Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Morning at St. Mary’s, Foggy Bottom

For the latest installment of my series on Episcopal churches in Washington, DC, I attended St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood last week (only two blocks from the Metro!). The only service offered was at 10am. I am told this is a student church with George Washington University as a prime focus, and if that is true, then this week’s service will be profoundly different than the next nine months to come, as we wrap up the summer. It’s a lovely little church that I know ministers to the needs of many people – but if this week is representative, I’m just not one of them, and that's ok.

It was a small congregation, with around three dozen people there. To my pleasant surprise, it was, unlike most churches, quite integrated and racially diverse – a majority of the congregants were black, but there was a large number of white folks and even a few Asians. That was encouraging. (Update: I have since been told by two different people that the church was founded as an African American church.) Unfortunately, the music program was very lacking – in fact, it was non-existent. The guest “organ/choirmaster” was talented, but he had to play on an electric organ rather than a nice pipe organ like I’ve grown accustomed to finding in these parts, and there was no choir – that may well be an August thing, but I couldn’t see where a choir would even sit. The congregants, though, didn’t put much of their own energy into the hymns, so the music was lacking. Most strikingly, I didn’t like the sanctuary. The red and tan bricks made it feel like it was built in the sixties – too modern, as opposed to classic or postmodern. The church is, of course, much older than that; the church dates back to the 1880s. The pew boxes, though – yes, boxes – were rather uncomfortable, and the room was much too dark, although that was probably a byproduct of the construction going on around the window behind the altar.

All that negativity aside, there are many good things to say about the parish. I’ve seen few congregations so welcoming. The guest celebrant and preacher was a former rector of the parish, and made a very elaborate point of inviting guests to coffee hour and telling us how wonderful and expansive it was. The peace was not a shake hands with everyone around you peace, or even a chat up your neighbor peace, but an everyone moves around and greets everyone else in the entire room peace, and in such a fashion that it seemed like they’d all known each other for years. With a gathering that small, maybe they had! It certainly felt homey.

The sanctuary not withstanding, the outside of the building was also beautiful, as you can see from the pictures posted here. The high quality photos are from the street and the inside and are from St. Mary’s webpage. The grainier shots are from my cell phone, and show the entrance to the chapel and a little courtyard.

It’s hard to tell how many ministries and programs St. Mary’s offers, but then again, that might be a symptom of the August doldrums. The bulletin mentioned only the ECW, an upcoming block party, and a Newsletter Committee, although the website also lists a campus ministry (dormant during the summer, for obvious reasons). I certainly hope there’s more, but that may well be it right now. The parish does have an impressive and lengthy history, and according to the webpage,
St. Mary's has many notable accomplishments to her credit. One of the first Boys Clubs in Washington was organized here. A mission to the whole neighborhood, regardless of creed, it was founded with the help of the beloved Deaconess, Mary Amanda Betchler. And out of this grew a special mission in Snow's Court, then the most disreputable and dangerous section in the city. One of the first baby clinics, one of the first vacation bible schools, a sewing school and cooking school were established at St. Mary's. The church also provided facilities for mentally retarded children.

A more recent example of this divine service was the creation of St. Mary's Court, located adjacent to the church affordable housing for seniors, was the brainchild of parishioners and became a diocesan project. St. Mary's has awarded more than 125 Martin Luther King Scholarships to students of all faiths and abilities since the fund was established in 1970.

I enjoyed the sermon. The rector was away, and in his place was Father Joseph Clark, a former rector. I kid you not, his voice sounded almost EXACTLY like NBC News anchor Brian Williams’, only with a little more gravel. It was a pretty good sermon about the Gospel, Matthew 15: 10-28, in which a Canaanite woman asks Jesus for help and he first tries to turn her away because she is not an Israelite and even compares her to a dog, but then acquiesces in the face of her faith. Father Joseph said this Gospel is one of the two or three most important verses, and is part of Matthew’s Jesus story calling us to live our life today, to be more than we already are, to be challenged, and to listen to the people callusing us. This woman was an uppity outsider who, like Christ, crossed boundaries, saw the unknown, and took risks. When gay people “come out,” they are claiming their identity, and when she shouted out to Christ, she claimed her own identity and broke the patriarchy that said women cannot speak to mean in such a fashion. The male apostles were not amused.

Why did Jesus greet her with silence? We don’t know. Some say He was testing her, others that He didn’t hear, and still others that her foreign plea could not be understood. All that aside, all she heard was the disciples sending her away. Finally Christ replied, Israel only – for this is what He knew as His identity.

When He called her a dog, maybe He did it with a twinkle in His eye, but, Father Joseph said, imagine what it would be like to be her hearing those words from the Messiah – absolutely devastating. And yet, she was undaunted, and by twisting it around with her remark about table scraps, showed Him how awful His words sounded. This was a call, Father Joseph says, for Jesus to hear and embrace who He is, pulling him out of a theology of a narrow God. He changes His mind to embrace the view of a bigger God. So look for modern connections and relevancies, the priest said. Have you had your convictions challenged? Rethink your identity. Is there an inner voice calling you to reconsider and be more? Barack Obama is challenging our country to be more and to rethink its identity, and let us do that on an individual level.

Father Joseph’s sermon was good, but I heard another, even better and very moving sermon about this same Gospel later in the day at St. Paul’s, and will lay it out in detail when I review that parish.

I will admit, I didn’t stay for the whole service, and left after the Offertory hymn. I wanted to catch the 11:15 service at the Anglo-Catholic St. Paul’s four blocks away, and needed to grab a cup of coffee in between. All in all, St. Mary’s is not a bad church, I just didn’t enjoy it. I wouldn’t go back myself, but if a friend moved to DC and was seeking out a multicultural, student friendly, or small town parish in the heart of DC, I would certainly suggest they swing by Foggy Bottom and give it a look.


Grandmère Mimi said...

So, WE, you're DC's Mystery Worshipper. I usually write a sort of review when I visit another church, too.

August is the doldrums for many churches, but especially those who minister to a large number of college students.

Nathan Empsall said...

"Mystery Worshipper"!! That's it! Someone told me about that website once, and I've been trying to remember its name. I'm a bit unfit for the title myself, though. For one thing, in 5 months I've only made it to 8.5 Episcopal churches and 2 Lutheran churches. I'm rather disappointed in those results, there are 5 or 6 other Episcopal churches I had hoped to visit. And when I'm unable to duck out the door before someone welcomes me and asks who I am, I'm not discreet, although I don't mention the blog.

Yes, I certainly don't blame St. Mary's for last week's attendance; now that GWU students are trickling back, I imagine yesterday was a bit busier. But the website hasn't been updated since well before the summer, and didn't list much in the way of ministries or classes. My favorite church so far has been St. Paul's, about four blocks from St. Mary's.