Baptized….. in a pub!

Baby William and family gather at the baptismal font with the Revs. Joseph Kovitch and Douglas Argue at the Old Bag of Nails Irish Pub in Westerville. Photo by Cherie Patrick.

Baby William and family gather at the baptismal font with the Revs. Joseph Kovitch and Douglas Argue at the Old Bag of Nails Irish Pub in Westerville. Photo by Cherie Patrick.

In the movie, “Sweet Home Alabama,” the character played by Reese Witherspoon encounters a friend from high school, whom she has not seen in many years, in the local watering hole. She says, “You have a baby . . . in a bar!” St. Matthew’s, Westerville, has gone one step further. On July 19, 2015, William Winslow Schultz was baptized – in a pub!

Beginning in March 2015, St. Matthew’s began holding our primary Sunday Eucharist on the third floor of the Old Bag of Nails Irish Pub in Uptown Westerville. We have dubbed the space “The Upper Room.” With its high ceilings and brick walls, it reminds some of the catacombs used for worship by the first century Christians. Every Sunday a group of faithful parishioners and sexton Bill Phythyon arrive about an hour before the service to convert the space from Irish pub orientation to a sacred worship space.

Sacred, you say? In a bar? Most certainly. The space is made holy by the celebration of the community gathered, Word and Sacrament offered, the songs sung, the common prayers offered and by the grace shared with all who are there.

St. Matthew’s has been on a wilderness journey since 2007. Following the election and consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly partnered gay person to be consecrated a bishop in the Episcopal Church, the congregation lost about half of its membership and its priest to a newly established Anglican church. The remaining parishioners worked, with generous support from the diocese, for five years to rebuild the congregation and the ministry of the parish. It became increasingly clear that the property was too large and required a financial commitment that the parishioners were not able to make. So we made the difficult decision to leave the building and property, worshipping initially in space shared with an adult day care facility, then in the historic chapel of a local Presbyterian church.

In the spring of 2014, the congregation rented a turn of the century (20th century, that is) house in Uptown Westerville that once served as a doctor’s home and office. The space once occupied by the office is now a lovely chapel where Eucharist is said every Sunday at 8 a.m. and on Wednesday evenings in inclement weather. In good weather, Eucharist is celebrated in the gazebo on the property. St. Matt’s own version of “street church” invites all who pass by to join in. The music is often provided by musicians playing on the patio of a close-by restaurant and the incense smells are provided by the nearby Thai restaurant and bakery. Dubbed the “Pray. Think. Love. House,” it houses the administrative offices as well as providing meeting space for parish and community groups. In addition to Eucharist, the gazebo also hosts an improvisational comedy group who perform there once a month, as well as musicians who play for Uptown Westerville’s 4th Friday celebrations. Some Saturday mornings find a local scone baker selling her wonderful delicacies there.

That tells some of the story of what Fr. Joseph Kovitch, priest-in-charge, calls the “indigenous or inherited church.” As part of the Praxis communities of Central Ohio (along with Confluence House and the newly established Near Eastside House), St. Matt’s looks for ways to be in the community of “campuses of formation” as witnesses to Christ’s love.

In May 2015 St. Matt’s hosted a community forum on “Hidden Hunger,” providing a place for education, conversation and volunteer coordination around this difficult topic. Flyers were hand delivered to over 400 homes in Uptown Westerville inviting all to attend. Quarterly forums are planned around other challenging topics: earning a living wage; mental illness; substance abuse; accessibility; racism and discrimination and others.

Fr. Joseph is often found at Java Central, a coffee shop close to the PTL House, or rolling through Uptown Westerville. Through contacts developed while sharing coffee and conversation, he has drawn together a group of entrepreneurs who are interested in addressing community issues and concerns. The first topic centers on anti-bullying and positive leadership development.

Known as “an Episcopal community of diversity, inclusion and embrace,” St. Matt’s embodies the radical hospitality tenants of the Hallmarks of Healthy Congregations. Just as the church welcomed William into the household of faith, this newly “birthed” St. Matthew’s strives to welcome and include all whom we meet – both on Sunday morning and in the community throughout the week. If you are in the Westerville area, stop by the PTL House at 23 E. College Avenue for a visit. We will buy you a cup of coffee. Or, if you join us for worship at the pub Sunday at 10:30 a.m., you can have a great lunch following the service in the restaurant downstairs.

Cathy Bagot is a member of St. Matthew’s, Westerville and serves as Episcopal House Facilitator for the congregation. She also serves on the Commission for Congregational Life for the diocese.