It was high summer when the Rev. Angela Emerson became interim rector at St. Peter’s Church in Bennington. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, complicating her desire to undertake a hospitality initiative. Still, the congregation had certain assets at its disposal.
“One of the things that struck me was just how beautiful the church was,” Emerson says. “It’s a very large facility. It was hot and there was a lot of shade and breeze, and I started telling them about Montpelier, and how, before the pandemic, the courtyard at Christ Church, Montpelier was the place to have lunch in Montpelier.”
Brainstorming with parish leaders ensued, and eventually the conversation drifted toward putting out a box into which people could submit prayer requests. That’s when a little parish history became relevant.
More than 15 years earlier, Bill Harrington, the church’s junior warden, had built a miniature stable for the Christmas pageant, constructing it using bolts, rather than nails so the structure could be put up for the family service and taken down before the more formal Eucharist later that morning.
“I didn’t know if we even still had that down in the cellar,” Harrington says. But he took a look, and there it was, stacked in pieces on the floor.
The tiny structure had originally been constructed for children, and Harrington had to prop it up on blocks so it would accommodate adults. And, being a proud workman, he didn’t want the blocks to be visible, so he covered them with the good boards he had saved when the congregation took down an old fence behind the parish hall.
But all of that was easily accomplished, and a good day’s work later, St. Peter’s was the home of Pause Place, a sliver of a place in which passers-by can submit prayer requests on index cards, pick up some of the prayers that the church makes available, peruse a community bulletin board, or just stand out of the elements if the weather is unfriendly.
The church sits at the corner of Pleasant and School Streets in what was once a toney part of town with opulent homes that were divided into rooming houses and apartments as the local economy declined. In this sometimes melancholy townscape, the hut quickly became an opportunity for conversation. “If we are there putting up a prayer or something, somebody will inevitably stop and say something to us,” Emerson says.
St. Peter’s provides copies of prayers for grief, healing and peace in Pause Place, as well as copies of the Serenity Prayer. It incorporates the prayers of passers-by into its Sunday service. On occasion, those prayers offer a window into the difficult lives of the church’s neighbors.
“The last one I saw on Saturday was ‘Dear God help me,’” says John Terauds, the church’s community missioner. “There was no name on it. It was just a scrawl on an index card. It’s like a cry from the heart. It’s like something straight out of a psalm.”
Emerson believes Pause Place constitutes the first step into a deeper engagement with the neighborhood. Regardless of the pandemic, she says, the congregation will continue to explore ways to use the gift of its lawn and building to reach out to the community.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘We want to be a part of your life,’” she says. “’And we want you to be a part of ours.’”