Sabbath services found the St. Andrews Episcopal Church family worshiping not under the high ceiling of its century-old chapel, but in the connected Parish Hall. The chapel is cold, and expensive to heat in the winter.
So the 25 assembled members came together in the bright, warm space of the connected building on Dixwell Avenue in Newhallville to hear a sermon about happiness.
It was a striking message for a church that at 117 years old has seen its share of pain. But St. Andrew’s remains a family—one that’s stuck together through hard times, and is emerging with a hopeful path to the future.
With folding chairs scooted in close together and one member holding her seven-month-old son, Rev. Tracy Johnson Russell spoke directly to her congregation as if she were speaking to brothers and sisters in the living room of a family home.
“If I was to ask you to tell me what makes you happy this morning, what would your answer be?” the vicar asked. The congregation murmured. “Having enough money to do whatever you want to do? That would sure make me happy.”
Money can’t make you happy, though, one woman called out.
“She knows my sermon,” Russell continued, nodding.
“Indeed, you might be surprised to find out that what Jesus says about happiness is quite different from what you and I might expect.”
Johnson, who’s now 41, took over St. Andrew’s in 2004, looking to push her congregation to a place of healing. St. Andrew’s had witnessed Newhallville’s working-class racial integration transform into segregation and patches of hard-core poverty. In the ‘60s the church suffered a split down racial lines. A new breakaway congregation took the principal of the endowment and more than half the membership.
But the survivors kept coming to church, praying—and, slowly, rebuilding.
“This church has had cyclical loss. And before you can get to this place of hope and trust, there’s a lot of healing that has to happen,” Russell said. “But we’re close to being full again. The things that need to happen are happening.”
A Crippling Split
St. Andrew’s acquired land on Ivy Street and Shelton Avenue in 1893. The congregation was started by a brotherhood out of Christ Church on Broadway.
It was a largely white parish, and neighborhood, until the ‘60s.
“The membership kind of reflects the neighborhood, in that it was mostly white, middle-class working families,” said Allyson Brundige, an intern at St. Andrews. Brundige, a third-year student at Yale Divinity School, is on the path to be ordained as a minister in the Episcopal Church and works hand in hand with Russell each Sunday. “Then more black families started moving in.”
Over the years, the Newhallville took on yet another face.
“The complexion of the neighborhood changed,” said Joan Jenkins Stewart, a longtime St. Andrews parishioner. “That inspired what some might call ‘white flight.’”
The church split a decade later. “The folks who were not of color in the church decided to leave. It was after a parish meeting—they voted to take the money and move somewhere else.” That was in the mid-‘60s [corrected], Russell said.
The vote was organized without the knowledge of the African-American members of the church. “People who were here at that point will tell you that they just had no clue what was happening in the parish meeting until it was over,” said Russell.
Eighty-three year old Teddi Glover, who’s attended St. Andrews for 65 years now, said some people knew the division was inevitable. “But even still, there was nothing we could have done to stop it. They wanted to go.”
The congregation halved. Those wishing to leave took the money and built a church in Hamden called St. Peter’s on the Hill. St. Peter’s has since merged with another church and is now known as Grace and St. Peter’s.
The current Rector of Grace and St. Peters told the Independent there is no one left at the church who could speak about the split. “Actually,” the Reverend Amanda Gott wrote in an emailed message, “there is no one involved in Grace and St. Peter’s at this time who was a part of St. Andrew’s (or St. Peter’s) at the time of the split.”
As a result of the split and loss of money, St. Andrews became a mission church in the 1970s. That means the diocese pays for one-fourth of church operating expenses, including maintenance, utilities, supplies and salaries. For a while, Russell said, St. Peter’s also gave a small monthly allowance, around $200.
Teddi Glover said the split had an upside. “We came to better reflect the neighborhood,” she said. “And we became more of a real, community outreach church.”
The church had upwards of 100 members before the separation. Now, the family holds steady at around 35-40.
Since the split, St. Andrew’s hasn’t been able to afford the salary of a full-time priest. Russell technically works part-time but says she’s a “full-time presence.” She graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1995, was ordained in 2003 and took over St. Andrew’s in 2004 after having interned there during divinity school. Until 2009, Russell taught full-time at Riverside Education Academy, while leading the church. She’s the first African-American woman to lead St. Andrews. She has resigned from teaching and now devotes her full attention to St. Andrews. “I wanted to be more involved in the community.”
A Neighborhood Beacon
Russell walked away from parish hall after the Sunday service, clicking along the sidewalk in black-heeled boots. Then she lifted her hand above her head and beeped her church.
“For the first month after I started here, someone broke into the church every night. Every single night. To sleep there, or to take stuff, you know.”
So she had a security system installed. Now every time she leaves, she locks the building by remote.
But make no mistake, she said. That’s not what defines St. Andrews.
“This church is a beacon in Newhallville,” she said. “I believe in it, and I encourage my congregation to believe it. That’s why we’re in the community all the time, we can’t just focus on us and be insular, we have to go out and open our doors.”
And her people walk to church.
“I mean, 80 percent of my congregation live in this neighborhood. So this is truly, out of all the Episcopal churches in New Haven, one of if not the only neighborhood church,” said Russell.
St. Andrews is truly a family, she said. Some members, like Glover, have been there for more than 60 years, witnessing history and turbulent change.
Under Russell, for the first time in more than 20 years, St. Andrews is conducting a development campaign.
“I’m not sweating the numbers,” she said. She said she wants commitment. “Because if you can commit your dollars, however many they might be, you’re committing yourself. You’re not just going to pay for some place you’re not going to attend.”
Out of the 23 pledges made so far, St. Andrew’s has raised more than $80,000.
The congregation is not going anywhere, said Glover.
“We’ve decided we’re going to put our little monies together and make it work,” she said. “We’re confident we’re going to see really positive changes in the next three years.”
The capital campaign focus areas include back debt [including Russell’s pension], music and worship development, and capital improvements.
St. Andrew’s received two grants from United Thank Offering (UTO), an Episcopal not-for-profit working to alleviate poverty. “We got $13,000 to fix the roof, and found a matching grant from our sister church, Christ Church Bethany.”
The church also received a UTO grant for $29,300 to renovate the basement kitchen. Good thing, because the youth program Russell developed is growing. “And we have hungry teens to feed.”
Your Place Youth Center started in July of 2008. “It was a direct result of work: prayer, meetings, training with a core group of parishioners in this church around the issue of youth violence,” said Russell. The initial group was 25 kids and 75 volunteers, and most referrals to the program came from the New Haven Juvenile Review Board.
(For past coverage on Your Place, click here.)
“These kids are difficult,” said Russell. “Other programs don’t want them, they get in trouble, they get thrown out of classrooms.” And they’ve seen a lot.
“One young person,” said Russell,” she’s 17 years old and has easily lost 15 friends to gun violence in the two years I’ve known her.”
Over the course of two years, the project has served upwards of 150 kids. It’s not in full session right now; it is focusing on special projects, like a meeting with police officers next Tuesday at the church. They have full sessions in fall, spring and summer. Participants sign up for one of four core areas: leadership and civic responsibility, culture and the arts, visual arts and performing arts.
Organizers measure their success by the fact that the young people don’t stay away—they keep coming back, and they call Russell, often on her cell-phone, if they haven’t heard from someone at Your Place.
“We need to put it all down on paper for grant purposes,” said Russell. “But it’s really making a difference in the neighborhood.”
A Godly Measure
“There are two basic measures for where happiness comes from,” Russell told her congregation on Sunday morning. “There is the worldly measure, many of us think that to be happy means having a lot of money, plenty to eat, someone to take care of us or being well liked by everyone. So if you don’t have those things than you must have done something to displease God.”
Russell told the St. Andrew’s family not to seek out that sort of happiness.
“Jesus talks to the disciples about the Godly measure of happiness.”
Be happy when you’re poor in spirit, she said, because you’ll find your riches in the kingdom of heaven. Simply put, during the darkest moments in our lives, our hope should be and can be found in God.
In this world, she explained, we are encouraged to and even expected to depend on ourselves and our own abilities to find happiness.
“I submit to you this morning my friends that this is a very, very arrogant way of thinking,” she said, her voice raised. “It is the way that the world thinks. But the truth as I know it is that arrogance in any form has absolutely no form amongst God’s people, or in God’s kingdom.”
But nothing in this world truly satisfies, she said.
“This world is full of promises that it just cannot keep. It pacifies, it makes you feel good for a minute, but it never ever satisfies. When we are hungry and thirsty for the things of God, then we will be completely satisfied. Full, to overflowing.”
The City on the Hill
At Sunday service a week later, St. Andrews was back in the chapel. There were renovations going on in Parish Hall. Everyone kept their coats on, but they sang joyfully.
This time, Rev. Tracy spoke of the light that is the church. “Jesus said, ‘Your are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.’”
St. Andrews may not be set high on a hill, she said.
“Some of you all know about St. Peters on the Hill,” she said, smiling slightly. “But we are a church set in the midst of folks who need light to shine in their lives.”
“My friends,” she said. “This church is set in this place for a unique mission. And we have begun a new season; of evangelism, of development, and of praise.
“You are the city on the hill. You are the light of the world.”
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