The Living Church

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The Living ChurchAugust 25, 1996They Needed Each Other by Patricia Nakamura 213(8) p. 8-9

They Needed Each Other
One stronger parish from two in downtown Rochester, N.Y.
by Patricia Nakamura

How do two churches, one black, one white, become a "we" body instead of an "us" and "them" body? That was what St. Luke's Church and St. Simon Cyrene, both in Rochester, N.Y., had to discover, eight years ago.

St. Luke's, the "mother church of the Episcopal Church in Rochester," has one of the oldest buildings in Rochester. Its mostly-white congregation began in 1817 with Col. Nathan Rochester as a vestryman. St. Luke's had landmark status and a large endowment, but its downtown neighborhood was in flux, the church's membership was dropping, and there were no children in Sunday school.

St. Simon's, largely black, founded in 1921, was "a very settled, small community church," said Madeline Gamble, who was a warden there in 1981. Its members were quite happy as they were, "resisting change."

The Rev. Canon Nancy Roosevelt said, "They were two inner-city parishes that needed each other." But when St. Luke's proposed a merger to St. Simon's, some people were initially opposed.

"We spent two years talking about all the issues," Ms. Gamble said. "We wanted the least impact on both congregations. We took surveys of concerns before we decided to go ahead.

"We lost a few," she said, of each church.

Toni Burr, a lifelong member of St. Simon's, was opposed at first. "It takes some acclimating," she said.

For the first few years, the new St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene took care to have equal representation. The merged congregation worships in St. Luke's church. The rector of St. Simon's became the rector of the new church, the rector of St. Luke's the assistant. Each congregation elected part of the vestry, with one warden from each.

Now the combined church has its first rector, the Rev. Gayle Harris, and an associate, newly ordained priest, the Rev. Michael Burke.

"We are an inclusive community of people [come together] to hear God's word," Ms. Harris said. The church's goal is diversity and unity, to be warm and welcoming. "And we are!" she said. The two churches "did their homework well. They knew what needed to be kept."

Vestiges of the individual heritages remain in the two Sunday services, Ms. Gamble said. The 11 a.m. Eucharist is like "St. Simon's - high church, incense. At 8, we have Morning Prayer," like St. Luke's, "low church, no incense."

"We live out the gospel," Ms. Harris said. "We welcome all people, all backgrounds and experiences. We reflect the spectrum of the church, and celebrate each other's uniqueness." Many members she said, come from other denominations, and many economic and educational levels. And not only ethnic groups are accommodated. Ms. Gamble said, "There are Braille numbers on the pews, and an [audio] loop for the hearing impaired."

Fr. Burke's recent ordination was, like the parish, inclusive. As "an Irish American from Alaska," he was ordained by Native American Bishop Steven Charleston to the music of Missa Luba, a West African setting of the Latin Mass, and Taize chant. A wonderful moment in the service, said Fr. Burke, was when "Bishop Charleston called my wife, Nancy, up, for a special prayer and laying on of hands."

St. Luke and St. Simon's major outreach is the Right On School, a free six-week summer program for inner-city children. Dorothy Baker, a 50-year member of St. Luke's, said, "In summer, kids lose academic skills. And they need fun." Both aspects are part of the program, along with snacks and a meal.

"It's more than 20 years old," she said. "St. Simon's brought it with them. It's expanded. It meets now in an elementary school. With funds, it could grow even more."

"Four hundred signed up. We can take 150," Ms. Harris said. "It always begins with the bishop or the rector, and clergy are always present. God is present. The kids may be protestant, Catholic, Muslim."

Music at this church is as diverse as its membership.

"We have a new youth choir, the Voices of Joy (the name comes from a Ugandan song)," Ms. Burr said. "On Youth Sunday, they sing, 'Joy, Joy, Joy' in English and Swahili instead of the Gloria."

The organist-choirmaster is Susan Matthews, a doctoral student at Eastman School of Music. "My training is Methodist and classical," she said. "I was drawn to the Episcopal Church by the music and the liturgy. Here we use classical, traditional music, African-American gospel, folk - we're willing to try any style." She is working to catalogue the music library, "the only things not merged in 1992." Her choirs participate in joint services and retreats with other churches in Rochester, as well as nursing home sing-alongs.

St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene is "well represented in the diocese," said Ms. Baker. "We have two people on the commission on ministry, two on the diocesan council, and two to General Convention.

"There is real esprit de corps. We're proud of ourselves!" o