October 12, 2014
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I want to start today by expressing our gratitude for all the ways that Seekers has supported our renewal efforts at The Potter’s House. At every step you have been with us, offering your wisdom and generosity. From bringing a reconciling spirit to the tough conversations at the Ecumenical Council, to offering guidance on how to provide for major renovations, to all the prayers and gifts given on our behalf, it is not hyperbole to say that this renewal would not be possible without you. As we prepare to re-open in the New Year, we give thanks to God for Seekers Church and the strong bond we feel with our sister community here on Carroll St. From all of us on Columbia Rd., thank you. We look forward to sharing more with you and doing some dreaming together in our discussion time following the service.
Heading into recommitment Sunday, we are journeying together ‘into the unknown.’ We are preparing again to say ‘yes’ to the Spirit, and all that we can’t anticipate following in her path. And I imagine, too, that we are wrestling with the ‘nos’ that will need to come in order that we might say ‘yes’ to this life prepared for us in all its fullness. I must confess that for me – and I wonder if anyone else can relate to this – this season of not-knowing has lasted more than several weeks, instead encompassing the past several years.
In the fall of 2012, seven of us in our twenties and thirties met to explore how we could support the then-struggling Potter’s House and see it go on as a place of hospitality, justice, and community. Black, white, and Latina; gay and straight; Christian and religiously indifferent – this rustic coffeehouse had come to mean something special to each of us. We saw, I think, that the story of The Potter’s House was our story – and that in different ways it had made each of our individual stories possible. We didn’t want to lose this place, and we wanted others to know its transformative power.
What I didn’t know at the time was that a more expansive vision would soon grow from that gathering, one which would include a nearly million dollar renovation and a complete organizational transformation. I didn’t know that four of us would end up on the staff or serve on the board. Nor did I have an expectation of the pain and struggle that would accompany all these changes. I suspect that if I did I might have ran for the door! But the Spirit can be sly that way, only giving you the intel you need at the time so you don’t get too overwhelmed by the big picture.
In the Church of the Saviour, we say that one of the marks of call is that it is impossible. And while there have been days when that has seemed literally true, it is also the case with call that you’re given everything you need each step of the way. Members of Potter’s House Church affirmed the vision, and reminded us that this renewal was a good and holy thing when we’d start to forget. Eighth Day, who has worshiped at The Potter’s House since 1976, stepped forward to steward the building and serve as our fiscal sponsor. A transition team, composed of members of Eighth Day and Friends of Jesus Church and modeled on a mission group, made key decisions that set us on the right track. People near and far, Seekers included, gave sacrificially to our Nurturing the Next Fifty Years campaign. Thus far we have received just under 400 thousand dollars in gifts and community loans – an amazing testament to the love people have for The Potter’s House. This past spring a new board of directors took shape, a deeply gifted and culturally diverse group that is already amplifying our mission in profound ways. Bit by bit, we are (re)building this together with the Spirit. And it’s going to be beautiful.
And yet, I must confess that I still struggle with all of this not-knowing. The questions can begin to pile up, keeping me awake at times I would rather be asleep. Questions like: in a highly-gentrified neighborhood, how will we communicate welcome to everyone regardless of race and class? Can older and younger generations not only co-exist, but truly co-create? How will we attract a progressive, largely secular public while remaining connected to our Christian roots? And then there is the financial picture – can a cafe that doesn’t serve alcohol and welcomes homeless people alongside paying patrons survive? What about an independent bookstore in the age of Amazon? And perhaps the biggest one of all – amongst all these changes, how will we stay true to the essence, keeping the thread of these past 54 years?
In confronting these questions, I’ve found it life-giving to ground myself in our shared story of The Church of the Saviour. I’ve paid particular attention to those times when our community had to faithfully navigate profound changes – like the great transformation of our common life during the 1970’s. This era saw the scattering of the church into a number of smaller communities, beginning with Seekers. It also saw the emergence of the urban missions, starting with Jubilee Housing. It was, in many ways, a corporate time of not-knowing. The structures set in place were radically unsettled, as new leadership began to grow alongside new forms for accountability and commitment. And the vocabulary of faith was wholly transformed, as social movements brought different questions to the fore as well as different ways of approaching them.
The Potter’s House underwent a metamorphosis during this time, too, redefining its sense of purpose and becoming more deeply connected to the surrounding Adams Morgan neighborhood. Elizabeth O’Connor tells the story of this period in her long out-of-print book The New Community – which I am excited to say we are bringing back into print as part of our re-opening celebration. She says plainly that in the beginning “none of us had the poor in mind when we were thinking of a coffeehouse. We even called it our ministry to the ‘up and out.’” With the Ontario Theater just up the block, The Potter’s House became known as a great date spot for the tony residents of Dupont Circle.
But in the wake of the 1968 riots, the disconnect between The Potter’s House and its surrounding streets had become painfully clear. Years of racially motivated disinvestment had begun to take their toll on the area, and hundreds of families were living in slum conditions while paying exorbitant rents, afraid to confront their landlords lest they end up on the streets. Convicted by the war in Vietnam that they must work for peace and justice in their own backyard, church members began to meet the people who live at the Mozart and the Ritz, two run-down apartment buildings just around the corner. Building relationships across poverty and privilege, the boundaries between the coffeehouse congregation and its crumbling neighborhood had begun to blur.
Sitting around the tables at The Potter’s House, a new call was sounded: to provide safe and affordable housing for the poor and oppressed of Washington, DC. Taking its name from the great leveling prescribed for the people of Israel, Jubilee Housing was soon formed from the Thursday night mission group. While no one in the group had prior experience with real estate, construction, or property management, this did not stop them from dreaming big. And while it took some convincing to get the owner of the Mozart and Ritz apartments to sell them, and even more to get developer Jim Rouse to lend them the money so they could afford to purchase them, that is exactly what they did. O’Connor writes: “On the first of November 1973, the two apartment buildings became the property of Jubilee Housing, Incorporated. Two days later the District of Columbia served the new owners with three-page list of 900 violations of the housing code.”
Talk about an impossible call! Thousands of volunteer labor hours soon ensued, as church members, college students, and people from across the country joined with the residents to rehabilitate their buildings. And what came from all this was more than simply a dignified place to live, as important as that is. This was really the beginning of a new community,
a further evolution in the life of our church that would have been unimaginable just a few years before. Out of this fresh vitality grew a new kind of gathering at The Potter’s House: the Ram’s Horn Feast. As O’Connor describes it: “The community that gathers for the Ram’s Horn Feast is made up of a great diversity of persons…Some are successful, some are so-called ‘dropouts.’ A few like to speak in intellectual terms, and a few like to speak in tongues. We are from churches housed in storefronts and from churches with impressive towers. In all, we make a strange company, but that is the way we want it to be. We meet to celebrate our common humanity and to read and ponder Scripture and to wait for the empowering of the Spirit.”
The Potter’s House became, in effect, a small foretaste of the eschatological banquet portrayed in today’s passages from Isaiah and Matthew. The Prophet and the Gospel writer each present visions of a universe bent towards justice and offer hope for God’s great reversal. Rooted in the communal memory of the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt, they envision a day in which the oppressed sit at the head table rather than serve it, a time when those typically at the margins occupy the center. Growing from their active engagement in the struggle for housing, the people gathered for the Ram’s Horn Feast came to know in their depths the God of Isaiah, who serves as “a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. And together they began to dismantle the death-dealing shrouds of poverty and racism that hung over the people of Adams Morgan. Like the last-minute wedding guests found in Matthew’s parable, the guests at this feast were not those originally envisioned to occupy The Potter’s House tables. But these were precisely the people whom the Spirit was weaving together, crafting a tapestry all the more exquisite for its uniqueness.
How we at The Potter’s House seek to share in this great banquet today will necessarily look a little different than it did forty years ago. New questions press in upon us, and new challenges confound us. Today the primary obstacle faced by the poor in our neighborhood is not disinvestment but displacement. This reality requires us to more actively confront the structural causes of poverty in our city, as well as unearth the painful legacies—and active present(s)—of racism and colonialism. We will want to more proudly affirm the queerness of Christianity, forgoing moral conformity for a faith that welcomes and celebrates outsiders and misfits. And in an era marred by climate change, listening to the earth and beginning to live according to its rhythms will need to move to the center of our common life. And in the coming years, I am certain that other, unforeseen issues will capture our attention and energy.
Yet while the shape of our work may change, at its core the call remains the same – it is to join with others in God’s great reversal, co-creating a world where all share equally in life’s fullness – and to do this while singing, dancing, and feasting together.
So the question that I place before us all is how will you as Seekers and us together as The Church of the Saviour faithfully answer the Spirit’s call to join the movement, joyfully marching into the unknown?