[Episcopal News Service – Arlington, Texas] The scene behind the altars of most Episcopal churches never changes. What is known as the reredos includes a cross, perhaps some elaborate carved wood or stonework with or without a picture and maybe a stained glass window. Such is not the case for St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.
The members of this church have been worshipping on the stage and in the seats of Theater Arlington for eight years and the set of whatever play is being offered forms a reredos of sorts.
Regardless of the backdrop, the Episcopalians arrive every Sunday morning, open the closet where they store the hardware of church and set up on the stage. Because it is a working theater, things happen – or don’t happen. There have been Sundays without lights or a sound system; and mornings when there’s no set but plenty of dismantled stuff all over the stage.
“But, every week, people put that together and every week God shows up,” says the Rev. Kevin Johnson, who has been St. Alban’s priest-in-charge for about 18 months.
St. Alban’s member Priscilla Promise said, “It’s so much more meaningful, honestly, when you put it together every Sunday and everyone’s a part of it.”
The on-stage nature of Eucharist is symbolic of how St. Alban’s has found new ways to be the church in downtown Arlington. When Episcopalians found themselves exiled after their fellow parishioners chose to follow then-Bishop Jack Iker out of the Episcopal Church but claimed the St. Alban’s building, one of the Episcopal members that had a connection with Theater Arlington suggested they might gather there for worship. The theater was not used on Sunday mornings and the organization also had room for church offices and classrooms in a building across the street where it rented space.
Fast-forward to 2015 when the office building went up for sale. The theater did not have the money to buy it but St. Alban’s had connections with the Episcopal Church Building Fund. Several congregations in the diocese had participated in its Recasting Assets program, a process to help congregations identify their place in the community – to understand their relevance; to build mission and value in the world around them; and to use their real-estate assets to develop financial self-sustainability.
The fund agreed to loan Theatre Arlington $500,000 – structured as a mortgage – to support its work in the community and to support St. Alban’s ministry. The theater could remain in the office building and continue, along with the Downtown Arlington Arts Management Corp., to spearhead the development of the Arlington Arts District. The rent St. Alban’s pays now goes to the theater. The congregation now sees itself in partnership with the theater and vice versa.
St. Alban’s has always given money for Theatre Arlington’s Camp Be a Star, a week-long theater summer camp for homeless children and children in transitional housing in Arlington. Recently, the members have begun volunteering during the camp and the two organizations are exploring ways to offer camp-like classes all year.
“Everything that we’re doing, they’re a part of,” said Cindy Honeycutt, the theater’s education and outreach director, of the St. Alban’s members.
The church attracts new people to its Sunday services via the internet and from signs outside on the sidewalks. “This parish, because of its history, is really committed to … valuing every human being that walks through that door – every human being,” said Johnson.
For instance, there’s a homeless shelter nearby and some of its residents make their way into the theater for Eucharist.
The parishioners, Johnson said, treat those folks “as real people, not as ‘homeless people’ first” and by doing so, “they get to see the God that is in that person, and it changes them.”
St. Alban’s is one of the congregations benefitting from the wider church’s willingness to grant the diocese money to support its growing ministry. Johnson’s part-time salary has been increased to full time.
“We’re grateful for the investment and the trust that the rest of the church has placed in this parish,” Johnson said. “I think they see, as the people of this place see, really great opportunities for expanded ministry; for new, creative ways of being church in the community.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.