When Rev. Sara Smith arrived in at United Congregational Church of Bridgeport in 2009, she recalls there wasn't much happening. The church was struggling with the expenses of a large building and a decreasing membership. Understanding that the church cannot work toward its own self-interest, Smith began a ministry that focuses on "listening to what the world needs."
"If we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be fine," says Smith, 10 years later.
Finding out what "we're supposed to do" isn't necessarily easy, but Smith and members of the Connecticut congregation began small. Located in the heart of Bridgeport, a stone's throw from Interstate 95, there were plenty of things "to do."
The congregation began feeding, sheltering, and clothing people in need, organizing through a non-profit organization in 2010 called the Norma F. Pfriem Urban Outreach Initiatives, now called nOURish BRIDGEPORT, Inc. (caps intentional). These volunteer-driven, direct services reinvented the church.
But they still could not afford the building.
In 2016, the church voted to sell the building. It sold in December of that year. On Easter, 2017, the church began their Easter service in the sanctuary of the old church on the corner of State and Park, and, singing "As We Leave This Place," processed 2 miles down the street to their new "temporary" space.
But the rented space wasn't the only thing new thing about the church. The space gave them the flexibility to change the direction of worship, literally facing a different direction in the room for any service or purpose. It gave them the ability to put up tables instead of pews. And "DINNERCHURCH" was born. On the 2nd Sunday of the month, the church worships at 5pm, complete with communion, and a potluck, bring-your-own-wine, integrated dinner and worship experience. They pray around the tables, each table lifting up prayers first as a small group, and later with the entire congregation. Smith developed a liturgy crafted to fit the meal-worship-communion nature of the gathering.
"It takes two hours, and we get more people at this than our other Sunday worships," says Smith.
Smith says the transformation is remarkable. Where she once struggled to move communion from the table near the raised pulpit to the floor where it might be more accessible, Smith now finds the church responds to change with "nimbleness."
The church has even started a for-profit enterprise called United Enterprises Inc. The organization handles back-office bookkeeping for several small business and non-profit clients too small to have their own bookkeeping department, and acts as the fiscal sponsor for several not-for-profit groups who are not themselves designated as 501(c)3 organizations.
These efforts have paid off. In 2018, for the first time since Smith arrived, UCC Bridgeport did not take from their endowment to support the budget.
But Smith, and the folks at UCC Bridgeport, are not done listening. And what they are hearing is "dream bigger."
If you ask Smith what's next, be prepared for big. She dreams of a space that can be the hub of multiple organizations, including service, for-profit, and spiritual enterprises, all working together to provide Bridgeport with food, services, training, education, jobs, and hope.
They call the vision "Xcelerate Bridgeport."
"We cannot keep feeding people over and over without making some lasting change," says Sarah. "You hear the word incubate all over. We don't need to incubate. We're 324 years old. We need to accelerate."
The scope of the plan is immense. It calls for nearly a dozen non-profits and almost as many for-profits to share a central space – offering office space, meeting spaces, education spaces, an industrial kitchen and event space elegant enough for weddings and banquets, and a spiritual space that is flexible enough for any spiritual group, yet fully capable of inspiring the presence of the Divine. Sarah imagines a chancel complete with the old pipe organ (now in storage) that can be closed off for other groups to use.
And this is not just a dream. Smith has already met with potential financial inventors, partners, and even lined up a proposal for a specific space in Bridgeport for the new center.
And in the heart of it, in the heart of Bridgeport, will be the truly living church of UCC Bridgeport.
Drew Page is the News & Media Editor for the Connecticut Conference UCC.