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May 17, 2011 | Luke Blount

St. Alban's, Waco, Turns Loss into Outreach

St. Alban's Waco Outreach
Cello, St. Alban's Waco

In 2006, St. Alban’s Memorial School, Waco, was struggling to stay afloat, and one of the first tasks of new rector, the Rev. Jeff Fisher, was to find a solution.


Built in 1946, St. Alban’s Memorial School was the first Protestant parochial school in Waco. But 60 years later, as more parochial schools moved into the area and enrollment declined, it became dreadfully obvious that the school could not survive. By December, a final school chapel service was held as local television stations filmed, and St. Alban’s was left with an empty building.


Despite the loss, Fisher and church leaders seized this moment as an opportunity to start something new. “From the beginning, I challenged the parish to listen to the needs of the community and do something new and significant with the old empty school building,” he said. “We listened to every idea; no idea was too small or large.”


For months, parishioners thought about potential new uses for the building. They formed a community outreach council to seek discernment, and in the meantime, they moved parish activities like vestry meetings into the old school building.


Eventually, the church figured out what they were good at: worship, music and the arts. Then the old school building received its first new inhabitant: the Central Texas String Academy.


The director of the Central Texas String Academy, an Episcopalian from another parish in Waco, needed space to run her program, and St. Alban’s welcomed them in. Following the agreement, students provided full orchestras on occasion for worship services.


Soon after, the Waco Children’s Theater asked to move into the building and use the old classrooms to teach children drama and dance. The children even acted out the scripture at St. Alban’s Easter Vigil.


Today, the outreach center also houses the local branch of Camp Fire USA in addition to Avance Waco, an organization that teaches predominately poor Latino parents how to be teachers and role models for their children.


“These groups interact with each other by sharing their gifts,” said Outreach Director Janet Madera. “The struggles are minimal compared to the successes of being partners with four diverse organizations.”


As the school building took on a new purpose, the building was renamed the St. Alban’s Outreach Center. Fisher also encouraged parishioners to welcome the organizations, appointing parish liaisons for each one and encouraging the use of more friendly language.


“We were calling the organizations in our buildings ‘tenants,’ which was really not very welcoming,” he said. “So we changed our vocabulary and now call the people sharing our buildings ‘outreach partners.’ I brought a jar into vestry meetings with the word ‘tenant’ on it and big red X over that word. If any vestry member used the word ‘tenant’ instead of ‘outreach partner,’ a dollar was put in the jar.”


Last fall, St. Alban’s held a joint bi-lingual bible study with the Avance staff and church staff to increase understanding.


“We are slowly changing our values, continually thinking of others outside the church walls, continually remembering our story of resurrection, the story of St. Alban’s Outreach Center emerging from the tomb of St. Alban’s School,” Fisher said.


Since 2005 the average Sunday attendance at St. Alban’s is up more than 60 percent. And this January, Fisher and the Rev. Jimmy Abbott, assistant rector, started a third Sunday Eucharist which starts at 5:00 p.m. in the Outreach Center where the school library used to be.


“We want to be enablers of ministry, not gatekeepers, by saying ‘go for it’ to 99 percent of the ideas,” Fisher said. “What’s the big deal if it fails?”


Although the loss of the St. Alban’s Memorial School was traumatic for teachers, students and the parish family at St. Alban’s, the growth of the Outreach Center has brought new life. Four times as many people in the community are served through the outreach center than were by the school.


“Our people have truly experienced resurrection, making us less fearful to try more new things for God,” Fisher said.


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