Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Remember the Jazz

I have to start this blog by saying that I am not a historian, and I was not taking notes as I talked to people, so forgive me if a few details are not exactly correct. They will not take away from the value of this adventure.

Jimmy White is an elderly gentleman, self described as the strongest Episcopalian in Georgia. He may well be. But his route into the Episcopal Church is one of the most fascinating you will ever hear.

If you come to Christ the King Episcopal Church in Valdosta, it is probably because you have heard of Jimmy's son Stan, the rector and founder of the church. What you don't know at first is that Stan was raised in the Assemblies of God, the son of several generations of Assemblies pastors.

Jimmy White was a well respected pastor, not only in Georgia, but nationally in the AofG community. But Jimmy had some strange ideas, especially in the South, and he had the audacity to be the first minister to integrate his congregation there. Not just the first Assemblies minister, but the first. Period. This did not go over very well.

Stan learned these strange ideas from his daddy and his momma Anna (You have to meet Anna because I'm not sure if Jimmy will tell this story quickly; it doesn't seem to be in his nature to brag on himself.); but Stan went even further. After time in San Francisco learning from the likes of Matthew Fox and others (I am greatly condensing the story here), Stan came back to Valdosta, started working in his daddy's church, and espousing radical ideas about God's love for humanity. He was, of course, promptly fired along with younger brother, Michael, then the youth pastor. Basically none of them could get a job in the denomination at this point.

So Stan, good Pentecostal that he was, simply started another congregation. And a whole bunch of folks followed him to it. And Stan did not stop learning. Along the way, he found the Book of Common Prayer and discovered that he was an Episcopalian underneath it all.

And the next amazing part is that the congregation trusted him in this. If you want to read about it, there is apparently a record in the Christian Century (sometime in 1990), about the time when the bishops came to town. Five of them. For confirmation. Of 200+ people. Including Jimmy and Anna and Michael.

But then what was the bishop to do about leadership? It was obvious who the pastor was, but they needed a priest. And it was obvious who that should be, but there were the matters of seminary, CPE, Commission on Ministry, General Ordination Exams, etc.. How could Stan leave for three years to do all that?

He couldn't and he didn't. He did a version of what is known as reading for orders. Some local classes, some correspondence--this is before any really significant online learning existed, remember--some study with local priests. And (I'm guessing here.) a lot of really interesting discussions in the Commission on Ministry.

So flash forward a few years. This congregation has been in existence about a decade, worshiping in space on the edge of the city, and ready to build a 'proper' church building. Brother Michael is gone by this time; he's also an Episcopal priest, now at Christ Church in Savannah (That's a story for another day, but you can read about the court fight on line if you wish.). Stan has a vision and an encounter. The vision points him to downtown Valdosta, and the encounter--a woman he meets twice on opposite sides of the country in vision and in person--who tells him 'Remember the Jazz." More on that later.

The congregation once again followed his leadership and purchased  a four story office building in the heart of the city. On the first floor, the put a coffee shop and bookstore named Hildegard's. On the second floor is the worship space. The third floor is church offices and storage, and the fourth floor is rented out.

So, if you are wondering why I came to Valdosta in the first place, now you know. I heard Stan two years ago, and I knew I had to visit the congregation that voted to go downtown rather than stay in the burbs. Something right had to be happening here.

It would be nice to say all of this has gone without a hitch, but that would be a lie. The powers of this world have fought back. There has been a protracted battle with the city about Hildegard's non-profit status, despite the existence of such ministries all over the country. Heck, one local congregation owns a warehouse that no one tries to tax. So you know it's not about tax status. Sadly, it seems to be the same issue that got Jimmy White in trouble a few decades earlier.

Or maybe worse. Because now Christ the King does not just welcome Black and Brown people. It welcomes gay and lesbian people too. And tattooed people. And pierced people. and, well, it welcomes anyone who wishes to come.

So Hildegard's only opens on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday now, and food is served as an offering to the prayer groups and Eucharist that are held on those days. And People give donations for the food if they wish. Ironically, this means no sales tax if collected, so the city get less money they they would have if they had stayed out of it. But, remember, this fight was not about the money. Stan's office used to be down there. Now that space has been converted to a chapel. It is there that the Wednesday Eucharist is held, a glass sided room right on the street for passersby to see.

I have to say that lots of people welcomed me when I visited this past Sunday. Granted, the bishop (my old friend) was visiting. And I got introduced. So much for going incognito. Even before that though, several members of the community introduced themselves to me. And no one played the "I can't ask if he's a visitor because I don't want to embarrass myself if he's not" game.

Nine adults were confirmed or received. The congregation is about as diverse as they come in race, age, sexual orientation, etc. Pretty close to what many congregations wish they could make happen.

For you Episcopalians, this is the first congregation outside of St. Mary's House that I have ever been in that made free use of Enriching our Worship on Sunday morning. The music combined several sources--Hymnal 1982, LEVAS, contemporary, etc. The band (electric organ, piano, drums electric bass, trumpet,and singers) helped us to sing rather than giving us a concert.

And they figured out how to place and use the projection screen so that it was not distracting but enabling of worship. It was on the wall behind the altar, which was out at least 8 feet from the wall, just high enough to see over standing people (I was in the back row), but not so high that you were looking up instead of forward. When words were needed, they came up. When words were not needed, a cross was projected. No constant imagery distracting us, and no live feed of whoever was talking. (Granted, this was a space for 220, not a megachurch theater).

There was no bulletin, but I am beginning to learn how little I care about bulletins and knowing exactly what is going to happen next. There were Prayer Books in the seats if you wanted one, but you did not really need one. Which means non-Episcopalians could feel right at home too.

In fact, I took a few pictures of the space after the service. They are not good shots, so I probably will not post them, but they may help me rework a few things at St. Mary's House when I get back from sabbatical. As I walked the sanctuary area, the thought I had was "This is like jazz." Now, I had not heard Stan's story at this point, so "Remember the jazz" was not in my head.. What I meant first was that the musical setup was one of cooperation and unity designed to draw us in and to free us to explore. I quickly realized that the music area was integrated into the sanctuary so that it all seemed to work together as a piece. So much of contemporary worship seems to hinge on word and music as separate items, so much so that the pieces never become a whole. Jazz. A worship team, not worship leaders. Liturgy as cooperation.

So Christ the King is learning what it means to carry the cross today. And they have decided that Christ is to be found in the city, in what were neglected streets that are coming back to life in large part due to their presence.

This is not to say that Christ the King has it all worked out. My sense is that they are at one of those crossroads. It's not that there is anything wrong. The congregation is healthy, the ministry is certainly doing Gods' work. It's more like the next chapter is about to be written, one that will be built upon the life they have built. Valdosta, watch for it!

And if you are ever in town, find your way there. You will meet Stan White and the people of Christ the King, to be sure. But make sure you meet Jimmy White, the strongest Episcopalian in Georgia. If Stan has been a Moses (I know he will bristle at the comparison!), Jimmy is surely the Abraham of this story, the man who wandered where God told him to go, not knowing what would come of it.

And Anna makes a darn good Sarah too, but I'd probably have to get Jimmy and Stan alone to hear just how important she was in all of this.