St. Bart’s ‘Imagine Worship NYC’ seeks to extend radical welcome, build in-person community

By Caleb Galaraga
Posted Oct 11, 2023

Imagine Worship NYC is a midweek gathering at St. Bart’s, a historic Episcopal parish on Park Avenue. Photo: Courtesy of St. Bart’s

[Episcopal News Service]  In September, Tari Wade and Owie Nwakanma, who met virtually through a Meetup group on Black women’s spirituality that Nwakanma founded, decided to meet in person for the first time. Wade, who’s from San Francisco, was visiting New York City, where Nwakanma lives. After surveying the options for their get-together, which included a dance class, a comedy show or a worship service that celebrates Black women saints, they decided to go to St. Bart’s for a special worship service.

Imagine Worship NYC is a nine-week series of in-person worship services held every Thursday at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Midtown Manhattan. It offers a “radically welcoming worship service and dinner,” different from a Sunday experience at the historic Episcopal parish commonly referred to as St. Bart’s. The services feature dialogue, poetry, silence, modern worship, gospel music and a full hour dedicated to a community meal.

After taking a summer break, the midweek gathering kicked off its fall series with the theme “A Place at the Table” on Sept. 28 and will run until the week before Thanksgiving.

The Rev. Zack Nyein, the parish’s senior associate and point person for Imagine Worship NYC, told Episcopal News Service that he hopes by exploring the stories of Jesus at the table, they can initiate discussions on “how we can be part of helping other people find a place at Christ’s table.”

The Thursday meetings are one of many initiatives the church is implementing to draw people and counter the trend of declining church membership and participation across The Episcopal Church. St. Bart’s rector, the Rt. Rev. Dean Wolfe, wrote in a church newsletter that attendance numbers are climbing toward pre-pandemic levels, “but we still have a ways to go.”

On the last Thursday of September, St. Bart’s nave was lit in purple hues, as the color is a symbol of the women’s movement. Near the altar, several rows of chairs were arranged in a circle, giving the feel that the meeting takes place in the round.

Leading the evening’s Eucharist was the Rev. Yolanda Norton, creator of the Beyoncé Mass, a womanist worship service that uses the music and personal life of Beyoncé to discuss spirituality and scripture through a Black feminist lens. Though the service was not a Beyoncé mass per se, it followed the liturgy’s format. The sermon was interspersed with songs and reflections on Black women’s spirituality.

People began arriving at St. Bart’s as early as an hour before the service. Around 7 p.m., the all-female choir began singing “I Am Not My Hair.” While they performed the India Arie single on redefining the meaning of beauty for Black women, a montage of high-profile Black actors and activists was shown on a screen by the stage.

Then Nyein and the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, an assisting priest at St. Bart’s who also is canon to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care, opened the service. Spellers introduced Norton, who then read a passage from Psalm 91.

“We gather in this space of worship celebrating a God who continues to provide refuge and fortress as we press on toward liberation and freedom,” Norton said.

The service, which lasted an hour, featured songs by Lauren Hill, H.E.R., Jazmine Sullivan and other Black women artists. Reflections that invoked the names of Biblical characters like Hagar and the Syrophoenician woman, as well as contemporary figures including Alice Walker, Michelle Obama and the late Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in The Episcopal Church, were read mostly by the leadership of St. Bart’s, including Wolfe.

Near the end of the service, communion was offered, followed by a time of prayer and reflection, with prayer stations set up for those wanting prayers.

The 81 attendees that evening were diverse and included Nwakanma and Wade. Although neither were Episcopalians, both appreciated the service’s energy and atmosphere.

“The power of this gathering is not just about saying ‘you’re welcome here,’” Nwakanma told ENS, “but seeing yourself reflected in the conversation.”

Nyein said that Imagine Worship, which was launched in October 2022, is meant to build bridges between people of all kinds. Its inaugural service last year drew some 300 attendees across different traditions, “all worshipping together in a really beautiful way,” he said.

A parish known for its “doctrine of radical welcome,” St. Bart’s “a place at the table” theme is churchwide and for the first time, yearlong instead of quarterly.

In deciding on the theme, the clergy and staff acknowledged the importance of people’s need for personal connection and a variety of ways they worship, said Kara Flannery, the church’s director of communications. With the theme as a guide, parish leaders told ENS that St. Bart’s programs will delve into what it means to be a church that has a place for all, with the idea of belongingness an essential part of the messaging.

“There’s this loneliness epidemic,” Spellers said, alluding to a public health advisory.  “And I think, so many people desperately need a place to belong and the people to belong to.”

“They need to know that there’s a place where they have a place,” she said.

She also emphasized the value of in-person worship, noting that although there’s an energy that can flow through ethernet cables, it especially flows “when we are in one another’s presence.”

An Ethiopian-Eritrean dinner followed the service. Almost half of the attendees, including Nwakanma and Wade, stayed for the meal, settling in at one of the eight, seven-seat tables set up at the back of the nave.

Spellers sat at a table with Sarah Neumann and Milton Gilder, students from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, who took the 90-minute train ride from New Haven, Connecticut, to be at St. Bart’s that evening.

“Coming to a place with people is something that we took for granted during the pandemic,” Neumann said. “Being in a shared space with strangers, whom you may have never seen before and may never see again, but in the moment, you’re all worshipping God together, I think that’s really important.”

— Caleb Galaraga is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, Rappler and The Algemeiner Journal.