The Austin SoCo Community
The idea for the SoCo Episcopal Community started in 2014 in response to a question; “What kind of faith community would be attractive to people who live in the neighborhoods around South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas?” I started having individual meetings with a lot of neighborhood folks and started asking that question over and over again. At the end of every 30-minute meeting, I always asked, “who else should I be talking with?”
What I found out was that only 3 of the 30 or so people I met with actively participated in an existing congregation. From the rest, I heard that the idea of trying to be part of an established church community that meets in a traditional church building seemed too much. Too many spoken and unspoken rules, too formal, too hard to really get to know people, too much like watching a performance, too much time, money, and energy spent on the church building and staff instead of getting to know and working with neighbors, especially neighbors who are hurting and in need.
Many of the people I met with talked about how they had not been to church in a long time because they had been hurt by the church or made to feel like they were not welcome for one reason or another. Others, many in their 30’s and early 40’s, never had any real experience with church as either a child or adult except for the narrow, unkind, versions of Christianity that they saw on television or heard on the radio.
But despite all of that, almost all the neighbors I spoke with expressed some curiosity about God even though they told me that they were not very religious. They told me that they would like to have a real community where they could openly share with others, talk about God and meaning, and take concrete action together to help and work with those in need. For my conversation partners with children, many expressed a desire that their children be a part of a faith community that really cared about each other and other people so that their children could learn enough to decide for themselves about God and the church.
Based on everything that I had learned from talking with neighbors and working with my wife Minerva, our boys, and other members of our family, the SoCo Episcopal Community started weekly 11am Sunday services in January 2015. In August 2015, we started holding services, discussion groups, and coffee hours in the cafeteria of Travis Heights Elementary School.
We continue to meet at the school, and 25 to 30 people now participate in the Community’s Sunday service on a typical week. We have 5 to 10 children and teens participating in each service as well as 3 to 4 seniors. Roughly ⅓ of the community identifies as Hispanic with the remainder identifying as White. About ½ of our congregation walks to Sunday services, sometimes bringing their dogs along. Our community has baptized 6 children so far.
Our Sunday services are informal but traditional. We celebrate the Eucharist almost every Sunday except when a priest is not available, and then a community member leads us in Morning Prayer. For both environmental and time-constraint reasons, we worship using physical Books of Common Prayer, Hymnals, and a supplemental songbook. A few community members now bring guitars and other instruments to accompany our singing, but we are also used to singing without accompaniment when no musicians are available. We assign readers, intercessors, ushers and other ministers as people walk in the door on Sunday, often inviting children and newcomers to participate.
After Sunday services, we get together for multi-generational faith discussions, activities, or just be with each other, depending on the time of year. During Lent, we met on Wednesday evenings for an adult book study and family dinner.
In addition to worship and Christian education, we have made it a priority to engage in acts of charity and justice as a community as at least once a month. We have worked together at the fall and spring beautification days for our host school as well as sponsored and staffed a photo booth at the school’s fall carnival fundraiser. Twice a year, the adults and children of our congregation provide hospitality, a meal, and a worship service at the Trinity Center for the Homeless. Our congregation also is an active member of Austin Interfaith, a coalition of religious congregations, schools, and worker’s organizations that work together to address public issues that affect the wellbeing of families and neighborhoods in our community.
Small, neighborhood-focused, communities like the SoCo Episcopal Community are an effective way of engaging people who are curious about God but are disconnected from any faith community. Such communities can be tailored to in a way that churches that draw from larger geographic areas cannot, and they can experiment, fail, and innovate without alienating an established congregation’s existing membership. A neighborhood-based community’s small size also provides many opportunities for leadership, relationship, and creativity from the moment someone first participates in the community, therefore increasing the likelihood of real engagement. In this way, missional communities can be unique, intimate, self-creating, and focused schools for learning how to follow Jesus.