by Peter Wilhelm
My formative church experience was from ages 9 to 18 when my family attended Trinity Lutheran Church on 100th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City.
We moved there from Brooklyn in 1986. Historically speaking, the City was kind of messed-up back then. The violent crime rate was at an all-time high, and would continue to rise over the next several years. People joked about being mugged, unless you actually got stabbed like happened to a family friend. Our car was stolen twice. It was the height of the crack epidemic. On the way to school, I tried counting the crack vials on the ground, but there were too many. There always seemed to be some kind of racial conflict in progress somewhere in the City at any given time. And everyone was scared of AIDS.
But that was just background for me. I didn’t really live any of that. Most of you know my parents. We’re about as vanilla as it gets. I mean, I’m sure I had experiences growing up in New York that I wouldn’t have had if I had grown up on a farm, for instance. But then again, farm kids have experiences I didn’t. Like tractors rather than subways. For the most part, growing up is growing up, for better or worse, no matter where it happens.
But I don’t think it was possible to have the church experience I had anywhere but in that time and place. In 1986, 24 years before the ELCA permitted the ordination of noncelibate gay pastors, our pastor was gay. And 29 years before the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on gay marriage, several committed gay couples were members (including my piano teacher). We had members who lived in public housing and a member who was a Wall Street lawyer. There were public school teachers and university professors. One woman had been a member her whole life and remembered when the church offered services in German, while others were recent immigrants from Eritrea and Russia. There were more actors, artists, authors, and musicians than you could count. Sadly, several members had HIV or AIDS, and I remember when one passed away. But happily, others lived much longer than they ever imagined possible. Rosetta Williams taught me how to pray by thanking God every Sunday for waking us up in our right minds.
This brief description doesn’t do it justice. There was a bit of magic in the air there that I haven’t been able to figure out how to truly express. It was a remarkable group of people, so diverse in so many different ways. I feel fortunate to have known them all, to have grown up in the midst of people with such a variety of backgrounds and life experiences.
But more important to me than the opportunity to know such a wide variety of people, was the fact that this diverse group of people had church in common. We weren’t family, we weren’t co-workers, we didn’t even necessarily have the same interests upon which a friendship would normally be based. Instead, we shared a sense that it was important and meaningful to have relationships that didn’t fall into any of those categories. We were a community, giving individuals the support of the many. Not because of some material or familial connection, but just because we were people in the world who were better off because we were together every Sunday.
Certainly, we say we find “community” in many different activities. But it is only in the church community that I have found true support for people just because they are people—whoever they are, at whatever station in life. At church we transcend the worldly classifications that limit and separate us as individuals—our particular professions and interests, our ethnic or familial customs—and come together to envision a different world—the world as it ought to be, in which all are cared for and none are forgotten.
The experience of community I’ve had at church has also helped me understand my faith. Because sometimes the whole idea that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead feels like a bit much. I mean, why in the world should I believe the supposed witness of 11 guys and 1 woman from 2,000 years ago? But I have personally witnessed the power of community in Jesus Christ. I’ve seen it transform lives, and sometimes change the world. I don’t have to believe it—I know it. I’ve seen it with mine own eyes. That is the firm foundation of my faith.
At Trinity, I witnessed a church community support people who had been rejected by family, friends, or the world. The knowledge that such a community exists—a community that will support me even when all else fails—has helped me to be brave in those moments when I’m not sure I’m going to make it or succeed. After leaving Trinity, I went a number of years without having such a community in my life. By sheer luck, or the Holy Spirit—however you want to describe it—we stumbled into St. Luke’s. I quickly realized that St. Luke’s is the kind of place where my children can share in the same powerful church community I grew up with at Trinity. A community that inspires them to imagine the world as it ought to be, and a community that will catch them when the world as it is trips them up. I give my time and money to St. Luke’s because this community anchors my sense of the world, and because I hope it will do the same for my kids.
St. Luke’s is grateful for all the testimonies and stories shared from members at St. Luke’s.
To learn more about this practice, please speak with Erin Coleman Branchaud (firstname.lastname@example.org)