The recent cold snap burst the pipes in Newhallville’s St. Andrews Church parish hall, but it didn’t burst the spirit of the congregation: The congregation simply brought its gospel choir across town to Wooster Square.
There they launched New Haven’s first-ever Episcopal revival meeting.
“Episcopal and revival are two words you don’t hear much” together, said the Rev. Alex Dyer of St. Paul & St. James, who conducted what was billed as a “praise and worship event” with St. Andrews Episcopal Church’s Rev. Tracy Johnson Russell.
Saturday’s joint event drew 40 worshippers to St. Paul & St. James Episcopal Church at Olive and Chapel.
The night was cold and gloomy. But it was light and rocking inside as the staid Episcopalians of Wooster Square joined forces to create a new hybrid with the Episcopalians who hail from the black church tradition of more rhythmic, expressive, and physical worship to create a new, hybrid.
Both reverends said to expect more such joint musical and spiritual events. It’s part of a larger plan of both churches to jazz up their offerings, to take the church outside its normal confines. They aim to mix styles of worship and worship music in order to shake up people’s expectations and maybe, in the process, to grow the number of congregants.
Two years ago,Dyer began literally jazzing up his services (including a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras parade) with a jazz band at Sunday services that amped up traditional hymns with contemporary Christian music, along with some spirituals and gospel.
Saturday’s event with St. Andrews was his first “revival.” A revival is technically not a service but a way to use music and Biblical text as a spiritual instrument to remind people of core beliefs and to prompt emotional-self examination as to why they are Christians.
Russell explained to the gathering that a a revival, you’re supposed to say “amen” often and feel comfortable even snapping your fingers. Then the singers pumped up the volume with “This is the Day” and “Blessed Assurance” and “What A Mighty God We Serve.”
After several songs, Russell turned to Dyer and asked: “How we doing?”
“I know they’re Episcopalians, but they’re getting warmer,” Dyer replied. “Maybe [they’ll be] even some dancing and clapping. With God all things are possible.
In the end the rousing musical mixture of St. PJ’s Jazz Collective, St. Andrew’s gospel singers, along with members of the Black Church at Yale Choir, made for some foot-stomping (well, a little), some maraca- and tambourine-shaking (well, maybe one tambourine expertly handled by Dyer),and an amen-filled sedately rousing and rhythmic service. It culminated, as revivals do, in half a dozen people testifying how God has played a crucial role in their lives.
Dyer walked the nave of the church and gave the microphone first to John Hoda. Hoda thanked God for giving him the strength to climb down off 5,000-foot Mt. Katahdin before terrible weather blew in.
“Coming down I had this tremendous urge to listen to gospel music. To this day I cannot but tear up when I hear Mahalia Jackson,” he said.
Others recounted how they survived cancer or got through a car crash with a huge truck in a white-out. One young woman recounted how she has been able to support a sister experiencing a decade of sometimes suicidal depression. She said she was “so glad God has held on to my heart and not let it go.”
“We need revivals because we need to go back to that basic question: Why are you a Christian? Not an Episcopalian, but a Christian. We need to revive the love story, of a God [not of stern judgment but] of hope,” said Dyer.
St. PJ’s congregant Ilene Beaullan-Thong said she found the service very moving because “it takes you deep into the gospel. They should do that more, connecting with other denominations. There’s more movement, vocal and physical,”
“This time coming together has strengthened us,” Rev. Russell said.
The pipes and furnace are being fixed. Next stop for the revival: St. Andrews.