Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Potter's House

Dodging the raindrops proved futile, and we were soggy by the time we arrived at The Potter's House. Fortunately, we found parking only a couple of blocks away. Rachel enjoyed the rain on her face as we pushed her stroller through rain puddles up the sidewalks of Columbia Road, but we were all glad to find refuge within.

Unfortunately, the person with whom we had set up a time to meet was delayed in a meeting offsite, so our visit ended up being a bit more informal. We really enjoyed perusing the excellent book selection and checking out the art exhibit on one wall. We spent an hour or so with Sam, a member of The Potter's House who happened to be there, and he gave us a pretty good introduction to their ministry.

Here are a few things that impressed us the most:

The trailblazing nature of this ministry... When it began back in 1947, The Potter's House was ahead of its time. A coffee house church seems like a 21st century idea, but that was the vision of Gordon & Mary Cosby 60 years ago! Their question was, "Could Christ be served in a coffeehouse in Washington, D.C.?" Here's what Gordon says of their vision:

"The idea first came to Mary and me after a disapointing out of town speaking engagement in a church which felt as though there was no life in it. We stopped for the night at a motel which had only one vacant room, which was above a tavern. The noise from below kept us awake most of the night. As we drove home the next morning and thought of the contrast between the camaraderie we had heard in the tavern and the somber mood in the church we had visited, the idea of a coffee house began to emerge -- it could be a church in the marketplace which would say to the city: We will serve you, we will be with you in the way in which you naturally gather: We will live a little chunk of our life where you can watch what is going on… see whether we know anything about the mercy of God, whether or not there is a quality of being here which is different from what you have found elsewhere."

The Membership Covenant: Membership in The Potter's House, or in any of the church communities associated with The Church of the Saviour, means something. Those who join commit to a covenant which includes tithing; study (participating in their School of Christian Living, as well as independent study); spiritual disciplines(an hour a day of prayer and meditation, retreats, etc.); regular participation in worship; and attendance at a mission group - a weekly small group.

In her book Call to Commitment, which chronicles the story of The Church of the Saviour, church member and author Elizabeth O'Connor (since deceased) writes, "We understand the Christian Church as the gathering of those who are committed to Christ and to one another in the living of a common life. We are to be pioneers, missionaries, evangelists, teachers, and prophets -- representatives of the new humanity. The proclamation of the gospel is not alone for a little official group of people which is called clergy. It is for all who have met the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith, who know that Christ is on the march. The world may be fearful and anxious and weary, but we are not weighted by that world. We are following One who has unfathomable resources and One who makes them available to us and who says, 'You must set new norms of life so that people can see what life can be. This is your task. Your primary vocation is to enter into covenant relationships with others who have also met this Christ -- to be that new society into which others can be drawn.' ... Surely entrance into the Christian Church presupposes total commitment to Christ as the Lord of the church. A surrender to Christ is a surrender to his people -- total involvement in the life of the church and the awareness that participation in this community of forgiveness and love means that we must offer it to all people."

The justice ministries that The Potter's House has spawned: We need to learn more about this, but so many ministries... at least one clinic, a jobs training program, low-income housing, advocacy ministries for minority populations, and lots more. It's clear that seeking justice is central.

The focus on "inward-outward" mission: a strong emphasis on spiritual disciplines that foster personal holiness and ministries of justice and mercy which foster social holiness. It seems very Wesleyan!

The concept of ministry in the marketplace: This was Gordon & Mary Cosby's great experiment, but it's happening now 60 years later... The Potter's House is at once a bookstore, a coffee shop; an art gallery; a hospitality center where those who are homeless come in out of the rain, or to use the restroom, or to take a nap uninterrupted; a Friday night coffee house; an afternoon feeding program for those who need a free meal; and worship space for Monday night Taize worship -- all in this storefront on bustling Columbia Road in the heart of the Adams-Morgan neighborhood.

Our visit left us with a few questions as well:

  • Has The Potter's House sufficiently adapted to a changing society? The space seemed somewhat outdated, in need of a facelift to attract today's young adults. The environment wasn't unwelcoming, but the space didn't have the ambience of the coffee houses that are booming in every neighborhood of D.C. and every urban area in our country.

  • Are the members of The Potter's House invitational? If so, how? We were surprised to learn that currently the church has only six members, and while the congregation orginated with young people, today most of them are middle aged. We don't know how many others regularly participate in worship or small groups who have not taken the membership covenant, but the person with whom we spoke lamented the fact that they are no longer attracting young adults.

  • How do you successfully integrate what seem like competing aspects of a ministry like this: a viable restaurant/ coffee house/ bookstore and a ministry with the unhoused like the feeding program/ hospitality center? The person with whom we spoke articulated this challenge: many professionals have said they do not feel comfortable coming in to buy coffee or meet with associates or clients when there are homeless persons hanging out or coming in for meals. The feeding program is a tremendously expensive enterprise, which could be offset by a successful business with strong support from a paying clientele -- but how could this work more effectively?
These are questions we hope to answer. Our visit to The Potter's House was inspiring. We hope to return on Monday to meet with the person who was unavailable on Friday. We could see ourselves coordinating a ministry like this, or some variation thereof, and we think it's a good match for our context in Portland.

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