Not including the obvious things like pews, youth groups, potluck dinners and hymnals, what do churches tend to have in common? On any given night, at many churches all over the country, there is bound to be an AA meeting going on.
Those attending recovery meetings at , with the help and spiritual guidance of the Rev. Elsa Worth, played an unexpectedly important role in revitalizing the church.
“This place had been through a period of some very difficult conflict,” said Worth, who in 2009 was chosen by the Diocese of Connecticut to leave her parish at St. Paul's on the Green in Norwalk and come to the aid of Grace Church. “They had lost their sense of identity and were on the verge of closing.”
The church had hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for many years and, Worth said, from early on in her three-year tenure as interim “Priest-in-Charge” at Grace Church, she would often stop by these meetings to chat with the people there.
Her enthusiastic involvement with the recovery programs encouraged a reenergized show of support from parishioners. The church had always been a great resource for those in recovery, Worth said, but now church members had an impetus to do something more.
Parishioners decided to refurbish the old Sunday School room located in the basement of the church’s Lewis Hall and make it a “recovery space.” The room was small and in disrepair, said Worth, so workers “took out all the walls that were not load-bearing walls,” widening the space, and cleaned it, painted it, and put in new fixtures.
Church member Chris Stapleton volunteered to serve as the unofficial general contractor of the project. “I have a background in construction so when the church provided a space that needed to be transformed, I jumped in as part of service and giving back,” said Stapleton, who has been in recovery for four years.
Church volunteers, along with a near equal number of volunteers from the AA programs, were there to augment the work of several employees, who Stapleton hired using a portion of the $10,000 granted to the church by the Diocese of Connecticut. He petitioned local vendors and tradespeople to give the church the best possible prices, and networked with his connections in the building community.
The meeting space was completed and officially blessed by Worth on Oct. 30. Sunday School classes now also use the new room.
The church has also adopted some other changes to make the church even more recovery-friendly. Now the church holds a Recovery Eucharist with live jazz music and guest preachers every second Saturday of the month, and a recovery service on all other Saturdays.
Grace Church also hosts multiple AA meetings every day as well as Al-Anon meetings, a support group for family and friends of addiction sufferers, and Overeaters Anonymous meetings, in addition to morning meditation sessions. The church offers two chalices at communion each week, one with wine and one with grape juice.
Worth, who is a member of Al-Anon, said that the Episcopalian Church and 12-step programs actually have a lot in common. The two groups mesh well because they both have a “compatible goal in healing and wellness," she said.
Worth explained that the groups basically remain in their own separate spheres, but the relationship between the two is an open and mutually beneficial one. Church members have learned from the 12-step followers how to accept love and spirit, said Worth, and some people from recovery have decided to explore their religious faith with the help of the church.
Stapleton agreed that the two groups are similar. “Both programs seek spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection,” he said. In the Episcopal Church, added Worth, the conversion goes on for life.
The church has begun reaching out to the community in other ways as well. Parish nurse Donna Voges is helping to develop a wellness initiative with a focus on recovery. “People just getting sober often realize they’ve neglected their health in a variety of ways,” she said.
Lectures, classes, and health fairs are all in the works, and people from the recovery, church, and local health communities are currently in meetings to discuss these and other ways of establishing the church as a center for wellness.
And in September, Worth started holding what she calls “office hours” at the Trumbull Center Starbucks. Worth takes her knitting or her computer to the cafe every Wednesday and makes herself available to any patron who stops by.
“I want to recover church’s identity as a community resource and that means sometimes we have to go out there,” she said. Worth also recently ventured out with the church youth group to do a clean-up of the Pequonnock Valley trail.
It is important, she said, to recapture the idea that “a church is not a building. It’s a group of people.”
For more information about Grace Episcopal Church and its recovery offerings, or if you would like to get involved in the wellness project, call 203-268-2809 or go to www.gracetrumbull.org.