Church of the City uses contemporary worship, messaging to reach those in need
New London — In a bank-turned-sanctuary with no pews or altar, nor a single stained-glass window in sight, a full band complete with guitar, drums and a bass plays Christian music to a beat that sounds closer to a rock concert than a church hymn. Pastor Antonio Vargas Jr. calls Moses a "dope dude" during his sermon and relates his religious message to DJ Khaled's "Keys to Success."
"Are you happy today?" a congregant asks a visitor.
"Yes, are you?"
"I'm alive," says the congregant. "I have Jesus. What more do I need?"
Welcome to a typical Sunday pre-pandemic service at Church of the City. Founded in 2013 as the child of a merger between First Baptist Church and First Hispanic Baptist Church, the congregation at 250 State St. in the heart of downtown New London offers a modern take on religion in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, while promoting a message of inclusiveness.
By offering community meals for the homeless, working on immigration reform, offering bilingual counseling services and planning for more community outreach programs in the future, Church of the City strives to live by its motto of "In the City, for the City." While the services may feel more like a jam session than penance, the traditional faith message of spreading good works along with the good word remains and apparently resonates, as the congregation has steadily increased in size, although the pandemic has taken its toll on church participation here, as in many faith communities.
"Community is about relationship," Vargas preached to the 80 or so in attendance on a Sunday just before in-person services ceased March 16. "You and I were never meant to be the same. There are gifts that I have that you don't. There are gifts you have that I don't. We fill each other's blind spots."
"The church is, for us, the representation of God on Earth," senior pastor Daniel Martino said in an interview conducted in Spanish and translated to English. "Wherever we are, we represent God and the values, we call them the 'values of Heaven.' Jesus came and instilled values that are universal and those are the values that we abide by."
"Our vision is to bring transformation through Christ to a diverse community like New London," Martino said. "We understand that the New London community represents cultural, racial, linguistic diversity. And everything we do is to worship God, read the Bible, but we understand that God put us in this city to bring transformation and to help this city become a better city."
These universal values go beyond the walls of the congregation. While Martino and Vargas, who is in charge of the English services, preach the words of Jesus — and on one particular Sunday morning, Job — the message never deviates far from the church's identity, which is all about community outreach and embracing people as they are.
"The Bible tells us that every tribe, every tongue, every language will worship God, so we believe, instead of waiting for heaven, that we should begin to practice that out today," Vargas said.
Among the 300 to 400 people who walked through the church's doors in a given week when the church was holding in-person services, Martino estimates 18 countries were represented routinely, making the three weekly sermons all the more necessary. People in the congregation encompass those whose cultures spring from Latin America, Mexico, Central America, South America, Haiti, other parts of the Caribbean and Europe. The congregation also includes people of African American and Indian American descent, Martino said.
On one typical Sunday, churchgoers, for example, have come both from right within the city and from as far away as Boston, and some stop in while vacationing nearby. Some are quite young and others elderly. Some are fairly wealthy and others very poor. Dress ranges from plaid flannels and jeans to sharp suits and meticulously knotted ties.
Church of the City's roots lie with two separate congregations, one of which, as with many faith communities, saw its following dwindle beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. As the First Baptist Church — which at its peak, from World War I until just after World War II, was the second-largest Baptist congregation in the state, according to a timeline on Church of the City's website — saw its following fall to 100 congregants, First Hispanic Baptist Church was blossoming with numbers reaching upward of 300 from 1980 to 2002 as more people of Hispanic descent entered the city. The two churches decided to join together, initially on Redden Avenue.
In order to become the "social hub" that Vargas said the church aspires to be, and create a holistically healthy city, Church of the City connects with its community on multiple fronts. On Mondays, the church offers prayer nights. On Thursdays, there are two separate Bible study groups for children of different ages. All these programs currently are offered online. Church volunteers also continuously offer support to those working to become legal U.S. citizens. On the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, Church of the City partnered in 2019 with the Homeless Hospitality Center to both honor and remember the homeless who died in the previous year.
"There are individuals at Church of the City that are helpful to us," said Cathy Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center and co-pastor of the First Congregational Church, which shares its building, located opposite Church of the City, with the Engaging Heaven church. "When we have our annual walk, they always show up in huge numbers. They view themselves very outward going."
When the U.S. began shutting down in pandemic in March, services at first were shortened to an hour with no fellowship space after the sermon concluded. Hand sanitizer was provided, different forms of greeting were used in place of handshakes, and seats were spread to comply with social distancing guidelines. After March 16, services were streamed on YouTube while Citygroups and Bible study use Facebook Live to connect pastors with congregants. On Easter Sunday, Vargas said the church's livestream reached 2,000 people as far away as South America.
In July, Church of the City resumed in-person services, but they are outdoors in the church parking lot. Churchgoers either stay in their cars or bring lawn chairs. Attendance to these services has decreased by at least a third, Vargas said.
Church leaders look forward to the day when in-person services and community service can safely resume in pre-pandemic fashion.
"I urge you to hold us together in prayer and trust that this momentary crisis will pass as soon as possible," Martino said in an email newsletter sent to congregants.
Once the threat of COVID-19 abates, church members will resume their busy schedule that includes providing community meals for the poor or homeless on Saturdays at 4 p.m. in conjunction with other congregations in the city. Church of the City hosts the weekly event, while volunteers from other congregations help serve the meals at the Fellowship Hall. Between 40 and 50 volunteers help out each month, Vargas says, while 100 to 150 meals are served weekly.
"We typically give a two- (to) three-minute sermon, homily, devotion and then we just give them food," Vargas said. "It's the idea of building community. We have built a very good relationship to the point where people are excited to come. People celebrate one another. Especially in the Christmas season, we come and we sing songs and their guards aren't put up as much."
Vargas said by taking small steps — something as simple as calling people by name — church volunteers have built a trust with a group that is sometimes looked down upon. For some, hearing their name at the meal center might be the first time in weeks they've been called by name, Vargas said. He recalled a woman who became upset by just the room's scent. Now, she is friendly with the volunteers who take the time to set aside a plate full of the food she most enjoys.
"We make it our goal to not only lower the barriers of them feeling uncomfortable or having that high level of distrust, but we also want to make them feel known," Vargas said.
Church of the City also is continuously looking for ways to expand its outreach. For example, it is planning to establish a shelter for battered women and children, provide bilingual counseling services and even a halfway home for those transitioning back into community life. As a first step, the church bought a parking lot at 28 Methodist St. and has broken ground on a building that it hopes will become a social hub for the church community.
In a church full of people with diverse backgrounds and different upbringings, one of the most important ways the church gives back is through the Immigration Advocacy Support Center.
"We believe that it doesn't make sense to be a church and not to partner and uplift the city," Vargas said. "That is the way that we have always been."
The center, founded in 2014 and growing out of Church of the City's efforts, aims to help people with the naturalization process. On a priority scale of one to 10, Martino says the center is a 50.
"For us it is fundamental, that the people that come here or the people that in whatever way they came, to understand that their status, with or without papers, for us that is not important," he added. "What is important is the person, their family, and their well-being. Now, we work directly with all the people, regardless of their status, come to our doors and we will embrace them."
The church is a major advocate of immigration reform, Martino said. Many who come to the U.S. don't want to leave their home countries but are forced to by economic problems or violence, Vargas said. To cope with these emotions and often maintain family traditions, people of diverse immigrant backgrounds find solace at the corner of State and Washington streets.
Therein lies the most difficult aspect of a multicultural church, according to Vargas. Congregations that are predominantly all white or all Black or all Hispanic have a foundation to build upon, a common understanding of how things are supposed to work. But take that away, and how do you start to build community?
"And that is where we have found the answer of: Everything needs to start and end with Jesus," Vargas said. "Everything. And that's the only way that it can work. We do not want to stay as a multicultural church. Our goal is to become an intercultural church where people actually embrace difference, celebrate what makes people different, but also are able to live life together. And that's hard."
About this series
"Spirit of the City" is a project completed by University of Connecticut journalism students studying community news reporting. The class of eight students worked with Professor in Residence Gail Braccidiferro MacDonald, a former Day reporter, as well as journalism department head professor Maureen Croteau and editors at The Day to produce stories about New London's faith communities, the diversity these communities represent and the extensive outreach and social justice work they perform.
Students began working in January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic that shut down houses of worship, along with most businesses and schools in March, severely delayed and impacted the students' ability to conduct face-to-face interviews but they completed these stories under these adverse conditions. The students who contributed to this project are: Kevin Arnold, Margaret Chafouleas, Olivia Hickey, Allison O'Donnell, Daniela Luna, George Penney, Maxine Philavong and Joseph Villanova.
The entirety of the series can be found at bit.ly/nlsotc2020.
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