Growth in two very different Maryland congregations, similar strategies

By M. Dion Thompson
Posted Mar 30, 2017

[Diocese of Maryland] The Rev. Margarita Santana didn’t know how many people would show up for her first Sunday at the Iglesia de la Resurrección on Baltimore, Maryland’s eastside, but she thought there would be more than eight.

“I was very surprised,” said Santana, who splits her time as vicar and Latino missioner for the Diocese of Maryland.

Now, almost five years later, 65 people might show up on a good Sunday for the Spanish-language service.

A similar phoenix-like story is playing out 50 miles north of Santana at St. John’s in Havre de Grace. There, Pat Hopkins, junior warden, remembers a Sunday when six people showed up, three in the pews and three in the choir. In February, 100 people showed up for the Maryland Bishop Eugene T. Sutton’s visitation.

“It was really, really one of those extraordinary moments that one has in the ministry,” said the Rev. T. James Snodgrass, priest-in-charge. “It was glorious. You could just feel it. The congregation was overflowing. They were just joyful.”

In both cases, a focus on mission, hospitality and being part of the neighborhood helped spark the revival. Outdoor services and picnics are regular events. Santana’s first Sunday led her to engage in some old-fashioned shoe-leather ministry.

“We walked around the neighborhood to see the people,” said Santana, who is from the Dominican Republic. “We knocked on doors and had flyers in Spanish.”

But the church did not have a sign in Spanish. That changed after a visit by Sutton.

“He asked me, ‘What do you want me to do? What do you need?’” said Santana. “I said, ‘Bishop. We need a sign.’”

“Misa en Espanol” (Mass in Spanish), it read. And the people responded.

“When I ask [newcomers] how did you come here. They say, ‘I saw the sign,’” said Santana, who has learned to navigate the cultural currents of her parish. Membership includes immigrants from at least 10 countries in the Latin American diaspora.

The Rev. Lew Bradford joined Santana last year as deacon. He, too, is learning the different cultures at Resurrección as he improves his Spanish.

“You need to be sure that everybody feels included,” said Bradford, who will be ordained a priest later this year.  “And I think you have to have the attitude that Margarita has, to be positive.”

Around the time Santana was knocking on doors near Resurrección, the people at St. John’s were asking themselves if their church, founded in 1809, was going to close its doors. Attendance had dwindled. The $600,000-plus endowment was down to $11,000.

“It was depressing. I remember one day praying for a sign,” said Jan Biondo, senior warden at that time. Then the phone rang. A local church was looking to rent worship space. “That was my sign that God wanted to keep us open.”

Snodgrass arrived about a year later, bringing with him nearly 40 years of ministry experience. And, because he had full-pension benefits and was part time, he didn’t bring the financial obligations that cripple many small churches.

Slowly, a turn-around began. The finances stabilized. The church has even started a $1.6 million capital campaign. Already known for participating in ecumenical outreach programs, St. John’s began its own ministry to feed and help those in need.

“It means as much to us as to the people who come here,” said Hopkins, who once wondered where she would go if St. John’s closed. “We wanted to keep the church open, but it was very bleak. Now? It’s great to see the change and the enthusiasm.”

Hospitality and mission are two of the reasons Sandra Capezio decided to join St. John’s. Now about 60 people show up for Sunday worship.

“To me [mission] is the heart of the church and what it represents,” she said. “You want to make a difference, and you want to make it through Christ.”

Santana and Snodgrass point to the combination of time, dedicated pastoral ministry and a sense of purpose within the community as key growth factors.

“You hope. But you don’t know. But you do everything you can to open up for the Spirit and then get out of the way,” said Snodgrass. “But you prepare. You work. You till the soil. Then you pray that if it’s God’s will, God will give the growth.”

— The Rev. M. Dion Thompson is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland.