Sanctuary in the City: A Dinner Church in Brooklyn

Finding community at St. Lydia’s, a growing “dinner church.”

When I arrived at St. Lydia’s Church in Brooklyn one Sunday evening, I was given a name tag and pointed toward a stack of plates: Would I like to help set the table for dinner?

It was January 2010, and I had recently moved to New York from Houston to attend graduate school. I’d been spending my time working, writing alone at my desk, and looking for community. I had visited a few large Episcopal churches and stood around at many coffee hours hoping that somebody would talk to me, but without too much luck.DSC_0847

There was no coffee at St. Lydia’s, but there were tables to be set and vegetables to be chopped, and so I got to work. We sang and prayed, ate, read scripture, and shared stories, and then sang some more. I helped do the dishes. Now, almost five years later, I am on the leadership team, which we call the Leadership Table.

In the months after arriving in New York, I found it to be a city full of people skilled at avoiding strangers like obstacles. I was one of them, spending long quiet hours in my Queens apartment and taking solitary walks after work around Manhattan. St. Lydia’s overcomes this modern tendency to shut ourselves off from our surroundings by combining the liturgy with a sacred meal that the community makes and eats together.

The pastor and founder, Emily Scott, often calls it “dinner church.” She has crafted a beautiful liturgy based on the prayers and practices of the early church that appeals to lifelong Episcopalians, like me, former evangelicals, and the un-churched alike.DSC_0807

There are no bulletins or hymnals. A congregant explains each step and teaches us the music by call and response. Once the food is cooked and the tables are set, we begin by lighting candles while singing a simple melody. In the background there is the comforting drone of a Shruti box, an instrument that works a little like an accordion without the keys.

After Emily sings a Eucharistic prayer, we pass the bread from hand to hand, saying to each other, “This is my body,” as Jesus said to his disciples, the same bread that we bake in the oven an hour before. We eat it with the vegetarian meal we had made together.

After eating, we read scripture, Emily gives a short sermon, and congregants are invited to share personal stories. There is a time for prayer, many of them offered aloud, and we bless our cups — filled with grape juice, water, or whatever we are drinking — recalling Jesus’ words at the last supper, before doing the dishes.

By the time Emily sang a benediction and we passed the peace on that first Sunday that I went to St. Lydia’s, I felt at home.

The liturgy, music, and the opportunity to tell our stories over a meal are essential parts of the experience, but it was the shared work of peeling carrots and washing dishes that immediately bridged the gap between the other attendants and me.

The thing I liked about being given a job was that I didn’t have to agree to anything except to help prepare dinner. I agreed to set the table. I agreed to wash the dishes afterward. Within only a few weeks I was helping lead the service — passing out candles or explaining when we would eat or sing or pray — but I never had to recite a creed. I simply needed to be present and willing to do a little work.

As someone with about as much doubt as faith, St. Lydia’s fulfilled a need in me to engage with my faith without requiring consent to any particular dogma. My engagement is more kinetic than intellectual. I accept and give gifts with my hands — the gifts of love and grace in the form of bread and wine, a dish passed full of food, peace passed with a handshake or a hug.

In the process, I often do feel the presence of God; I am moved by the songs and prayers and by the stories others tell. As an Episcopalian and an introvert, I am not entirely comfortable with either praying out loud or extemporaneous storytelling, but I have come to love the way these stories reveal the other community members, their large hearts as well as their pain, loss, and loneliness.

DSC_0853The congregation includes a wide range of people, with many young Brooklynites and several individuals who may depend on the meal for the day’s nourishment. St. Lydia’s is attractive, I think, to young, single people in New York adjusting to post-college life groping in the dark for the door to a new home. It’s attractive to those feeling the isolation that life in a city can create, and those who want to feel seen and useful. At St. Lydia’s you are noticed and you are needed. Someone must bake the bread and someone must arrange the chairs or there is no meal.

In a sense, this is no different than most churches (What is any church without a congregation?). It is simply more obvious at St. Lydia’s. The things we make are intangible — worship and fellowship — but they are expressed as tangible things, like food that you can touch and taste.

Over time, St. Lydia’s has continued to grow. We meet on Monday evenings now as well as on Sundays, and occasionally outside pastors and priests will come to see what we’re up to. Soon we’ll move into our own storefront space, which will be used for co-working and community building during the day, an extension of the idea that working side by side connects people.DSC_0576

The appeal of working together is practical, too. It’s easier to connect and speak with people when you’re washing dishes than it is trying to generate conversation over coffee in a paper cup. “Where are the sponges?” leads a little more easily to “Where are you from?” and, eventually, in the case of me and my wife, to “Will you marry me?”

Three months ago I married Denise. We met at St. Lydia’s. Last September, shortly after we were engaged, Denise and I brought our wedding rings to church. At the end of the service, the congregation passed our rings from person to person, each saying a silent prayer as they cupped the rings in their hands as we all sang a simple melody. It was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life, as the community that brought us together blessed the bond we made with songs and prayers and the work of our hands.

Images courtesy of Margaret McGhee.

Jeremiah Sierra
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