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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Brookmont Community Church

Little Falls on the Potomac River

Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church,
Our little sexton sings.

God preaches, - a noted clergyman, -
And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I'm going all along!

(Emily Dickinson)

Identity church or community church?

Should church keep focus on preserving identity - to be home for its own flock?
Or should it rather focus on the present-day heterogeneous community – to address spiritual demands of anyone, regardless of religious denomination?

Where majority belongs to the same church there should be no such dilemma and the priest could do both without compromising (though even in such places the flock is actually far from homogenous).

But what about places where communities gather people belonging to religious denominations of all sorts (if any)? There the priest has to make a choice.

Southerner churches in US (the so-called conservative Christians) found the answer in the nondenominational approach. I was wandering what would be the answer from the other side of the Protestant church in US (the liberals, the progressives, as they are known). I found it at the Brookmont church.

Brookmont is a small community on the Maryland border of Potomac, close to Little Falls area – around six miles distance from DC. A trolley used to link Brookmont (and other neighboring communities, like Cabin John, Glen Echo, or Palisades) to downtown Washington. The trolley is no more – a bus service operates now on the McArthur Boulevard (the old Conduit Road) – and besides, everybody has a car.

People in Brookmont adore kayaking and virtually everyone has a kayak or two in the backyard. To reach the border of the river is a matter of five minutes.

I discovered Brookmont and its church on one of my walks through the surroundings of Washington – and since then I passed by many times.

The church has a traditional architecture, like any given church in Maryland or Northern Virginia. In front of the church, a small memorial – a post on it, there was a quote from Gandhi:

We must become the change we want to see.

I remembered another aphorism of Gandhi; I had read it on a post in Washington Square, in New York – in 2001, two days after the September 11:

An eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.
Next time when I passed by the church, there was another post: a quote from John of the Cross, a catholic saint from the sixteenth century:

One dark night...
I went out...
With no other light or guide
That the one that burned in my heart.

The church, and the entire place around, that community of Brookmont, was giving me a feeling of peace and kindness, and I was wandering what denomination was this church. Baptist? Presbyterian? Unitarian? Maybe Episcopal? There was no indication of any sort. I tried to ask someone there. A lady was walking with her dog, I approached her and I put the question. I don’t know, answered she with a smile. It’s our church, that’s all I know.

I passed by the following weekend. The post now was quoting Khalil Gibran:

Love is the only flower that growths and blossoms without the aid of seasons.
Khalil Gibran, who wrote once,

We live only to discover beauty
All else is a form of waiting.

and also,

Think of me when you see the sun
Coming down towards its setting
Spreading its red garment
Upon the mountain.

A man was working on his car. I asked him about the denomination of the church, and he replied smiling, as the lady a week before, I don’t know, it’s our church, that’s all I know. You should ask Peter. Who is Peter? I said. The minister, he lives in the house neighboring the church. Go and knock at his door, he’s very nice.

I didn’t. It was rather late and I had still some distance to cover, to be back in the city.

The following week I started a search on the web. I found two references. There was a site related to outdoor activities in the area of Little Falls; a link took me to the copy of an article published in the Washington Post in 2000 - it was about Brookmont and various activities on the church were mentioned, among other aspects of community life.

I found also another another web site; it was an organization with publishing activities, devoted to the understanding of various concepts of peace. I read there that the organization, Peace Evolutions, was keeping some of its public activities in the sanctuary of Brookmont church.

There was also a blog attached to the web site, authored by Jeff Glassie, the leader of Peace Evolutions. I wrote to him and Jeff answered very quickly. He too was advising me to go to the minister, Peter Ainslie.

For two or three weekends I was away from Washington – the duties of my job sent me to Texas for a while.

When I came back, I went on a Saturday again to Brookmont. This time I found the minister, Peter Ainslie. He was about to go somewhere, so we talked briefly, and it remained that we would go on by eMail, which we did the following week.

Peter is a very pleasant man, with a very nice approach. He explained to me in his email the way his church runs. It used to be a Northern Baptist church, only the community in Brookmont comprises Baptists, Unitarians, Catholics, Jews, as well as people who do not belong to any denomination. And the church became a home for all of them, serving the community with weddings, funerals, renting space to a children’s' dance class, arts group, peace and social justice committee, men's group, vespers twice a month, several yoga classes, and calling on the sick and needy. They also give clothes and serve the inner city homeless shelters every week.

What about the divine office? They gather material from different sources, some Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian. Leadership is encouraged for these services. Everything is in the perimeters of a basically liberal Christian heritage.

Identity or community church? Well, Peter found the answer – the identity of his church is just this one – to serve the whole community.

I passed by there last Saturday. The post in front of the church was now quoting Elisabeth Barret Browning:

Earth's crammed
with heaven,
And every common bush
afire with God,
But only he who sees
takes off his shoes.

(Church in America)

(Looking for the Old Trolley)

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