BRATTLEBORO — Two churches have joined forces to form Beloved Community, offering combined worship services and spiritual programs as well as working for justice and compassionate service to the broader community.
First Baptist Church of Brattleboro (FBC) and First United Methodist Church of Brattleboro (FUMC) share space at 18 Town Crier Drive and are “joining hands to share the love they experience together with others,” say FBC Pastor Suzanne Andrews and FUMC Pastor Ralph Howe.
Each congregation has maintained its individual deacons, boards, bylaws, and parity, but both come together in worship and a new, social outreach known as Beloved Community.
Andrews - a pastor for 25 years, 17 of them with FBC here - says worshipping together has been well received by both congregations.
“It has opened us to the treasures in our denominational attics and made us eager to experiment with new ways of praising God, affirming the love of God for all people, and working for a better world together,” she says.
Coming together in a time of need has allowed both congregations to flourish and create something new to give to one another and to the community.
Two congregations in transition
The building the two Protestant denominations now share was constructed in 1970 as a United Methodist Church.
The FBC had been at home at 190 Main St. in a “huge, three-story building with a slate roof” built in 1863, Andrews says.
“We just couldn't afford to maintain it,” she says of the Main Street building, which also served as a winter homeless shelter.
As congregations have diminished in mainstream churches across the nation, so they have here and, as parishioners felt the pressing need to find enough money to keep going, the First Baptist Church found a heaven-sent solution - for a time.
They sold a stained glass window.
Every stained glass church window has a story and, almost always, a certain elegance, but this one was a depiction of St. John the Divine - signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. FBC sold the window for $85,000 to a Pennsylvania collector who donated it to a museum.
Given expenses, however, $55,000 of that windfall went to fix the leaking slate roof and, says Andrews, parishioners realized they “couldn't maintain” the building with all its aging needs.
They sold it in 2016 to Bob Johnson, who gave the church three years' grace before starting to charge rent, which they couldn't afford. The building is now home to Epsilon Spires, an arts nonprofit.
Meanwhile, the Methodist congregation was dwindling as well, and so the two joined forces.
'It's really been such a blessing for us'
In the beginning, as each congregation held a separate service, Andrews says, “we were strangers in the same church.”
When Howe came to FUMC in 2021, he suggested combining actual worship, which the two congregations did later that year, sharing Advent services.
“It was an experiment, and we started worshiping together,” Andrews says. “Ralph and I alternated Sundays.”
But, she says, “what it has done is nearly a miracle.”
“It has brought people from different backgrounds together as one Christian family,” Andrews continues. “It's been a year, and we've had fundraisers together, we've worshipped together, and laughed together, and cried together, and it's really been such a blessing for us.”
FBC and FUMC have been worshiping together since November, drawing from both Baptist and Methodist heritage for new worship. They use Methodist and Baptist hymnals and liturgy, and they share preaching and weekly communion. Local jazz pianist Dan DeWalt offers music most Sundays.
“We support one another, we divide the expenses; we're partners,” says Andrews. “We're still struggling, but we're going to make it. I just know it. We all do.”
A former lawyer, Howe, who grew up in Wilmington, has been a minister since 1993 and came to Brattleboro after pastoring several churches in central Vermont and western Massachusetts.
As Howe puts it, “we didn't start with legal definitions, but looked at the community we want to be.”
“We wanted to start our relationship with the practice of being in community with one another and living into a relationship we think other people in the area would like to be part of,” he says. “I like that approach because sometimes money becomes an obstacle for some people.”
He calls the combined church “an open door to people of difference.”
Within the Beloved Community framework, the two congregations are still separately known as First Baptist and First Methodist.
“We want to respect our differences, not homogenize them,” says Howe. “Of course, when we work together, we've done some blending in terms of how we worship, but we are happy to emphasize some of our differences and teach each other from those differences.”
That's different, he points out, from some federated churches “that collapse into each other to survive.”
“While we could say that's part of our story, that emphasizes the diminishment in numbers and finances rather than working from our strengths and gifts,” Howe says. “And that's proving to be a good tonic for the usual small-church fears.”
Keeping denominational affiliations and polities while using them in community with one another “is making us stronger as Baptists and Methodists, because we are not trying to homogenize, but to engage authentically from our deepest spiritual roots,” Howe says.
“So, we are not a federated church, but two churches living into a Beloved Community together, open to others as well. We have now created structures to reflect this: a joint board of both church councils, and teams for mission, member care, worship, outreach, et cetera.”
Sharing a pulpit
Both pastors are enjoying their shared pulpit experience.
“It's been a great delight to work with her,” says Howe of Andrews. “She is a very warm and faithful person, so she brings a lot to worship. One of the things she's good at is movement, sacred dance. Each week she leads part of our prayer time with hand gestures and music so if people wish, they can engage their bodies in prayer.”
“We're blessed,” adds Andrews. “We're like a brother and sister, truly, in Christ.”
On average, about 25 people attend Sunday services.
“We're small, but by focusing on what gives us life and energy and recognizing the diversity of gifts that people bring to the table, we're trying to do what we're able to do and feel called to do rather than follow some program, and I think that makes a difference,” Howe says.
“Sometimes in small churches I think you feel you have to run a three-ring circus and, when you can't do it, you give up,” he says. “And that's not very helpful. So we're just moving gently.”
From the success of worshiping together, the group decided to form the Beloved Community, which “unified us even more,” Andrews says.
The name and intention was prompted by Martin Luther King Jr., who in a 1957 sermon, “Birth of a New Nation,” said that “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community.”
King defined a beloved community as a group of people that could come together to solve any social issue, division, or struggle.
The Beloved Community here is the social mission outreach arm of the congregation that works locally and around the world. Its key values are “deepening spirituality, inclusive hospitality, and compassionate justice.”
Both churches have historically been supportive of the needs of the local community through support of nonprofits for food and shelter, as well as other projects for community well-being and justice.
The churches now have been working together to support refugee resettlement, provide Bible study, and provide health kits for emergency relief programs.
Beloved Community hopes to collaborate with indigenous people, on whose land their building sits, to honor their culture, language, and history.
The power of storytelling
The next venture of the Beloved Community is the creation of a Center for Story, Spirit, and Justice, which will offer programs to the community:
• Storytelling and its history and power
• Work against racism and dehumanizing of others
• Explorations of gender, spirituality, mysticism, and spiritual direction
• Examination of personality and spirituality
• Liturgical dance
• Environmental spirituality
• Classes from the “Bridges Out of Poverty” program, developed by Ruby Payne
“Many people today are seeking a deeper spiritual life, not necessarily specific to a particular religion,” Howe says. “They are really looking to grow their inner life, to make sense of the world, and to get out and do things that have a positive benefit for the planet, the world, and the local community.”
The Center, he says, “is an answer to these yearnings through which we hope to provide for folks of all backgrounds the practices, inner strength, and means to pursue their personal development and efforts for compassion and justice.”
First offerings will begin on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023 when, from 10 a.m. to noon, Andrews will offer a multi-week liturgical/sacred dancing workshop followed from noon to 2 p.m. by Howe's multi-part nonviolence workshop series entitled “Violence and Wholeness.”
Both free programs continue in the weeks that follow and are open to people of any age.
The Beloved Community worships on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and welcomes all. Communion is offered every Sunday, as is a small Sunday School. Adult Bible study takes place Thursdays with supper at 5 p.m. and study from 6 to 7 p.m. The group is currently reading the book of Luke.
“It's fun and informative and inquisitive,” says Andrews.
“People have different levels of engagement with the text, and that's worked well,” adds Howe.