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Aug 30, 2011 | Luke Blount

Houston Church Plant Nurtures 'Organic' Community

St. Mark's BTB1
The Rev. James Derkits leads St. Mark's, B-t-B
St. Mark's, BTB 2
The community meets in this room at MECA

In the evening of Pentecost Sunday, around 30 people gathered for the St. Mark’s Between-the-Bayous worship service in a small, warm room at Houston’s MECA (Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts) School. With chairs arranged in a circle around an altar fashioned from a real tree stump, church members engaged in worship music led by guitar, djembe (an African drum) or a cappella.


As a new church community in Houston’s revitalized first ward, between the White Oak and Buffalo Bayous, St. Mark’s B-t-B describes itself as a “sustainable, organic and local Episcopal community.” The church seeks to capitalize on a local artistic movement by encouraging creative expression and personal involvement in worship. St. Mark’s, in Bellaire, serves as the parent congregation for the innovative service.


“When I came to St. Mark’s (as assistant to the rector), I knew I wanted to create a new church community in Houston that was truly Houstonian,” the Rev. James Derkits explained. “I wasn’t really sure what it would look like, but I wanted to engage folks in their day-to-day lives, especially leaning on artists and musicians and the spiritual work that they were doing.”


St. Mark’s B-t-B began meeting at a local restaurant and wine bar in November of 2010. After temporary stays at other locations, the community settled on the location at MECA, which was a perfect fit with their focus on the arts. Derkits leads his community every Sunday at 5:00 p.m. in addition to regular small group meetings.


“In a traditional church setting, you can very easily go into a church service and not engage with anyone and then leave,” said summer intern Will Parker, who is the son of the Rev. Andrew Parker and the Rev. Elizabeth Parker of St. Timothy’s, Lake Jackson. “With St. Mark’s Between the Bayous, there is very personal engagement person-to-person where people are bringing something that’s really of themselves.”


On Pentecost Sunday, some community members met before the church service to paint the windows of the meeting room at MECA. During the service, Derkits sat when the church members sat and stood when they stood, giving his “shared sermon” from a seated position within the circle. There were no books to be found aside from the gospel, just a single sheet of paper for the order of service. Most hymns were sung one verse by the music leaders and then repeated by the congregation.


Following Derkits’ sermon, he opened up the floor for further input, and after a bit of silence, the community started a quick discussion followed by Eucharist.


“It’s really a fairly traditional community. We have a Eucharistic prayer, prayers of the people, the Eucharistic community,” Derkits said. “It’s just the expression of it is different. Any liturgical worship service is filled with art and music … We are just trying to say that’s great if it’s of a particular style, but what if we pulled that back and created room for a new style of art and music that helps people who have never been able to approach the Episcopal Church.”


Members of the community are truly responding to St. Mark’s.  As he does at the end of every service, Derkits opened up the floor for offerings of art or insight on Pentecost Sunday. The community noted the newly painted windows and the newly installed tree-stump altar, which was reclaimed from the MECA property and finished by the Rev. Murray Powell. Other church members offered their feelings about their new community.


“When I first came here it seemed like a democratic caucus meeting,” said David Achenbaum. “I was trying to grasp the idea behind all of this. Now I see the purpose of this place is to live and grow creatively and thankfully in God at a place that pays attention to community and a fragile earth in a way that I haven’t seen before.”


Janet Thornburg felt as if her soul was thirsty for something different, and decided to try St. Mark’s B-t-B after reading about it in a previous edition of the Diolog. “I wouldn’t have found this place if my water had not run dry at the place I [attended] previously,” she said. “I’m not sure if this is the place for me, but I feel the moisture building up again.”


Derkits sees the new community as an ever-changing and growing entity that will be shaped by the people who need it. “We continually ask: ‘How do we make this sustainable, organic, and local?’ Instead of opening up a catalog and ordering vestments, we try to create our own.” he said. “We invite people to bring in music or art or poetry. One of my assumptions is that God is at work through artists and musicians. Whether they have the Christian language or not doesn’t matter to me. We are not anti-tradition; we are just trying to create space.”


St. Mark’s B-t-B is part of the diocese’s new Greenfield Initiative, which encourages satellite congregations and new expressions of the Episcopal tradition. To learn more, contact Jeff Fisher at