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Community Centers: Church Ladies

Sophia Kelly MFA '10

Can you just start a church out of nowhere?” Emily Scott ’02 asked friends, mentors, and anyone who would listen. It was 2007, and she had recently returned to the city after obtaining a Master of Divinity from Yale University. She was struck by how many people seemed lonely and isolated. New Yorkers rarely seemed to eat home-cooked food and usually socialized in restaurants or bars. Tiny apartments and long commutes compounded the sense of separation. At the same time, Scott kept hearing from people who were interested in talking about faith, but hadn’t found a community where they felt comfortable. The vision of a special kind of church began to take shape. “I wanted to make a place where people could cook and eat together,” says Scott.

We often think of a church as a building, but it’s actually made of people.

Scott’s idea for a church was based in her studies of early Christianity at both Sarah Lawrence and Yale. Early Christians would gather for worship during a meal similar to the Jewish Seder, she says, but over time, the representative bread and wine became highly symbolized. Scott thought the direct experience of a meal might be more accessible to people, and that cooking dinner together could deepen the sense of community, giving strangers a chance to work side by side. After the meal, the group would share stories—not only from the Bible, but also about their personal experiences.

Scott shared her idea with Rachel Pollak ’04, who had earned a master’s degree in arts and religion from Yale Divinity School and was then studying art at an MFA program in Chicago, where she explored themes of community and ritual in her sculptures, drawings, and prints. Drawing on years of friendship, study, and shared experience, Scott and Pollak discovered fertile ground for collaboration in the idea of St. Lydia’s. “We had a two-hour conversation that turned my whole life in a different direction,” Pollak says. She moved to New York to join Scott in the project, working part time as community coordinator and devoting the rest of her time to her art.

“We often think of a church as a building, but it’s actually made of people,” Scott says. Nevertheless, they still needed a place to gather. After spending nine months discussing their plans, networking with the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and holding a test run at a friend’s apartment, Scott walked by Trinity Lutheran Lower East Side in the East Village. Everything felt right about the building, so she phoned the pastor, who not only offered to let them use the space for free on Sunday nights, but also became a mentor, offering support and professional guidance to Scott as the church grew.

Now, a little over a year since they cooked the first meal at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, about two dozen members attend regularly. When people arrive for the service, they choose to either help prepare the meal—which is organized by a congregant—or set up tables and chairs. Once the food is ready, the worshipers light candles and proceed to the sanctuary or to the garden, depending on the weather.

A guest presider chants the Eucharistic Prayer over the bread (Scott is a candidate for ordination with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and dinner commences with conversation and wine, a blending of the secular and sacred. After eating, they read a passage from the Bible, and Scott delivers a short sermon. Congregants are then asked to share their own stories or reactions to the sermon.

The evening winds down with singing, a prayer, a poem, and the blessing of the communion cup. Then everyone cleans up together and reconvenes in the foyer to sing, have dessert, hear community announcements, and receive benediction from the presider. Afterward the worshipers often go out for drinks together—all part of the church’s melding of the secular and the sacred, the formal and informal.

At the end of the night, the churchgoers return to their diminutive apartments, their hunger sated.