Faith Matters: Bridging denominations in a town of bridges

The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is the bridge pastor at the Shelburne Falls Trinity Church.

The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is the bridge pastor at the Shelburne Falls Trinity Church. CONTRIBUTED

By the REV. DR. DONNA SCHAPER

Shelburne Falls Trinity Church

Published: 10-20-2023 1:25 PM

I have been the bridge pastor at the Shelburne Falls Trinity Church since March 3, the day of a blizzard.

I drive up from New Haven, Connecticut, on weekends and work a very part time job. First hired to preach and pastor, I also did some consulting on the future of this historic place and people.

Instead of one day a week, I went to two in June. Even two days a week is not enough to get to know a village or a bridge of flowers or a town with two names: Shelburne Falls and Buckland. I did the old fashioned “Community Entry System” (CES) developed by John McKnight at Northwestern University. John founded “asset-based community organizing,” and I have been a disciple of its ways for decades.

In CES, you first meet the stakeholders or board, then the attendees, then the zip code of neighbors, then the business owners, politicians, librarians, senior center folk, social service folk, funeral directors and “townies.” When you work full time, you do this entry systematically over three years and then you repeat. When you work part time, you abbreviate.

I wanted to find out what the brand of the church was locally. It turned out to be very good. People spoke highly of the former pastor who had been there for nearly a decade. “She showed up.”

Some folks at the senior home said, “When she left, she said we couldn’t call her anymore. We were devastated.” When I said they could call me, they looked at me quizzically. Then they called.

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The best times I had in the CES were at a dace party at the remarkable Raven Bookstore and then at Memorial Hall, just last Saturday night. There, a harpist and a violinist played real music for an entire 63 minutes to the large screen showing of the fabulous silent film, “Snow White.” I couldn’t tell which century I was in and that was delightful.

I forgot to mention the civic politeness at the engineer’s hearing about how much the bridges need to be repaired. Or what it is really like early in the morning at the local diner where every third person seems to be wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.

The church itself is a hearty band of 30 worshipers on a good Sunday. Members are retired professors, journalists, farmers, security guards and workers at Home Depot. Many are very active grandparents — as in, they have taken over the care of their children’s children.

The church wisely decided years ago to merge four buildings and congregations. Thus, it lives in the beautiful Episcopal building on Severance Street (what a name!).

Worship is part Episcopal, part Methodist, part Baptist and part UCC. The very mixture makes it modern, as does the church’s recent intention of doing what most congregations are doing these days, that is remaining the Trinity Church but becoming the Trinity Church and Community Center and Spiritual Life Center. Changing it up is the tradition of Trinity Church.

The church also has a stunning garden, food program, kids program, clothing program, ukulele lessons and tai chi lessons.

For our “coming out of COVID” party, we held a well-attended potluck in the church parking lot, with live music, dancing and great food, which proved to our embarrassment to be a bit of a COVID spreader. Remember that wave late summer?

As part of the potluck, the brilliant organist, Keith Rollinson, gave an organ crawl/tour. Yes, the old excellent organ needs work. It’s hard to imagine a church that doesn’t have something big and expensive that needs work.

Our assets are clear. Were we to disappear, the entire neighborhood would be up in arms.

We are advanced placement for the whole community. On the hill, as sturdy as we are beautiful. We stand on the shoulders of so many people who have wanted our church to be a tool for serving our community and beyond. Hard-earned money, and lots of it, was contributed for the sake of future generations. A fully renovated building with an amazing kitchen and welcoming narthex, not to mention the elevator for full access to all.

That legacy of wisdom to do the right thing “early,” like merging four denominations, will serve us well for whatever God wants our open-minded people to try next! We have been like a bridge over troubled waters for long enough that perhaps we are even experts.