By James Maher
Name: Reverend Jacqui Lewis
Occupation: Senior Minister, Middle Collegiate Church
Location: Second Avenue between 6th and 7th
Time: 10 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24
I grew up in Chicago mostly, but I’m an Air Force brat. When I was a student both at Drew University in New Jersey and at Princeton, I used to run to New York to visit. I would go to eat dinner on Indian row or see Stomp at the Orpheum. This job at Middle Collegiate Church brought me to the East Village to stay.
I was working on a Ph.D. at Drew and I had come to study Gordon Dragt, who was the senior minister here. The project that I was working on was a study of clergy who run multiracial, multicultural churches. There are about 300,000 Christian congregations in the country, but only about 5 percent of them are multiracial and multicultural. So how do you do that? How do you make that happen? That was my research question. And Gordon was generous and gave me a chance to do focus groups and conversations here, and then he hired me to stay. I’ve been in the neighborhood for almost 10 years now. To live here was this incredible fantasy come true.
When Gordon came to be the pastor about 30 years ago ... he worked hard to fling the doors open to the neighborhood, especially to actors, dancers and artists who were in the neighborhood. And frankly, to addicts and people who were having Gypsy lives as well. The church has this idea of a radical welcome implanted in its DNA.
And now we have about 815 members. The growth has been stunning. I think part of the reason we grow is because we do say you’re welcome just as you are and we mean it. Here we are in this amazing community with all of these artists around and it made sense that Middle’s ministry would be artistic. Our tagline is “Welcoming - Artistic - Inclusive - Bold.”
We do the arts every Sunday, both at 11:15 am and at 6 pm. What you can expect at worship is to be surprised. There might be giant puppets dancing or there might be someone doing tap dance or ballet all over the pews. There is always outstanding music. And we started a new worship recently called “Art and Soul” because what we know is that a lot of people in a community like ours have been disenfranchised by church. They grew up and their pastors were like, “You’re not welcome because you’re gay, you’re not welcome because you’re divorced or you’re not welcome because you’re in a mixed marriage.“ All of these no’s we’ve tried to turn around and say yes to.
Our core theology is just as you are, God made you, God created you, and you are wonderfully and awesomely made, so of course gay folks are welcome. We’ve been marching in the Pride March for 25 years and we have a float.
About four years ago, our board passed a resolution saying we are going to stand in and work for marriage equality until it happens. We’ve pushed hard for it to happen and the Sunday after the legislation passed we did three weddings in the morning.
We also have an ongoing justice ministry for LGBTI folks, which includes working on behalf of gay teens. The homeless teen rate for gays is like 40 percent. Gay people are on our board, on our staff and in our leadership. It’s who we are and it’s in the fabric of our community.
One of the things that we like to say at Middle is yes. Maybe 25 years ago, one of our members wanted to start a feeding program for people who were living with HIV/AIDS. At the beginning we started feeding about 10-15 people. Pretty soon, the program grew to 95 people a week and we found a partner in an organization called the Momentum Project, and it became not only food but also social services, job training and health talk. Now the program serves 150 people a week. It’s important to say, in the time when the doors of churches were closed to people who were living with HIV/AIDs, and dying at rampant rates, our church was open.
Our church dates back to 1628. When the Dutch arrived in New York, they came to trap fur to do business but they decided that they needed to worship. So literally they were down at a fort, behind the wall that is now Wall Street. They were chartered to have their own church in 1692 by the King of England and we are the remnants of that oldest church. This is literally our fourth building and it dates to 1892. It’s a beautiful old building, but it’s not accessible, which is why I’m so excited about our current renovations. It is a project of accessibility and invitation. We are putting in an elevator and some safety stairs and that sort of thing. The church is a community center.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.