Widening the Circle of Welcome
by Jeremiah Wright-Haynes
Located in the Catskill Hills of New York, Catskill United Methodist Church is a welcoming congregation of approximately 300 people. A key component of its mission is to ensure that “the doors of the church are open and welcome to all.” As it continually attempts to invite others into the broad circle of God’s love, it utilizes its resources to bridge the various gaps that lie between members of the congregation and the surrounding world, as well as gaps between the generations within the church itself. To this end, Catskill UMC has been implementing and developing “inclusivity initiatives” aimed at engaging the surrounding community while also extending its own longevity through intergenerational work and worship.
Demographically, the church is predominantly white although it has African American and Latino membership. Within the past year the church’s new pastor, Michelle Lewis, an African American graduate of Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Forestry, has been working to reach minority groups of the community through the church’s outreach work as well as within their worship services. As a part of the Institute of Sacred Music’s Congregations Project, Pastor Lewis spoke on these attempts at “widening the circle” through two main congregational initiatives.
The larger initiative attempts to encourage and incorporate “citizen action.” These efforts are multi-faceted and, in large part, directed at disenfranchised people of the community. One focuses on what Pastor Lewis describes as a “pilot farm project” on land owned by the church. As many of the non-affluent residents of the region often struggle to find healthy and sustainable food options that are also affordable, Catskill UMC hopes to address such disparity by growing and providing food for local people who are in need. Although the project is still in the planning and development stages, growing interest from congregation members and Pastor Lewis’s own background in environmental science suggest that the farm project has the potential to become a very powerful component of the church’s circle-widening ministry. This project also incorporates attention to environmental justice as a dimension of the circle of God’s love. Other portions of the “citizen action” initiative include a theater arts project that the church hopes to begin with the help of the Catskill Arts Council, and also a rhythm of bimonthly Sunday volunteer opportunities for members.
The church has also set a goal of achieving a more “blended worship.” This term, coined by Robert Webber in 1987, has at its root the synthesis of traditional and contemporary styles of worship in one setting. In the context of Catskill United Methodist Church, the idea takes the form of incorporating African American musical and religious traditions into worship services, along with a host of non-traditional and artistic forms worship. Music Director Annette Boprey has been working to achieve this goal with the infusion of contemporary gospel anthems such as Richard Smallwood’s Total Praise into services. As this style of music is often new to the demographic majority within the church, Boprey says, its implementation in worship is an ongoing process that is often subject to both praise and critique from members of the congregation.
In efforts to continually involve all age groups in the worship of this multi-generational congregation, Boprey has also been developing and working with several musical ensembles. Team Faithful, comprised of children ten years of age and younger, is the youngest choral ensemble of the church. In many instances, the grandparents and great-grandparents of these children accompany them to rehearsals and help in preparation for ministry and worship on Sundays. A musical ensemble with members of a different age group is the Bell Choir, a group comprised of adult women. Some of the choir members are related (aunts, nieces), and along with other members of the choir these women work together not only to create beautiful music but also to establish an intergenerational community.
The congregation has also been working to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in its ministries. For example, Boprey has made special efforts to include disabled persons who want to join the adult choir. Such special efforts often include giving an extra twenty to twenty-five minutes to private rehearsal time and arranging rides to rehearsals. Boprey and the choir members who help in these ways embody the mission of inclusivity this congregation is embracing. They now hope to expand their efforts to attract and involve more members of the disabled community within the region.
As Catskill United Methodist Church continues to spread Christ’s gospel to all who are willing to listen, Pastor Lewis, Music Director Propey, and many members know that they have taken on the task of delivering this message in continually changing times. In the midst of such change, their ministry of inclusion and transformation is a testament to the potential of churches everywhere to meet all of God’s children, wherever they may be found.