Discovering God in the Neighborhood: A Visit to Newport, Vermont October 20, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Newport, Vermont is a lively, thriving congregation seeking to become more deeply engaged in the local community as part of their Local Mission Approach. In my new visitation schedule, this was the first congregation scheduled for a weekday visitation. I invited them to lay out a schedule for the day that they thought would give me a deeper sense of their mission connections, and did they ever do a great job! They scheduled me from 10 am to 8 pm, plus my two-hour drive each way from Burlington. I can’t recall spending a more wonderful, engaging and Spirit-filled day! What follows are some pictures and description of my day in Newport.
The day began in conversation with the Rev. Jane Butterfield, Interim Pastor (front right), Penny Thomas, Senior Warden (center), Tim Daley, Parish Administrator ((back right), Christine Mosley (front left), and Bob Wilson (back left). Bob and Christine are members of the St. Mark’s local Ministry Support Team and are preparing for ordination as (local) priests in the Episcopal Church. We talked about life at St. Mark’s during this time of transition, but mostly about the day’s focus on mission and how we were going out into the Newport community to talk with some community leaders and residents to get a better sense of what God is up to here!
Our first stop was the North Country Hospital, where we were privileged to spend time with Claudio Fort, CEO (2nd from left) and Avril Cochran, VP for Patient Care Services (2nd from right). Also joining us for this conversation was Jim Biernat, District Director of the State Office of the Department of Health in Newport and a member of St. Mark’s (far left). Much of our conversation focused on the unique challenges and opportunities of a regional hospital in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and in particular how North Country Hospital is engaging the concept and conversation about being an accountable community for heath (All Payer Model). The conversation focused on collaborative, comprehensive and creative ideas for addressing the needs of the community being served. I came away with an abiding sense of hope expressed in this conversation about respecting the dignity of every person as a core value and seeking to work collaboratively for the well-being of all, especially those most in need. These are Gospel values, and I was delighted to learn that both Claudio and Avril are people of faith.
Our next stop was the State Department of Health District Office, where Jim Biernat (far right) serves as the Director of a fabulous team, including Lisa Ste. Marie and Chantale Nadeau (2nd and 3rd from the left) What struck me most about these three is their sense that what they are doing is their “calling.” They never really talked about their “jobs,” but about the relationships they have with the people they serve. They carry out these vocations in one of the most economically impoverished regions of our Vermont. The complexity of issues, from poverty to access to services is no small thing. And yet, they are totally committed to what they do and hopeful that their efforts make a difference. They are not naive, but neither are they overwhelmed by the challenges. They love and respect the people they serve and they strive to make a difference. And, they are totally committed to collaboration with others. From my perspective, God is surely at work here.
From there, we headed “downtown” to visit with Cynthia More (far left) who is the vibrant and enthusiastic Executive Director of the Newport City Renaissance Corporation (NCRC). NCRC is a private nonprofit volunteer organization consisting of business owners, municipal leaders, community organization leaders, and residents, which serves as a catalyst for economic and community development in Newport’s designated downtown district and the greater Newport City area by advancing and enhancing the economic environment, developing a cohesive and welcoming City design, and promoting the City as a tourism and investment destination. Cynthia is a bridge builder, a person trying to connect the city through promotion of the city’s many assets and desire to celebrate good things that are happening in Newport. She probably wouldn’t use this word to describe her efforts, but I will. She is an evangelist – one who is telling the good news story of Newport, while at the same time trying to draw the community closer together. St. Mark’s can be (and is) a good community partner with Cynthia and her team.
Just down the street from Cynthia, we were privileged to spend time with Laura Dolgin, City Manager (center) and Seth DiSanto, Chief of Police (2nd from right). Here we had a broad ranging discussion about the city of Newport, including its challenges and opportunities. It was clear throughout the conversation that these two civil servants look at things through the lens of opportunity. They are “glass half full” people who are not dismissive of the challenges, but people of hope who have great confidence in the people they serve to do what is best for their city. The word on my heart when I left this conversation was HOPE. I did go so far as to suggest that Cynthia think of herself as the “bishop” of Newport, a moniker she was hesitant to embrace. What I was trying to say was that she has a unique perspective of oversight in which she is called to “see the big picture” and reflect that back to the community. At the same time she is called to be a “non-anxious presence” in the midst of the recent challenges facing Newport. For his part, Chief DiSanto inherited a clear and compelling core value for community policing and everything I heard from him reinforced this commitment. I left this conversation with a deep sense of gratitude for these public servants and with the hope that they can effectively share their sense of hope with others.
Our final stop of the day was at the 99 Gallery, a unique gathering place for members of the community who often experience life on the margins, and as people often marginalized by circumstances and systems. It is hard to describe this incredible community, hosted by Diane Peel (seated on the couch 2nd from the right). It is a safe gathering place for conversation, for making connections and above all for respecting the dignity of every human being. It is an art gallery, a classroom, a computer access location and an “edgy” place where there is legitimate caution with regard to institutions, both secular and religious. I found the conversation to be honest, hard, sad, prophetic, and in its own way hopeful. Clearly the people we met here are committed to the dignity of all and I am quite sure God is working in and through them. I was humbled, grateful and challenged by their witness.
After our full and engaging day in the community, we headed back to our “home base” for conversation with the Vestry (pictured here) about the future of St. Mark’s as a missional church community. We talked about practical matters of church structure and governance, as well as visionary matters of our participation in God’s reconciling mission as part of the “Jesus Movement.” I am most impressed by the passion and visionary leadership of these disciples.
After that, we were joined by others who had been about their ministry in daily life and shared the fellowship of a hearty meal and good table conversation. And then…..
…. we concluded our day with a moving Taize worship service of prayer, chanting and reflections on the day.
I left in the rain for the two hour drive back to Burlington feeling both tired and refreshed. I know we discovered much about what God is up to in the neighborhood of Newport, Vermont, and that there is much to learn from that and much that needs to inform our ministry going forward. At the same time, I think we brought a measure of hope and encouragement to those with whom we met. I think we communicated by our presence, our listening and our affirmation, that what they do day to day really does matter and that they are making a difference. Clearly, we received more than we gave, but I think we were also a sign of connection and hope to those with whom we were privileged to meet.
Our Presiding Bishop reminds us of our vocation to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, helping to “transform the world from the nightmare it often is to the dream God intends for all.” I think we touched on that vocation in this powerful day of discovery. As the banner in the corner of the picture above reminds us: God is doing marvelous things! Thanks be to God!