"One Thing that Made All the Difference:" A Small Church Ministry Reflection
by the Rev. John L. Blackburn, Priest-in-Charge of St. Christopher's, Portland
Something unique about Saint Christopher’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Portland is its location on the edge of a residential neighborhood, surrounded on three sides by houses and across the street from a tiny strip mall with a flooring supplier and a hair salon. Last year just prior to Palm Sunday, I noticed that my hair was starting to resemble a lion’s mane, so I walked across the street to get a haircut. The lady who was going to cut my hair noticed that I was in a clerical shirt and collar and started up a conversation.
“Are you the new priest at the Roman Catholic Church?” she asked.
“No. Actually, I am the priest at Saint Christopher’s Church, just there across the street.” I motioned out the big window where you could just make out the archway that welcomes parishioners who come in the front door on Sundays.
“Really?!?!” She replied, “I’m glad to see that they are opening that church back up. It has been closed for what now—about 5 years or so?”
I was both shocked and amused. We hadn’t been closed, except for that long six weeks or so at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone else was too. The parish had been in a partnership for a few years, but it was never closed.
What amused me was the idea that someone in the neighborhood didn’t even know that the big building across the street was open.
We continued our conversation, and I learned about her children, where she was from, and other chit-chat someone might engage in with the person cutting your hair. Eventually, she finished with my trim, told me the haircut was on her, and asked me to pray for her and her family.
When I left the shop I thought about the conversation and decided to stand in the parking lot just outside the hair salon for a few moments and ponder what she and others who came there were seeing—or better yet, not seeing. That is when it dawned on me! From outside the hair salon and the main street that passes in front of the parish, you couldn’t see any cars on site. When I got to church that morning, I had parked around the corner, near a backdoor to the Parish Hall and Kitchen. This was my usual parking spot, because when I arrived in July 2020, that is where everyone was parking. The church could be full, but from the street you can’t see any cars that are parked there.
The next week when I arrived at the church, I tried something new and parked in the main parking lot, on the front side of the Church. And something remarkable happened: someone rode up on their bicycle and asked if we were open!
Long story cut very short, that bicycler is now our Junior Warden. With cars parked in that main lot, several other people have just dropped by, some needing financial aid, others wanting to be prayed for, even people desiring spiritual counseling or just someone to talk to. Some are one-time visitors; others stop in every few months; a few have even attended the Sunday Eucharist.
Sometimes, just making one little change, in this case where I park my car, can have a remarkable impact.
If I were to offer any wisdom from this little episode, it would be this: Take a walk around your Church, but from the other side of the street. Note what you see and look for what you don’t see. Look with the eyes of the people who drive by every day. Does the Church look open, or does it seem closed and neglected? Then take your observations and make a small change. That one little, seemingly inconsequential thing may be the signal to the world that the Church is indeed open and ready to welcome everyone in Jesus’ Name.
The Rev. John L. Blackburn is the Priest-in-Charge of Saint Christopher’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Portland, Texas. Father Blackburn is a bi-vocational priest in the Diocese of West Texas, splitting his time between his family’s ranch in Berclair and the Parish.
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