Weekly Reflection: February 10, 2022

Our Church’s Front Porch

Hebrews 13:2

Did you have a Front Porch growing up? Coming from small towns, I did. Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson’s article below reminded me of those days. I can still see the bucolic pictures in my mind of sitting on the porch in the cool of a summer evening, greeting neighbors out for a stroll, or dropping over for a few minutes just to gab. Or my family going out for a stroll to do the same on someone else’s porch. In my tween and early teen years, as a newspaper delivery boy, I would often stop my bicycle to greet a customer on their porch and just chat for a few moments before continuing my route. Those pictures remind me of the Scriptural call to Hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13:2) As Bishop Jennifer points out in her devotional below, our current housing architecture doesn’t accommodate such easy gatherings much anymore. But there are other ways we can create those porches, especially as Grace Church. As you read on, consider the possible Front Porches in your life. 

Peace,

Fr. Rick

We’ve been having some lively conversations about the style of our metaphorical diocesan house – whether it might be a grand house, or a modest neighborhood house, or it might be the simplest cabin. Whatever its size and status, an old Virginia house probably has a front porch – whether an elaborate wraparound or a modest roof overhang. A front porch is the space between the house and the world, a place to get some fresh air, a place to string beans, a place to relax. And in most places, it was, and maybe still is, a place to connect with the neighbors. A low-key, don’t-have-to-dust-the-house, meeting place. Front porches evoke another time; a slower, more connected time.

One of my college professors, Vince Scully, was a giant in the field of the history of architecture. He was dramatic and opinionated – a little terrifying. I don’t remember too much about the details of the class I audited, but I do remember this: He said that the loss of the front porch in American domestic architecture would be the death of us. In the age of air conditioning and automobiles, porches were mostly abandoned. Instead, the facades of houses now featured garage doors; now people could come and go completely unseen. Without that simple, low-key way to meet, most people don’t know their neighbors. The sense of community is much harder to build.  

I don’t want to get too literal about all this – there are a million exceptions and iterations – but I wonder if the IDEA of the porch is part of the medicine for what ails us in the church. By that, I mean the question I am asked most often: How can we invite and include more people in our faith community? We wonder if we have “attracted” all the people who are going to respond to a new sign or an occasional community event. We make guesses about what the people around us like or want or need, because we don’t know them well. We desperately need front porches. 

I wonder what a front porch looks like for your church. In a very few places, it might be literal – an architectural area where you can hang out and chat with the neighbors who are walking around the neighborhood. Of course, that would mean hanging out all week, not just Sunday morning, and it assumes they’re hanging around, too. Let’s assume that we can count those situations on one hand.

Maybe, instead of an attachment to the house, the front porch is another place altogether, where we encounter people in easy ways, to work or to visit or to relax. Maybe the congregation’s front porch is the shelter or tutoring program or scout troop or fire department where you volunteer every week and get to know people well enough that mutual trust and goodwill have grown. Maybe it’s an ongoing dinner series in the community to tackle food injustice, like the one the Rev. Dr. Lee Hill and I attended last week, where acquaintances become allies united by a shared passion. Maybe it’s showing up for the city or county council meetings until people there know your name and you know theirs, or attending the local citizen’s academy and meeting all the people who’d be characters in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. It could be an advocacy group, or story time at the library, or the weekly worship service at the assisted living facility or orphanage or some underpass where folks gather to hear a Word every week. Maybe it’s a book group, or a discussion group in the class you’re taking.

In Richmond, a front porch could even be the Front Porch Café, a Church Hill nonprofit coffee house that creates conversational space and strengthens the neighborhood. The Front Porch is part of the CHAT initiative, serving the youth of Richmond’s East End and equipping them to make life-transforming decisions through tutoring and other activities.

Yesterday at St. Mary’s in Colonial Beach, I was given a wonderful gift of an image. Colonial Beach has a thing about golf carts. In the summer, they are THE mode of transportation. Do you know what they call their golf carts? Rolling Front Porches. That’s what I’m talking about! They call them that because people constantly stop their carts for a chat – to exchange the news, to visit, to build their relationships. I seriously doubt that any of them get up in the morning and say, “Today I am going to go build relationships by riding around town in a golf cart.” Well, maybe the pastors. But for normal people, it’s just a normal part of a normal life, interacting in this easy, non-threatening, casual way. Maybe that’s what’s we need, as a church. Because as with housing, so with our church – folks aren’t going to wander past our literal physical porch any more.  But we can take the porch to them.

If we’re intentional about getting to know people outside our congregational orbit, every one of us can find, or make, or become, a mobile front porch. St. Paul did it by the riverside in Philippi (Acts 16:12-14). It’s how the Good News has moved into the world from the earliest days.

Here’s the thing to remember: front porch neighborliness is slow, by its very nature – let’s call it “leisurely.”  Its only agenda is to be a neighbor; to slowly get to know people.  To share more deeply when that comes naturally. If you walked past the porch of a house in your neighborhood and stopped to chat for few minutes, and the newly-met neighbor came toward you saying, “I’m so glad you came by. Would you like to join my family? We’re all extremely friendly and we volunteer in the community, too. Come on in!”  Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d run for my life. Especially if I overheard their spouse commenting, “Gee, I hope they’ll join our family. It would really help us get the work done and pay the bills!” In real life, we are invited into each other’s lives bit by bit. We share the deep things bit by bit. We reveal our hearts bit by bit. It’s slow work. It’s what builds solid community. And church is real life.

Spiritual friendship and thus spiritual community expand with the chats on front porches, wherever we find or make them. The safety of a relationship where we can talk about our relationship with God, our prayer life, our devotional practices, our crazy mixed-up journey of faith – that safety only comes with time. There will always be a few people who run right into the house, but the future of our churches is in the people who don’t yet have enough familiarity to cross the threshold. 

Let’s meet them on the front porch.  Before we know what has happened, we will indeed be calling one another family. We may even have to build an addition – and acquire more golf carts.

May you be blessed upon whatever paths your golf cart takes you.

Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson