Not unlike moving from a single-family home to an apartment complex, freedom from building maintenance and new neighbors allows St. Mark’s, New Britainto put less energy into a community building and more energy into building community. I had a chance to sit with the Rev. Shaw Mudge, Provisional Priest-in-Charge, and Molly Sherman, Junior Warden, at their new location of 90 Main St. at South Church, or as they conveniently refer to it as “Church Mall.” St. Mark’s has been at 90 Main St. since January.
This building in downtown New Britain hosts five separate churches: South Congregational Church,Peace Missionary Ministries, Another Chance Ministries, Unitarian Universalists, and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. “It is a great way to mingle with people of different racial background,” Molly said. “It is very much a petri dish of racial reconciliation. Multiple churches and communities worshiping in the same space.” Because there are five different churches worshipping in various locations throughout this building on a Sunday, visitors have an opportunity to walk in and try something different.
The coordination of spaces (one large sanctuary, a chapel, two parish halls, and several classrooms) is overseen by one administrative assistant who posts a schedule of the week on a board by the entrance. Each church also has a magnetic sign they are able to post on the door when hosting events, to help assist visitors with locating offices or gatherings.
My metaphor of moving into an apartment building came back up when I asked what it is like to worship with other communities, in the same place, at the same time. This reminded Shaw of John 14:2 “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (KJV). “We are supposed to worship in communion with others,” Shaw said. “Most of the time I am not aware that there are other communities worshipping on Sunday morning, but we are all affirming our faith, and doing it in a way that is comfortable.” Shaw said that sometimes you can hear the music from one community while you are worshipping, but that it hasn’t seemed to bother anyone.
The communities have begun doing joint ministry work: a food pantry, mingle breakfasts for the homeless and hungry population in New Britain, and the pastors gather once a month. On months that have five Sundays, the fifth Sunday is when all of the worshipping communities are invited to worship together in the main sanctuary.
“Looking back [to having a separate building], we were keeping ourselves so separate,” Molly said. “Even though I never felt like we were separate at that time. We are really part of a community here.” The decision to move came from a list of possible ideas. One thing was definite: folks at St. Mark’s wanted to stay in New Britain, because there were already very active ministries there, so merging or moving to nearby Episcopal parishes wasn’t the best option. “Change takes a while for people,” Shaw said. “but we were willing to take a risk and move out.” Shaw said one of the biggest changes was when it came to the annual pledging push. He was able to affirm that the pledges for that year would not go to an upkeep of their building, although a smaller amount would go towards rent – but into ministry.
“As a clergy person, we have to be the best church around, in my opinion,” Shaw said with a smile. “We don’t have to worry about the physical space, but we can focus on the people. We now have the energy to put into people and ministries and not fixing the plumbing.”
Molly told me a story that she said showed her a glimpse of hope while folks were going through the hard reality that they were moving. “One woman from the 7:45 a.m. service ran into me in the grocery store,” she said, “and said ‘some of us older folks wanted to ask that wherever we move, please let us know that there is safe parking.’” This, for Molly, showed that they were moving in the right direction. The community just wanted to make sure they were safe: that they weren’t going to be abandoned in the process, because leaving comfort is hard.
“This could be the future of the Church, multiple groups sharing one space,” Molly said. She realizes that the church is less central to folks’ everyday life, unlike how she remembers her childhood. “It has moved more to a place where we are more willing to welcome in and go out to people who are not exactly like us.” Having a central location in New Britain, and a built-in diverse community allows for St. Mark’s to come to a space to be fed on a Sunday morning and go out.
Molly and Shaw gave me a tour of 90 Main St., and sure the office space may be smaller, the worship times are slightly different, and the full move out of the old space isn’t quite complete, but it is quite evident there is a new positive vibe in the community of St. Mark’s. “We had our first baptism in this space, and it was as if God was saying ‘the church is moving on;’ it was a moment of hope, an affirmation that where we are and what we are doing is good,” Molly said. “It is a beginning, not an end.”