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Dec 12, 2018 | Carol E. Barnwell

New Church Plants Seek Reflections of Diverse Communities

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Part of the diocesan vision for church growth is planting three new churches annually. This year three clergy were named to begin work in northeast Houston, south Austin and Pflugerville. The Rev. Carissa Baldwin McGinnis, the Rev. Brin Bon and the Rev. David Peters will spend the upcoming months meeting people in the neighborhoods of their new communities and will build a mission team of eight or so people to be part of their leadership teams. 

Near Northside Houston
It’s a funky area, the near northeast side of Houston. The light rail has brought a bit of gentrification. It certainly brought change to the neighborhood of the small wood-frame homes that line streets with no sidewalks. Mexican cafes dot the corners, used car lots and industrial buildings share the street with Fiesta supermarket.

“The area is culturally diverse, and I want a congregation that reflects that, culturally, racially and class-wise,” Carissa Baldwin said. “There is a lot of need,” Baldwin said, adding that there are also a lot of community organizations and a solid infrastructure in the original community. 

Baldwin’s earlier community organizing work in the valley will come in handy. “This area just connects with me in a special way,” she said, adding that while the gentrification brings energy and investment, it is a very stable community and Baldwin first wants to know what the people in the area might need. Nearby areas of Kashmere Gardens, the Fifth Ward and Settegast, bordered by the 610 Loop and the old Beaumont Highway expand her view of the broader community.  

Baldwin, formerly an associate rector at St. Andrew’s in the Heights, describes her priestly call as “rooted in contemplation and social justice.” Working for an international human rights organization in Washington, D.C. she was inspired by two Roman Catholic priests serving in Nigeria in the early 1990s. “They led prayers, worship and Bible study, but also provided legal rights training to their congregants at a time of grotesque corruption and violence in the country,” she said. “They attracted me to this vocation by way of their living example. The message was about mercy and justice, spirituality and repair of the world.”

Baldwin graduated from Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. Married with two adopted children and a foster child, she added, “I have a diverse immediate family that lives in the most diverse city in the nation. I seek a church that is reflective and inclusive of both.”

A native of Germany who lost everything in the Prussian War, Henry Pfluger, Sr. settled just north east of Austin in 1849 to begin anew. Pflugerville was platted in 1904 when the railroad completed its track between nearby Georgetown and Austin. And in 1910—because they were not allowed to live in town—blacks who worked the cotton fields were allowed to purchase land west of town for $50 an acre, an area that came to be known as Pfulgerville’s Colored Addition.

Today, Pflugerville incorporates all of this original area and is a growing city of 60,000. Along the I-35 corridor that runs beside it, the first thing drivers see is a vast cemetery covering the hill from the exit and that suits David Peters just fine.

“When you believe in resurrection and follow Jesus, it’s okay to talk about death,” the former Army chaplain said.

A large furniture store and Ethiopian restaurant just north of the cemetery speak to the rapid growth and diversity of the area. Peters knows it will take a while to learn the community, but plans to seek out area religious leaders, veterans’ groups and join the local gym to begin meeting people.

“I’ve had more spiritual conversations at my gym than a lot of places,” he said, admitting his current knowledge of the area is not deep. “I did a long run one morning about 3 a.m. through the community praying about it,” he said. “I want to know their hopes and dreams for community. When I was an Army chaplain, one of the main jobs is the ministry of presence, showing up where people are in their lives. That’s where I’ll start here. I want to meet anyone who knows someone here, I want to talk to them.”

“I trust the Holy Spirit to lead me to the places where I need to go,” Peters said. “Divine interruptions are often the most meaningful, even when you have a plan and a schedule.”

Peters wants his new congregation eventually to reflect Pflugerville. “It’s a diverse community, but you can’t manufacture it. That has to happen organically,” said the father of three and former associate rector of St. Mark’s, Austin.

After leaving active duty in the Army, Peters was ordained as an Episcopal priest in Washington, D.C., having discovered the Episcopal Church in an Army chapel at Fort Jackson, SC.

During a crisis of faith after serving in Iraq, Peters said the Episcopal Church “saved” him. “No matter how I felt, God was consistent, and people accepted me. I like the sense that there is a heritage of struggle with science and faith, with politics and faith,” he said. Peters has an active ministry with veterans in the Austin area and plans to continue that in Pflugerville. His experience of military chapels was one of beauty and transcendence amid the grit.

“When I came back from Iraq and caring for the dead and dying young people, I wanted to be a peacemaker. The more I heard about planting churches, the more I felt it was worth doing, worth giving my life for. I want to give people in Pflugerville a chance to do that, too—to be changed and renewed by God.” 

South Austin
Drive down South First Street in Austin and you will pass the Trailer Park Eatery and El Mercado Café, you will go by a lot full of food trucks, with lines of hipsters and long time working class locals. It’s Austin at its best “vibe” a little grimy, populated with upscale restaurants disguised as a bit earthy. Oat Willie would still be comfortable here. 

Brin Bon has started several communities beyond St. Michaels, where she served as an assistant rector until recently. One was Farm Church and one was Dinner Church taking “prayer and practice” out of church and building communities around shared experience and the table. 

The Salt Lake City native and mother of three said she never dreamed she would live in Texas. Seminary at Yale provided the opportunity for her husband to work in microbiology for the university and when the lab was reaffiliated with the University of Texas, the family came along. Bon was ordained at St. Matthew’s by Utah’s bishop, the Rt. Rev. Scott Hayashi in 2014. 

Bon attended a Cultivate conference hosted by the Diocese of Texas in 2017 to learn more about missional communities.  She admits she hadn’t thought about church planting until someone directly asked her.

“It was the opportunity to have the church I want to attend,” she said. “I’ve loved the churches were I’ve served, but there are things I wanted to do differently.” She’s excited to use liturgy as a tool to help people live the life of a disciple.

“There is not another English-speaking Episcopal Church in this part of town,” Bon said. “It was originally a working-class part of town but is changing rapidly. I hope we can maintain the diversity and that we will be a community that forms disciples in our tradition.”

“The blessing is that there is no template,” Bon said. “South Austin is not ‘one’ thing. I want to know where change has been positive and where it’s been negative. How has it affected the community?” 

She’s talking to as many people as she can who live in South Austin. “It’s word of mouth, people who read my blog, someone’s cousin or co-worker. I’ll talk to anyone!.” Like Peters and Baldwin, Bon has met with local church leaders who have invited her to talk to their congregations.

“I was asked to share what I was doing at the Vine and they prayed for us,” she said. Several people in her mission team are from Farm Church, one woman read her blog and has gone to the Episcopal Church previously. “She is a real seeker and is attuned to the sound of God’s voice,” Bon said. “She is compassionate and already doing God’s work.”

With her mission team in place, Bon doesn’t want to determine the character of the new church plant or what kind of worship they might have. “I don’t want to make those decisions by myself,” she said. “It’s not MY church but I could not be happier. There is no more perfect fit. I get to do the things I like most, talk to people about where they are in their walk with Jesus and do something together. It’s a bold statement that the Diocese of Texas is planting these new churches. It says God is speaking to people and we are following Jesus into the community.”