble attempts had been bumpy: people crowded around a blurry laptop webcam, jumpy videos, and ear-piercing feedback were the norm. One day, shortly after the instructors for a fledgling remote class had departed to Texas, we booted up the system and discovered that we could get the video or the audio, but not both at the same time! Aaargh.
Those missteps taught me the importance of having the right equipment and the infrastructure to support it. When the Church Council approved my $$$ request for a Zoomroom, I felt elated…and terrified. Fast forward nine months and lots of baby steps, and I am hosting classes in front of a wide-angle camera, fancy speakerphone, and the two 50” monitors. In fact, I am eager to utilize the Zoomroom for hybrid meetings where some people attend in person and others from home. That will fall to my successor. But it will happen because Central believes in creative solutions and empowers staff to achieve.
People sometimes ask me where I will worship once my job is done. The simple answer is that I don’t know. I seek to be born again within my Episcopalian tradition and also to visit frequently at Central, the home away from home that I have come to love.
Thank you for this radical hospitality.
Donna Olendorf, Adult Education Director