It’s not unusual for congregations to partner with churches in other parts of the world as a way to strengthen ties between The Episcopal Church and other provinces in the Anglican Communion.
What is unusual is for a congregation to partner with a church 330 miles away in a neighboring diocese. That’s what St. Gabriel’s, Douglassville, in the Diocese of Bethlehem and St. John’s, Sharon, in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, are doing.
Why, you may ask? As St. Gabriel’s rector, the Rev. Dr. David Green, puts it, “I think that the future of our diocese will depend on regional communication, connection and cooperation…We need to find more creative 21st century ways of being one in mission and ministry.”
The Rev. Adam Trambley, rector of St. John’s adds, “What could possibility be the downside? I don’t know what might come of this. I don’t know that this is the answer to what might revitalize these two communities, but we’ll let God show up and use the relationship however he wants. Bishop Sean’s attitude is we have to try things, and so why not try something with very little downside and an upside that could be incredible.”
Green initiated the partnership in late 2014. He said Bishop Sean Rowe— bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania since 2007 and provisional bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem since March, 2014—was his inspiration. Rowe has talked to his dioceses and to the church at-large about the need to become more collaborative and connected. By serving as bishop of both dioceses, Rowe has provided that official connection. Green wanted to bring it down to the congregational level.
“Sean is a wonderful bishop. For nearly 30 years as a priest I’ve been waiting for a bishop like him,” Green said. “He has so much good energy, creativity, openness to the Holy Spirit and new directions for our church. The Diocese of Bethlehem shares a relationship with Northwest, but it’s all been at that official level. We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could enflesh this locally.”
Green thought of St. John’s, Sharon, because his wife’s grandparents lived there when Green’s children were young and they had visited often. Green reached out to Trambley, who said, why not?
“He sent me an email and it sounded good,” Trambley said. “I said sure. I think we emailed back and forth asking, basically, what do you think this means? Our answer was we don’t really know, but we’ll try it out and see what happens. Part of what the church needs is for folks to reach out to one another. St. John’s hasn’t had, as a church, any partnerships with other churches for a long time, and it seemed time to start building bridges in the wider church.”
Youth Group Connections
The first connection came when the youth groups at both churches exchanged Christmas cards last December. Then they exchanged sweets. The St. John’s youth sent over home-made kettle corn, some of which they give away as part of community outreach around Christmas time and some of which they sell to help raise money to send parish children to diocesan summer camp. The youth group from St. Gabriel’s responded by sending over pretzels and Peeps, made in the Diocese of Bethlehem, at Easter time.
Later this year, St. John’s youth group may join youth from St. Gabriel’s when they spend the night in cardboard boxes during an event called Shack-a-thon. This marks the third year St. Gabriel’s has participated in the multi-church event designed to raise awareness of homelessness and poverty in the greater Birdsboro, Amity Township and Douglassville areas.
Perhaps the most important connection thus far came May 24, Pentecost Sunday, when St. Gabriel’s associate priest Pervez Baig traveled to St. John’s with his wife, Joyce, and St. Gabariel’s lay leader Suzanne Siebert. Baig preached that morning, and the three enjoyed the hospitality of St. John’s parishioners.
“I think people appreciated his story and what he had to say,” Trambley said. “There aren’t many people from Pakistan around here, and his own faith story is amazing. People were grateful that he came. The things he had to say about prayer…were inspiring to many of our parishioners.”
Baig had been a priest in Pakistan before he and his family fled to the United States to escape persecution. With his visit to St. John’s, “we are planting seeds to make this relationship more real,” Green said.
Trambley agreed. “The next step will be when people from here go there,” he said, “so there is more back and forth, so it is something that is not just done by the church but something where people feel they have a connection. Those connections between people in the pews will be the most important ones.
“Then, when something unexpected happens, you find out the relationship really means something. I don’t know what that occasion will be, but if we keep taking the next steps, there will be a point when we can help each other in some concrete, unforeseen ways.”
Although the end destination is uncertain, both Trambley and Green see the value of journeying together.
“Here are people in a different diocese who are struggling with some of the same things as we are,” Trambley said. “They’re interested in walking with us in all of this, so we’ll walk with them and see what happens. It’s an opportunity to look at things from a different perspective, to think about how we connect with the larger church.
“St. John’s is in an area of the country that can be isolated,” Trambley said, “so the more opportunities we have to engage with people in other parts of the church, the better. Western Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of people in the country living where they grew up. People don’t move in and out like they do in many urban areas. Since the steel mills declined in the 70s and 80s, there’s not much reason for people to come in. So many people who are here have been here for generations. ”
St. John’s is an old, downtown church with an average Sunday attendance of about 125. It’s a middle- to working-class “down-to-earth“ congregation,” Trambley said. “They take care of people, they feed people, they really care for the church and each other.“
“Yes, we need to revitalize. We’re struggling in the same ways a lot of areas are. Geographically, our area is struggling, the population is dropping. In the midst of that, we have some amazingly faithful people doing some terrific things.” For example, partnering with other churches and agencies, St. John’s runs a free Saturday lunch that feeds 150 to 200 people every week.
St. Gabriel’s is just off a major thoroughfare in a bedroom community of Philadelphia and will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2020. It was started by Swedish Lutheran settlers who, when they couldn’t get priests to come from Sweden, joined with the Anglicans. It has a day school with 118 students in pre-school through kindergarten. Weekly attendance for Saturday and Sunday services is about 200.
Both churches are searching for ways to better fulfill their missions and to serve those around them.
“Father David is very optimistic and encouraging,” Trambley said. “That has a lot to do with our potential for success. I look forward to continuing to work with him, Fr. Pervez, and all the people at St. Gabriel’s.”