Reflections from London

A reflection from Pastor Amy Butler
In 2018 Riverside made a landmark decision to purchase McGiffert Hall (99 Claremont Ave) from Union Theological Seminary. This decision accelerated the Riverside community’s progress on a path of thinking creatively about the full two blocks we inhabit here in our little corner of Manhattan. With our city changing so rapidly around us and the institutional church in America changing even more rapidly, Riverside is poised to be a leader new ways of thinking about bring the church today. This is exciting!

To help us think creatively and act courageously, we began working last year with a social innovation partner called Matryoshka Haus. Founded for the purpose of equipping the future church, MH operates in England, a society in which the decline of the institutional church has progressed several decades ahead of where we are in America. Because of the decline and death of so many of their religious institutions, innovation has come to the work of communities healing the world here in the UK.

A group of staff and lay leaders have been immersed in a week-long “Design Lab” to imagine post-church social innovation, to see new ideas, and help us think creatively. The group will return to Riverside with a general roadmap of process and timeline, along with plans for engaging the whole community in our work of assessment and discernment moving forward.

A generous and forward-thinking gift to the Harry Emerson Fosdick Fund for Excellence has enabled this work. The purpose of the Fosdick Fund, named for our first Senior Minister, is to facilitate excellence and innovation in Riverside’s programs and increase organizational effectiveness so that we can carry out God’s work in the world the best we can. To continue this investment in our future, we welcome special financial gifts to the Fosdick Fund.

A reflection from Isaac Meyer III

I had a great time in London, and enjoyed learning about the various ways that churches and faith-based organizations can utilize their space to serve their communities.

This was my first time in England, and while I was impressed by the stature and beauty of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I was even more appreciative of and inspired by the quiet strength of St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, a small church in the middle of one of London’s business districts, with skyscrapers towering over their cozy worship center tent, known as a yurt. I felt connected to the space as soon as we walked into the garden just outside of the yurt, as we were able to meet and speak with Dave Tomlinson, who, prior to heading St. Ethelburga’s, organized a community of non-affiliated believers, who would meet at pubs in and around London; and went by the name of Holy Joes; and would speak about the power and source that is God, without ever using the word.

While we visited several churches and sites, each of which wowed and impressed me in unique ways, what I found most surprising and enjoyable was the ability of our team, lead by the London-based organization that we engaged to help guide us, the Matryoshka Haus, to work together and arrive at a consensus regarding how to begin to transform the physical space of our church, the Riverside Church, to help better serve our community and fulfill our mission.

While we may, in fact, be a church on a hill, with a Bell Tower that does indeed tower over Morningside Heights, from my time in London, I was able to not just think about, but also feel how the size and scope of our building does not have to be the end all be all determinant for the level of the warmth, intimacy, trust, and faith that our church can create within our congregation and community, and can bring forth: throughout New York City, throughout our nation, and throughout the world.

A reflection from Lakeisha McCoy

During our trip to London we met with the leadership of social enterprises on the cutting-edge of social stewardship. Each organization described how they navigated large-scale transformation that led to sea-change and ultimately materialized ministries that more adequately addresses the needs of the communities they serve.

My spiritual and emotional core was deeply impacted by the organizational missions, the people dedicated to the work of their ministries and the positive impact their collective energy is having on the community. I came back deeply inspired and hopeful for the future of the church – and Riverside’s role as a leader in the movement.

A reflection from Charles King

Shortly after I was asked to co-chair the Riverside Development Committee, I went to our Gift Shop and picked up a copy of The History of Riverside Church in the City of New York.  Reading it, I was fascinated to learn of the church’s founders’ intentions to make Riverside not just international, interdenominational and interracial, but also to blur the class boundaries and welcome into its arms low-income people who lived in surrounding Morningside Heights community.

Almost from the day Riverside’s doors opened, the congregation acted on that impulse.  Whether it was the sewing classes to provide vocational training for women, parenting support, youth recreation programs, a food pantry, or any of the many social service programs that now operated within our walls, Riverside has lived out this commitment, most often through what the history book describes as benevolence.  That is, “doing for” people who are less fortunate than ourselves, at least as we see it.

One Wednesday of last week, I found myself, along with other members of the Riverside delegation to the London Design Lab, sitting in the Parish House of St. Martin in the Field with The Rev. Samuel Wells, the church’s Vicar.  St. Martin Church practices robust social enterprise, with a huge café in the crypt that serves thousands of tourists and local office workers each day, a vast music program, and a large gift shop, all of which support the ministries of the church, including its extensive homeless program and a Syrian refugee project run directly by volunteers from the congregation.  This summer, the church plans to incorporate homeless people to participate directly in these enterprises by inviting them to serve as apprentices in its outdoor café.

Rev. Wells not only recounted the history of social enterprise at St. Martin Church, he also articulated its theology.  He described the church’s work as the ministry of radical hospitality, embracing the stranger, whether that person is homeless or a refugee, a hungry tourist, or a beleaguered laborer.  The church’s approach, he said, is to “be with” rather than to “do for”.  One difference in “with” versus “for”, he said, is that the role of the church was not to fix everything on someone’s behalf, but to “create the right environment and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.”  Being a friend, he argued, was more important than any specific intervention to serve the people we meet.  And he described being a friend as “saying I am allowing my life to be changed by being with you.”

Listening to the Vicar, I wondered what would happen if we, the congregation of Riverside Church, had the imagination to see all of our service ministries as “being with” instead of “doing for”.  How would that change the way we address hunger and food insecurity?  How would that change the way we respond to the hundreds of tourists who walk through our doors every week?

Could we as a church have the imagination to offer these many people something beyond benevolence.  Could we have the imagination to truly be a friend, to invite these folks to change our lives?  Could we, like St. Martin Church, have the courage to embark a ministry of radical hospitality that declares, “If the world has given up on you, there is a place for you here”? As we embark on this journey to envision the future of our church, I pray that God grants us that kind of imagination.