I have been a church tourist for a while now. Once I recovered from my last church gig, I embarked on a journey to see what was available to me in the greater Seattle area (and visited a few places as I traveled around the country). It was a casual affair, I was sort of looking for a church home and sort of assuaging my guilt about not going to church. One of the nice things about this year is that I have a vision for where I am going (finally), am excited about the possibilities and have the time to be an intentional church tourist. I get to search for all kinds of ways of being Christian community and talk to the people who do it. It is really, really fun.
While I was back in Seattle over my break, I visited a few Christian communities. The one that gave me a ton of hope and a lot of great ideas was a mission start of the United Methodist Church, Valley and Mountain. Valley and Mountain only has a worship-type event once a month, which they call Celebrations. It was a really gross night in Seattle. We had just received a preview of the snowstorm — most people don’t go out if there is more than an inch on the ground. But this was my only chance, so I was heading out.
They rent part of an old school, that is now a school and community center, in the Colombia City neighborhood of Seattle. Colombia City is one of my favorite places. It’s really diverse (racially, socio-economically, and age-wise), plus there is a great main street with restaurants and such. It also has a strong sense of community, but that is being tested by gentrification (it is one of the few places in Seattle that could be called affordable). When I walked in I was immediately struck by the fact that there were people there — Celebration with community was clearly worth venturing out in the snow for these people.
Welcome: There are a few parts of church visiting that I dislike. One is the awkward what do I do, where do I go, how does this work, do I have to have a name tag period (I hate name tags). It was a little awkward at first, but then I noticed the name tags. Usually in churches, you can tell the members from the visitors by name tags — members often have some shiny permanent name tag, and visitors get a “Hello, my name is…” sticky. This sounds fine, but let’s re-frame it. The people who belong have their own nice name tags. The people who don’t get crapy ones. At Valley and Mountain, everyone gets the same name tag. There are these rectangular pieces of felt for people to write their names on (if you’re new) and pin to yourself. People who have been there before leave their name tage on the table for pick-up. Simple as that. I love this.
Experience: (Some of this might be out of order, but it all happens, I swear) There is a good amount of writing on how post-moderns are into experience. They (we) don’t want to just sit and absorb information like a good little sponge — participation is highly valued. Celebration opens up with everyone sitting in a circle, singing a song then sharing thanksgivings or prayer requests — a great way for people to check in (there were about 20 people there that day, with a lot of name tags left on the table due to the weather). As we went around, I noticed that the diversity of the room reflected the diversity of the neighborhood. Awesome.
We then split off into groups for experiences/projects (I don’t remember what they call this time). The options change, but this week there was someone leading meditation, a duo from the Colombia City Art Walk leading some time with art and community, and sandwich making for the homeless. I made sandwiches — I wasn’t really feeling the meditation theme or artsy. I got a chance to talk to people, which was cool.
Word: After about half an hour, we came back together for another song, some scripture, and a sermon-type thing (reflection). I say sermon type thing because it was conversational. The pastor of the community, John, did an amazing job of making the sermon interactive without having it veer off in another direction. Also, he talked about Dr. King and some of the lesser known players in the Civil Rights Movement, which was like water to my parched soul. That morning, the worship I attended practically ignored that the next day was MLK day. John also included science about memory and made the word really contextual. It was one of the best sermons I had heard in a long time.
Meal: So, there was no eucharist, but there was definitely communion. After the reflection, the community sang a song and them moved to tables to eat soup and bread together, made by some community regulars.
Other: One of the other things I really noticed was that I would not have been able to tell who the community convener but for the fact that I had already been in communication with him. It felt egalitarian and inclusive, without being aimless or unstructured. They do a lot of other really cool things. In January, they were doing an experiment in simple living (a part of their Creative Liberation Laboratories). They have a men’s group. They engage in deep listening.
I got to talk to John and his wife, Freddy, a little about how they started it and it sounds like it was a lot of trust building, careful conversations, and relationship building. I hope to be able to keep the conversation going. I know I can’t reproduce what they do at Valley and Mountain (especially with my love of liturgy and need for weekly eucharist), but I can definitely learn from it. Check out their website, seriously. It’s a lot of good stuff.