Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hot Metal Briddge: Why Tradition(s) Matter

Okay, I really should get around to writing about the Wild Goose Festival. Hopefully, I will do that before Tuesday, which is when the Episcopal Church's General Convention starts in Indianapolis. Once I get there, I doubt much blogging will happen amidst the 18 hour days.

In order to get to Indianapolis (thankfully paid for by my diocese since I am a deputy) and make one more venture into the world of new worshiping communities, I decided to drive. (Note - Marlene, that is why I am driving rather than the less expensive plane ticket. I am combining trips and paying for it out of two different funds.). This time the city is Pittsburgh, and the venue is a place called Hot Metal Bridge.

HMB is a community that began in the minds of two Methodist seminarians going to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. They spent three years looking to get off the ground, finding little traction from the Methodists but a lot of interest from the Presbyterians who operate their seminary. Eventually, one of the two became a Presbyterian elder, and Hot Metal Bridge now is jointly operated. (The Methodists climbed on board significantly after HMB started being successful.

Driving to south Pittsburgh from my hotel at the airport (The reason I was that far out of the city will soon be apparent), I had my usual jitters about entering a new community. That part of the city was not making it easier for me. Though very clearly not the posh part of town, it was definitely not the center of the Black community.

The south side of Pittsburgh is a predominantly White working class community. Not a lot of ministry going on here. I am struck by how, in our national branding of urban struggle as a problem of the African American and, increasing, Latino/a communities, we forget areas like this exist. Everyone knows about the west side of Baltimore thanks to The Wire, but few know about the ethnic neighborhoods of east Baltimore because their ethnicities are Polish, Ukranian, etc.

I was early, so I drove around the neighborhood, confident of parking in the 'ample parking' next to the church. Ummm, guys, I think you might want to change that note on your web page. There is a small lot, but most people have to park on the street. Fortunately, not a lot of businesses operate near here, so there are spaces.

Hot Metal Bridge is on the corner. I meant to take a picture of the sign over the door, but I forgot. Church is not the first thing you think when you see it. Corner bar is more like it. That's because it was once a bar or restaurant. Inside, there is the usual coffee setup (Episcopalians, please note. You can carry your coffee into worship and still keep it religious, but only if you stop freaking out about the carpets possibly getting stained. If that's a problem, it is the carpets that should go away, not the people with their coffee!), along with the folding chairs. At this point in my travels, I notice two things immediately. First, the band is not on a stage over everyone else. Second, there are no overhead screens.

Sadly, that's about all I have time to notice--well, there was the greeter who handed me a sheet with info about goings on at the church on one side and song lyrics on the other. And there were the three people who said hello to me. Oh, and there are tattoos around. A lot of tattoos. A whole lot of tattoos. HMB is reaching a bunch of people that no one else I have seen is reaching.

Anyway, as I take a seat, one of the two pastors asks people to fill in the spaces because a bus full of Presbyterians from the PCUSA General Assembly, currently meeting in Pittsburgh, are coming to visit. That's why I am staying out by the airport. You can't get a room in town! Anyway, the Presbys encouraged their delegates to worship in a local church on Sunday, and, lo and behold, bunches of them wanted to come to HMB. Why go to First Pres when you an see something different? I confess, I would've done the same thing. Heck, I've made a whole sabbatical out of doing the same thing!

So the place fills very quickly with people who do not look like the usual crowd, most of them wearing convention name tags so you really won't confuse them (Trust we, it wasn't really necessary!). And worship gets started. Senior Pastor Jeff--the Presbyterian--starts off with a prayer, then leads us in a responsive reading of psalm 103. Then he turns it over to the music team. I'm not sure the music fit the Good Samaritan theme, but at that point, I don't know we are getting the Good Samaritan for the gospel. Three songs, the last one being "Amazing Grace".

Now, I am sure a musician would have known what style to call the music. I said it was a cross between bluegrass and metal. Definitely bluegrass strains, particularly in the harmonies. And not loud enough by far to be metal, but it made a nod to the heaviness. "Amazing Grace" sounded more like "The House of the Rising Sun" (Sing a verse of that and you will get the idea. Not the same tune, but similar.). It was fresh, it was original, and the band encouraged people to sing along using the words they were holding in their hands.

Just an aside--I think I finally know what bothers me about the overheads. It's not the use of electronics. It's not the way they force us to look up rather than at the people or the altar. In the end, it is the feeling that I have to wait to be allowed to see the next words, like someone has the secret knowledge that they will only impart to me in two line bits. I like reading the whole hymn and getting the sense of what it is about, not just the part I am singing at the moment.

The music gives way to a greeting time, which, thankfully, is short. Enough time to say hello to the people around you, not enough time to wander around the crowded room and greet every friend you ever had and hear about their week.

This is followed by an extensive time of people sharing the things for which they want prayers. Some are good things - a new baby was born last week. Some are not - the wildfires in Colorado and the people without power due to the storms. While I know why he cut this off after awhile, it still felt funny to not allow everyone to verbalize these requests. If we can't hear them all, we need a new way to do this. Anyway, we get a summary prayer. At some point in here, the lead switches from Jeff to Jim, the Methodist and other co-founder of Hot Metal Bridge.

An offering is taken and the reading of the lesson for the day is begun. But wait, it's not merely a reading but a theological skit. The Good Samaritan herself makes an appearance, refusing to be the continual rescuer. It is actually very well done; funny, theologically sound, well played without overdoing it, etc. And it gets followed by a short (5-7minutes) talk about our place in the story. Are we the Samaritan? The man on the road? The priest or Levite?

And then comes communion. I should mention that Jeff had begun the service by point to the table and saying that this is why we come together each week. It is about the best blurring of the use of the word communion I have ever seen. Is it the bread and wine or the communing with one another and God? Yes!

Anyway, just as I am getting ready to suffer another non-liturgical--why are we doing this anyway--communion, Jim offers some words of institution and an anamnesis. We almost got an epiklesis too, but this is still a memorial meal for them. At least we got a calling for the Holy Spirit to be upon us! And after the service, I saw Jeff eating away at the bread like he though it should be consumed. Sorry, I am having an Episcopal real presence moment here.

We are not expecting all these people. The music begins to run out, and the practice of standing around the edges of the worship spaces is strained by the number of guests. But we cope with a few rounds of the doxology and people adjust where they are standing. The final prayer gets said, and we are informed that there is lunch for everyone.

I have a flashback to St. Mary's House where I work. Like SMH, HMB has one space in which to do everything. In order to have lunch, the chairs have to be cleared and tables set up. So, of course, I help. Actually, I rarely get to do much helping at SMH because someone corners me about something and it all gets done before I am out of my vestments. So, for once, I get to help.

I eat lunch with Brian, a blind man who is looking at seminary and campus ministry work. Midway through, Dylan comes and joins the table. He is currently the building manager at HMB, an ordained Presbyterian elder. Actually, I saw him down at Wild Goose the weekend before. He and I started talking about how he has come to see the value of denominations. Dylan grew up in a non-denominational church where one pastor was caught with a prostitute and his successor decided to spend the money making the place a megachurch and got rid of everyone who stood in his way (like Dylan's parents). Do denominations make sure such things never happen? No, but they do provide ways to cope and support for such congregations. They do set standards for who can be clergy.

 On reflection, I realized that the same issue occurs around worship. HMB was one of the best I have seen on my journeys; I would probably do a few things differently--does that surprise anyone--but overall, they succeeded in making a coherent service. The congregation knew what we were doing, and why. Most importantly, while this looked very different that what you might see in a Methodist or Presbyterian service, it was easy to see how every element was connected to the traditions. They were not making this up; instead they were adapting the tradition for a new situation.

And that is what liturgical innovation is about in my mind. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We need to make the wheel fit a new surface, found in a place we have not been before. Isn't that really what emergent/emerging church or whatever you want to call this stuff is all about? At any rate, one of the most innovative and successful communities--apparently it is standing room only for most of the year--thrives precisely because they did not abandon what came before but transformed it for a new place and time.

Next stop: Common Friars in Ohio, an Episcopal new monastic community taking me in for a night before I head to the craziness of General Convention.