by Kathleen Moore
The soft rings of Tibetan singing bowls and catchy strains of contemporary music you will hear during monthly meetings of Fresh Start Spiritual Practices at Trinity Episcopal Church in Troy are not sounds most people associate with Episcopal churches. And that is by design.
“I’m a Lutheran pastor serving an Episcopal congregation, so when I came to Trinity a little over a year ago, from the beginning I had wondered about what kind of service might appeal to people outside our congregation,” says the Rev. Ann Marie Winters, Trinity’s pastor.
“At first I was thinking of a service of prayer and praise, but I realized that would be really no different than a prayer service that many other churches do midweek, and I wanted this to be based on what we could offer that might be different to attract people who are not comfortable going into a traditional church,” Winters says.
Reaching out to such people is a challenge for every Episcopal church. At Trinity, Winters decided the first step lay in meeting their immediate needs. “In the pandemic, we were isolated so much from one another in community, and there’s a real need to do spiritual practices together as a group and to build community again,” she says. “I leave the denominational aspect understated. The point is for people to feel drawn in rather than excluded.”
She began by identifying two members of the congregation whose gifts could contribute to the new mid-week gathering. Bethany Evans, a musician, plays contemporary music on keyboard and Jenny Anticoli, a Pilates studio owner, leads meditative practices.
“So it became clear that Bethany could bring song, Jenny would bring meditation, and I would bring prayer,” Winters says. Fresh Start—not to be confused with the diocesan program for new clergy and clergy in new calls—met for the first time on April 5 and will continue to meet on the first Tuesday of every month.
“The vestry is totally behind us,” Winters says. “They approved a budget for a mailing, flags and flyers in the community to advertise that this was coming up. We also made an event on Facebook and put Fresh Start on our parish Facebook page.”
The publicity paid off when fifteen people showed up for the first meeting. “There was such a good vibe,” Winters says. “People melded together, got to know one another, and we had a nice opening with conversation. The Spirit was so clearly present because people were sharing themselves, and you could tell there was life in the room that was very freeing and community-building.”
Anticoli believes Fresh Start is meeting needs among community members during this isolating time. “There is so much chaos in the world, and [people] might have anxiety before they come to a new gathering,” she says. “I feel as though people have been isolated, and this is a way to connect.”
One member of the community, Colleen Rose, showed up to the first meeting with her Tibetan singing bowls, which are now a permanent fixture of Fresh Start. “They were just so moving,” Anticoli says of the singing bowls. “We had rainstorm move in while she was playing. It felt really organic.”
As a lifelong member of Trinity, Anticoli is excited about the growth and willingness to try new things Fresh Start represents. “I was born and raised in this parish in this church, and it feels expansive,” she says. “It feels like we’re reaching out beyond the brick and mortar into the community.
At the same time, she is aware that innovation is often accompanied by unease. “I think there’s a fear that ‘What is this? This is not traditional.’ But I love tradition and traditional liturgy, and that’s a lot of the reason why I’ve stayed in the church. People might think this is very ‘woo woo,’ but it’s just not. It’s a simple practice of centering, and it’s reaching people where they are, versus just an invitation to come to our church.”
As Fresh Start continues to grow and change, Winters is committed to literally meeting people where they are. “We put a Fresh Start flyer in the Troy library, and all the little tags at the bottom were torn off, so that means there were a number of people who visit the library who were interested, but didn’t come. So I thought, ‘Let’s offer it in the library community room in the future.’ I’m going with the flow of where the interest is, and who the leaders are. That’s collaborative ministry.”
Anticoli hopes other congregations will think about starting their own expansive community gatherings. “I would hope that people would start to pray and dream on how they can do this in their own church and in their own community,” she says. “Just looking into your community to see how you can help just by being there for them.”
image: The Rev. Ann Marie Winters, pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church, Troy