A Visit with Emily Scott, St. Lydia’s Pastoral Minister
A new kind of Christian worship is on the scene in New York. This one doesn’t take place on Sunday mornings in a church, but instead sitting around a dinner table in a Zen center located in Brooklyn. The focus is on prayer, scripture, sharing, and appreciating life through the body’s five senses. We were curious about this alternative approach to religious worship and connected with Emily Scott, St. Lydia’s Pastoral Minister.
Bianca: Can you quickly describe St. Lydia’s for readers?
Emily: At St. Lydia’s, we gather every Sunday evening to share what we call a “Sacred Meal.” We cook a big meal together, then bless the meal with an ancient Eucharistic Prayer that we sing together. Our worship takes place around the table as we share the meal: we read and explore scripture together, offer prayers, and sing. At the end of the evening, everyone works together to clean up.
Sharing a meal together is a practice that has its roots in the earliest days of the church. In the Bible, we read of Jesus breaking bread with his friends and saying, “This is my body.” For the first few centuries of the church, Christians gathered on Sunday to share a full meal. Those who had much to give shared food with those who had little, and bread was blessed and broken. Over the years, the practice of sharing a meal became more and more symbolic, gradually becoming what we see in most churches today.
At St. Lydia’s, we’ve returned to the practice of sharing a full meal with one another, and have found that it’s fed and nourished us, spiritually and physically.
Bianca: What can you tell us about the beliefs you explore?
Emily: We have this phrase at St. Lydia’s, “practice before belief.” Instead of trying to figure out what it is that we believe — trying to capture it and write it out on paper — we try to simply practice faith. That means showing up for Dinner Church, singing and praying, being in communion with others, even if you’re not sure what it all means. We trust that God works through our worship to draw us closer, to change us and be revealed to us. We’re very comfortable with doubt at St. Lydia’s, and see it as a healthy and active part of our lives of faith. Sometimes we’ll read a scripture passage and someone will say, “I really can’t get on board with this.” Other times, folks will speak about feeling like God is absent in their lives. It’s all a part of the seasons of our relationship with the divine.
Bianca: You call St. Lydia’s progressive. Can you explain?
Emily: I think the most important thing about St. Lydia’s being a progressive church is that we are not only inclusive of, but affirming of a full range of expressions of human sexuality. I believe that God created us as embodied people, which means that we inhabit bodies made of flesh and blood. We desire connection and relationship with one another. We crave intimacy. No matter how we’re called into relationship with one another, be that a relationship between two men or two women, or how we’re called to express our gender identity, God has made us just as we are, and blesses our impulse to love and honor one another with our bodies.
Bianca: How do people find St. Lydia’s?
Emily: People find their way to St. Lydia’s in all sorts of ways. Most people hear about St. Lydia’s from someone who heard about it from someone else. There’s usually some kind of word of mouth involved. But we also do our best to get the word out about who we are and what we’re up to though Facebook and postcards all over Brooklyn. Some folks find us online and just show up, which is always a wonderful moment. I often have the feeling that there are people out there in the city who are looking for something like St. Lydia’s, and I want to make it possible for them to find us.
Bianca: What are the backgrounds of attendees?
Emily: Our congregation has a really wide range of religious backgrounds. Some folks were raised as Atheists and have no background in religion at all. Others have gone on a spiritual walk about of sorts, spending time in Jewish contexts or Buddhist contexts or practicing Yoga or praying on their own. There are some who were raised very religious but were not welcomed or affirmed because of their sexual orientation. Some were seeking a context where they could be more intellectually involved with their faith. Still others have been involved in church for a long time, but found that they were looking for something a little bit different. We also have a few seminarians around, who will be leaders in the church in a few years. We run the gamut. But my sense is that all the folks who come to St. Lydia’s are looking to deepen their sense of connection to the Divine. They’ve spent some time dipping their toes in, and now they’re ready to wade into deeper water.
Bianca: There seems to be a great emphasis on the arts (cooking, video, event design, music, art). Is that by design and how does that play into the meals?
Emily: There is an emphasis on the arts, that’s for sure. When St. Lydia’s began four years ago, I felt it was very important that the experience of worship be beautiful. That it draw people in aesthetically, and give people a glimpse of the sacred through all the senses. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with Rachel Pollak, a working artist in Brooklyn who is our Community Coordinator. Rachel makes us beautiful things for us to worship with and among. She’s also in the midst of launching our latest project, the St. Lydia’s Enough for Everyone Garden, a lot on Bergen and 4th Ave, a place for people in the neighborhood to participate in growing food.
Bianca: How do you feel about holding dinners/worship in a Zen center?
Emily: We love being in the Zen Center! The Brooklyn Zen Center is a beautiful space, cared for by a group of beautiful people. We’ve found that our communities have so much in common — both groups gather around a meal once a week that we cook together. It’s a joy to be in a space that’s filled with sacred practice. You can feel it in the room when you’re there.
Bianca: What are your plans once you become ordained?
Emily: As St. Lydia’s has evolved, I’ve been journeying toward ordination. Both have been a process, and the’ve been evolving together along the way. After ordination, I’ll continue on working with St. Lydia’s and building what we’ve begun together.
Bianca: This seems like a typical New York experience where the people running an effort out of love have a day-job that helps them support their passion.
Emily: Yes, I think that’s right. St. Lydia’s has two staff people, me and Rachel, our Community Coordinator, and both of us work part time. Rachel works half time for St. Lydia’s as well and practices as an artist. I work half time at St. Lydia’s and teach a children’s music program at First Presbyterian Church half time. I think we’ve both been learning to pace ourselves, not to bite off more than we can chew, and to trust God’s timing as the church grows and unfolds.
Bianca: When I learned about St. Lydia’s, it seemed like a “grassroots” phenomenon to me. What would you say to that?
Emily: St. Lydia’s was something of a grassroots phenomenon, in that we sort of sprouted up through the cracks in the sidewalk, rather than being intentionally “planted” by a denomination. When I moved to New York, I found myself in conversation after conversation with people who were looking for a church, or a conversation around spirituality. The idea for St. Lydia’s emerged from those conversations with New Yorkers, then grew into relationship with the denomination we’re affiliated with, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). We’re connected and tied to the wider church, but the impulse for our beginning came about in a very local way.
Bianca: Are you aware of any other churches popping up that have a similar vibe?
Emily: St. Lydia’s can certainly be seen as part of a movement that is occurring within the church, in which grassroots churches are popping up all over the country and the world. It’s called the Emergent Church Movement, and it describes a phenomenon of new churches that are, just like St. Lydia’s, sprouting up through the cracks in the sidewalk. Each of them is different, each is responding to its local context, many are returning to ancient practices to inform their worship and their life together. Some good examples from the Lutheran and Episcopal worlds are Church of the Apostles in Seattle and House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. Here in New York, there’s a very new project called Not So Churchy that meets once a month in Fort Greene, a house church called Transmission, and a intentional community called Radical Living.
St. Lydia’s—all are welcome!
This and Every Sunday, Arrive between 6:30 and 7:00 pm
505 Carroll Street near 4th Ave, take the R to Union Street.
Contact emily [at]stlydias [dot]org for more information.