Saturday, October 8, 2011

Parish Spotlight: Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, N.J.

A congregation with a long history of inclusion has recently placed new energy into "believing out loud."

The Church of the Redeemer, in downtown Morristown, N.J., whose mission statement describes it as "a Christian Liberation community in the Episcopal tradition," has long been a place of radical hospitality. As its marquee has proclaimed for years, persons of every identity and belief system are welcome within its doors.  It recently called a new rector, the Rev. Cynthia Black, D.D., whose dedication to social justice meshes well with the church's history.

Redeemer has a number of public events in the month of October which are of interest to our community:
  • On Thursday, Oct. 13th, at 7:30 p.m., members of the congregation will host a discussion of Stephanie Spellers' 2006 book, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other and the Spirit of Transformation.  The book is described as "a practical theological guide for congregations that want to move beyond mere inclusively toward becoming a place where welcoming 'the other' is taken seriously and engaging God's mission becomes more than just a catch-phrase.
  •  On Sunday, Oct. 16th at 7:00 p.m., the gospel duo and same-sex couple Jason and deMarco will offer a concert to benefit S.A.F.E., a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing safe housing for LGBTQ youth and young adults throughout the United States. 
  • On Thursday, Oct 20th at 7:30 p.m., Bishop Christopher Senyonjo of Uganda will speak about his work with LGBT people in his country as part of a nationwide tour organized by the St. Paul's Foundation for International Reconciliation.  Bishop Christopher will also preach at Redeemer's 10:30 a.m. service on Sunday, Oct. 23rd.   "Bishop Christopher is one of the most courageous people I know. At great risk to himself and to his family he has been willing to speak truth to power-- in this case, the truth of God's love to the Anglican Church of Uganda, and to the Government of Uganda," said Rev. Black.
This summer, Redeemer became the second Integrity Proud Parish Partner in the Diocese of Newark, which helps to support both Integrity's work nationally and our recently-revitalized NYC Metro Chapter.  Redeemer is also adopting the Believe Out Loud Episcopal Congregation marque, which was somewhat of a "no-brainer" given its place in the vanguard of LGBT inclusion in our area.

Vestry member Steve Osvold told us, “Redeemer has a long history of social action and LGBTQI inclusion, but we’re definitely seeing a new burst of energy and commitment. Some of that grew out of our response to Tyler Clementi’s death last year, but it also reflects where we are as a parish, with an energetic and visionary new rector and a desire to see what new things we can do to make the world better reflect the world Jesus described in the Gospels. Redeemer’s generally been more interested in what’s possible than in the status quo, I think, and so many people seem to be seizing on that at this moment. It’s really an exciting time to be at Redeemer!”

In the 1980s, the congregation, which at one time was one of the largest in the Diocese of Newark, was coping with dwindling membership and a perceived lack of direction or purpose.  Coping with the reality that the parish must reinvent itself or die, the members called The Rev. Philip Dana Wilson as their fifteenth rector.

Under Wilson's guidance, the congregation responded to the illness and death of one of its own from HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s.  At a time when many still refused to care for AIDS patients, the members set up an AIDS ministry and converted Redeemer's oversized rectory into the Eric Johnson House, a residence for persons with HIV/AIDS who are coping with homelessness or transition in their lives. Today the House is operated by New Jersey AIDS Services, a nonprofit separate from the church, but a symbiotic relationship with the congregation remains.

This focus on caring for the disenfranchised and underserved has blossomed into other ministries and is now at the core of the parish's identity.  These are just a few of the ministries that the congregation now participates in or supports, a textbook example of the response predicted by The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel in her study To Do Justice: A Study of Welcoming Congregations.  In her research, Rev. Voelkel found that congregations who intentionally self-identify as LGBT-welcoming experience a further "hunger and thirst for justice" which leads to further commitment to social ministry.

When the time came to search for a new Rector, the congregation knew it needed someone who shared its commitment to inclusion.  The call went to The Rev. Cynthia Black D. D., who had long served as Dean of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but was herself a product of the Diocese of Newark, ordained here in 1985. Rev. Black's own history of social justice and AIDS awareness work won her the praise of former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who stated, "Her ability to grasp the many dimensions of any situation and to articulate them clearly and boldly have been a gift to the Council and the church."
Today, Redeemer has been blessing same-sex relationships for over twenty years. The congregation also recently started its own LGBTQIA group led by parishioner Leah Thomas, who stated, "With the death of Tyler Clementi, the Church is developing a concerted outreach to the wider LGBTQ community, both local and global. As part of this effort, we are proud to host Bishop Senyonjo to help raise awareness of the situation of LGBTQ people in Uganda."

Integrity NYC-Metro is proud to call Redeemer a partner in the work of furthering equality, and we look forward to participating in this month's events.  Redeemer is located at 36 South Street in Morristown, N.J., within walking distance of the Morristown Station on the Morristown Line of NJ Transit Railroad.