Transformative Art
  • Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Episcopal congregations in the former mill towns of Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill in northeast Massachusetts are helping at-risk youth find their way to success through the arts. Children receive tuition-free lessons in music, acting, cooking, and sewing.

The programs have waiting lists. Each is limited by how much any single congregation can do alone. Trinity Episcopal Church in Haverhill would like to serve more than the 36 kids who turn out to learn keyboard, guitar, flute, and violin on instruments provided by the church, but staff and support funds from area foundations are already maxed out.

Such limits will soon be lifted, however, through a new Diocese of Massachusetts initiative designed to encourage collaboration in mission.

Organizers hope the $7 million Mission Hubs project will kick-start more mission activity in underserved regions, strengthen ties among congregations, and perhaps become a model for other dioceses where local mission partnerships are all too rare.

“The old models of relating and the tiptoeing around one another’s territory have just taken a back seat to the fact that now this is something we’re engaged in together,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodman, the diocese’s project manager for the campaign.

The Mission Hub project caps a decade of conversations about how to strengthen mission work across a large and diverse diocese, where the needs of Boston tend to overshadow those of smaller cities and towns. Funds were raised through a recent capital campaign that earmarked a portion of proceeds for establishing eight to 10 mission hubs.

“We’re reaping the benefits” of the diocesan campaign, said the Rev. Jane Bearden, noting that Trinity, Haverhill, is far from affluent. “Not only is money coming back to replenish our endowment, but it’s also coming back in the form of mission hub money, which will allow us to expand the work that we’re doing.”

In November the diocese approved the first two hubs: one to serve Merrimack Valley cities and another to reach Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard. A pilot hub was already tackling youth issues on the state’s South Coast.

To win approval, a hub proposal must target one or more local needs and show how congregations will partner — with one another and (if appropriate) with service agencies — to achieve stated goals. Grants, spread over four or five years, can range from $250,000 to $1 million.

The vision calls for funds to seed partnerships that meet their goals, attract other sources of support, and become sustainable for the long term. Getting there is possible, organizers say, but it requires time and patience to overcome resistance to change.

Support from local clergy is essential or a mission hub will not work, said Helen Trainor, a former civil rights attorney now serving as interim executive director of the Plymouth, Cape, and Islands Mission Hub.

Local rectors, she said, have been instrumental in launching her region’s hub. They provide space for a mission hub office, as well as facilities for meetings and training events. It’s all to help volunteers connect with isolated residents, from shut-in seniors to ostracized gay teens, and advocate for measures to address climate change.

But clergy backing for a local hub did not come together overnight. It took a year of conversations to bring area rectors on board, Trainor said. Some wondered: would the diocese be foisting a new program on them to administer? Would they lose their best volunteers to a mission hub?

“There was a significant amount of pushback,” Trainor said. To some rectors, “it felt like loss, potential loss, in the idea of collaborating, sharing resources, and sharing people.”

As clergy learned more about the proposed hub’s opportunities and grassroots structure, they came to support it, she said.

Support grew by “helping everybody, from the rectors on down, to understand that this was a net benefit to them and to the growth of their parishes,” Trainor said. Rodman noted that mission-engaged congregations tend to grow more than those that do little or no mission work.

Getting into the habit of doing mission side-by-side is requiring some adjustment, too. The Plymouth, Cape, and Islands Mission Hub has been training volunteers through the fall and early winter for their first assignment: visiting with seniors whom they have never met.

Volunteers have learned to launch conversations by asking about wall photos of family and friends. Volunteers have practiced being confident in conveying the love of God through a peaceful, non-anxious presence.

But when the time came in January to make their first visits at nursing homes or private homes, the volunteers were the ones who needed calming.

“There’s a reason people haven’t done this before. If it were easy, it would have already been done,” Trainor said. “It’s just not easy for people to go out beyond their comfort zones and walk into someone else’s world.”

Overcoming early rough patches is to be expected, organizers say, especially in something as ambitious as a paradigm shift for mission across an entire diocese. But the benefits of collaboration are expected to bear fruit from the start.

In the Merrimack Valley, rectors at Trinity, Grace Church in Lawrence, and St. John’s and St. Anne’s in Lowell may delegate more administration to a paid supervisor, who will oversee arts programming at each site, starting in September.

The Merrimack Valley Mission Hub’s $1 million grant, spread over four years, will also pay teachers for more hours of instruction, create a piano lab for four students at once, and seed an endowment to ensure the ministry continues in perpetuity.

For area families, the mission hub spells increased opportunity. Tuition-free music lessons, now offered just one day per week, will soon be offered five days a week. Trinity will accommodate more children who come through a neighboring YWCA and the Haverhill Boys & Girls Club. The total number of students served in the region’s three largest cities is expected to double to about 400.

In southeast Massachusetts, the new hub means continuing training will be available to anyone from the 16 year-round congregations that comprise the Cape and Islands Deanery. Among the skills they can learn: community organizing for climate change activism.

More mission hubs will be announced for the Diocese of Massachusetts in the next year. Meanwhile, congregations will continue their long-awaited experiment in working closely, through a new structure, toward shared goals.

“It’s broken down some of the territoriality and competition among congregations,” Rodman said. “We realized this was something that we could do collectively — and that God was calling us to do.”


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