Holy Wind, Holy Fire

June 9, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Reverend Daniel Vigilante

Acts 2:1-12

TIM:​I’m pleased to welcome the Rev. Daniel Vigilante to Westminster today. Daniel is the pastor of Grace-Trinity Community Church in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. He’s no stranger to us. In fact, Daniel has been in ministry in this city for seven years. He began part-time on our staff team as an Associate Pastor assigned to what was then Westminster’s new partnership with Grace-Trinity Church. It’s good to welcome you to Westminster, Daniel.

DANIEL: Thank you so much Tim. It is very good to be here and to be among friends.  I’m so glad that the folks at Grace-Trinity are worshiping with us via the livestream. Technology is an amazing thing. And, if I may, just say one more time, “Hello.”

TIM: It’s Pentecost, the day the church everywhere around the world remembers the holy wind that roared through the disciples in Jerusalem as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit. It came that day, on the wind and in the fire that lit up the room in which they were staying and in the diverse languages that arose from their lips.

It’s hard to say exactly when the Church began, it might have begun at Pentecost, or maybe it began at the foot of the cross, or maybe it began at the empty tomb, or maybe it began at the manger when the incarnation happened but in the biblical narrative there’s no doubt about when it came to life. The Spirit animated those gathered that day, and it’s been doing it ever since. Peter delivered a Pentecost sermon and quoted from the prophet Joel, who said that one day God would pour out the Spirit on all people, “and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)

That day, in Jerusalem, the time had come. The vision was dawning. The dreamers were awakening, and the Church came to life. In the centuries that followed the Church slowly spread across the globe, in the languages and among the people of Pentecost.

This congregation sprang to life in 1857, when the Spirit was poured out on eight Welsh and Scottish immigrants in the little river village not yet called Minneapolis. Today we remember the heritage of this congregation and give thanks for those whom the Spirit has animated over the years, especially those 239 persons who have stayed the course at Westminster for more than half a century. We honor you today.

Daniel, Grace-Trinity has a long history in the city, as well.

DANIEL: We do! As Tim mentioned earlier we may not have 239 of them, like you do; we don’t even have 239 members. But, we have many who have been part of Grace-Trinity for 50, 60, even 70 years or more. Grace-Trinity gets its name, in fact, from two churches that merged. At one time Grace Presbyterian church had 1,400 members. It was a large, prominent, progressive congregation. Trinity Baptist was also a well-known congregation in the area. As the years went by and folks moved out to the developing suburbs and as the character of Uptown changed, the two congregations struggled a bit but they had this long history of working together.  So they started worshiping together and started to explore the possibilities of merging the two congregations and it became official in 1987. That’s how we became Grace-Trinity Community Church.

TIM: Westminster has seen the Spirit at work in a number of different local congregations since we were established. Just 16 years after our founding, in 1873, we helped start two new churches, one near Cedar Lake and another on Franklin Ave. Then in the 1880s and 90s, we commenced another two churches and three missions down on the flats among immigrants who settled there. At the turn of the 20th century we had a major campaign to raise funds to start more new churches and to grow this congregation. In the space of five weeks 205 people united with Westminster. The Spirit was moving.

We helped start another six churches in the city through the early years of the 20th century, and helped launch Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina in the 1950s. Near the end of the 20th century we joined with others to help start Kwanzaa, now Liberty Community Church…which brings us to today, to Pentecost 2019, when we are celebrating the new life in Grace-Trinity, the 16th church Westminster has partnered with in following the holy wind, holy fire of the Spirit.

Daniel, can you tell us the Grace-Trinity story?

DANIEL: Well, how much time do we have? I don’t know that we could have ever imagined this day, eight years ago, or just over seven years ago, which is when I arrived. The task force from Westminster and the folks from Grace-Trinity had formed this partnership and I had no idea what to expect other than we hoped that, together, we could turn things around at Grace-Trinity and bring a church that was on the brink of closing its doors back to life. I will say this…you can’t do this without a lot of help from the Holy Spirit. I don’t know exactly what we were expecting, but what we received from this experience has been far more than we could ever have imagined.

I think back to those first days when we didn’t really know what to do, so we started to clean.

TIM: That’s good advice…if you don’t know what to do – clean.

DANIEL: It was actually a Pentecost sermon seven years ago and you, Tim, talked about how a few of the women from Grace-Trinity had begun cleaning out the old coat closet at the back of the sanctuary. There had been years of deferred maintenance on the building, updates that could have been made to the facility but why spend that money when you might have to close the doors? This partnership, I think, gave the folks at Grace-Trinity a renewed sense of meaning and purpose for ministry. But if you’re going to welcome people into your church home, just like you would into your own home, you want to make sure it is cleaned up and that you are ready for all of the guests that you hope will come.

The Holy Spirit was moving amongst the people at Grace-Trinity long before the partnership was formed and certainly well before I got there but I think this new hope for the future inspired folks from the church. You could tell that holy wind, that holy fire had been reignited among those who wanted Grace-Trinity to be a vital and thriving, lively congregation once again.

TIM: I remember on our end of the story, before you got here, Daniel, we formed a small task force at Westminster, and began a conversation with the church council at Grace-Trinity and it was, honestly, a little difficult at first because we didn’t know, and Grace-Trinity didn’t know, where this potential relationship would go. And finally we worked it out. The Presbytery, which has oversite of these congregations, gave us permission to be free in what we would do and create a new model for how two congregations that already existed as churches could relate in a new way. Together, then, we began to think about the next steps and we wondered if Grace-Trinity should close, which is where they were heading at that point. We thought we might start something completely new. We thought maybe we could start something that would be the Westminster campus in Uptown, which is a model that a number of churches use. Honestly, it was the faithfulness of the people who were there at Grace-Trinity that said to us very clearly, this is a group that is worshipping here, that has a deep faith. We wanted to come alongside and see how we could work together and, perhaps, with the help of the Spirit, bring a bit of new life into this congregation.

We agreed, jointly, to look for a pastor who would provide leadership, and, not too long after that, I was in a meeting in the Thompson Room, in the lower level of Westminster with the Board of the Covenant Network, which was the national organization helping to move the church toward a more inclusive ordination policy toward gay lesbian church members. I was not thinking much about the meeting, I was thinking about Grace-Trinity and our emerging partnership and the real challenge: who would be the leader of this church? I looked across the Thompson room and there was Daniel.

DANIEL: I thought, why is he looking at me like that?

TIM: The Spirit even penetrated into the lower level of Westminster into the Thompson Room. The group broke and I said, “Daniel, let’s talk.” Daniel, where were you at that point?

DANIEL: I was in Newport Beach, California.

TIM: That sounds like a good place to leave.

DANIEL: I have, over the years, questioned my decision-making skills once or twice.

TIM: Daniel was serving, in effect, as an Associate Pastor in a Presbyterian church in Southern California in a Presbytery that would not ordain him as a gay man. Our denomination had given to its Presbyteries the freedom to ordain or not ordain. We knew that we would ordain Daniel because of the remarkable gifts that he had for ministry and we knew that his Presbytery would not. I dangled the ordination possibility. We interviewed three candidates from all over the country and we are glad the Spirit led us to you, Daniel.

DANIEL: I am too. It has been a great seven years.

TIM: When you came to Grace-Trinity what was the community like? How many people were in worship on a Sunday?

DANIEL: It varied. I would say there were a core group of 25 or so folks from the church at that time. We knew that we would need to grow and need an influx of new people if we were going to make it.

TIM: I remember the church was kind of hard to see. There were overgrown trees out front and along the side. One of the things our team did with the church council was to have a little campaign. That was where Open Doors Open Futures came in. We used the first resources that were given to help renovate Grace-Trinity. The church’s small core remnant group entered into a campaign. That was among one of the first things you did when you arrived.

DANIEL: It sure was. Which was a tough sell when this kid from California, with questionable decision-making skills, comes in suddenly wanting to renovate the building.

One of my favorite stories from that first year, those first few months, is, when we did this renovation, which is thanks to a lot of help from some of the folks here at Westminster, when it came time to paint the front doors, we struggled to find just the right color. They had been brown, they had been red, and we thought, let’s go with a nice Presbyterian blue. Those doors got painted and repainted…six times, in fact, as we tried to find just the right color.

TIM: I remember how obsessed we all were with those doors and getting it just right. As if that would really make or break the whole project.

DANIEL: One of the Sundays during that time went by and we had a new shade of blue on the doors and one of our members finally remarked, “You know…I don’t really care what color the doors are, just as long as they’re open.”

TIM: We know about open doors here.

DANIEL: I know you do. What I think he meant, wasn’t about as much as keeping the doors open as in not having to close. What I think he meant was open in the sense of creating a place of welcome and hospitality and belonging for those who would enter in. What I think he meant was offering a worship experience that’s both faithful to our tradition but also inclusive and approachable for people of all ages and especially those who find us, not because we’re Presbyterian, or American Baptist, but 9 times out of 10 when people come to us, it is because they Google churches in Uptown and we are the first one to pop up. I cannot tell you what a blessing that is. What I think he meant is cultivating a spirit of hope and joy that reflects the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because God is good and resurrection is real and because there is now a thriving, strong, lively congregation where once it seemed we might have to close the doors or seal up the tomb.

TIM: When Westminster began in this partnership from our end we made a commitment to help with the capital improvements – landscaping improvements, as well as interior. The council decided to alter the pews so that it wasn’t quite so stiff and straight. They removed some of the pews in the rear, they changed the lighting to make it a lighter room. Westminster was honored to participate. We invested $400,000 into the capital improvements, and the congregation participated, as well, to raise the funds. Then, beyond that, we committed from Open Doors Open Futures another $350,000 spread over six years, to help provide support for your salary, Daniel, and to underwrite what we could as the members of Grace-Trinity were doing as well.

I’m pleased to report to our congregation and to the supporters of Open Doors Open Futures gathered here that our resources are no longer needed at Grace-Trinity. (applause) They are now standing on their own and are self-supporting, financially – and that is good timing because our $350,000 has run out this year.

Daniel, what is it that you see, looking back, what is it that brought this new life to Grace-Trinity?

DANIEL: Well I think it has been with a lot of help from the Holy Spirit. Part of it is just freshening up the space, the renovations that you mentioned. It has been tweaking our worship service so it is more intuitive for folks to come, especially those who maybe don’t come from a Reformed background. I mostly think it is the boldness and the positivity of those who were in that core who believed in themselves and you believed in us. One of the things that I think has helped, too, is the idea that we just don’t welcome anyone who comes in but we share the Gospel. The Gospel is good news and good news is meant to be shared. And we have to tell people about what we are doing and why the church is important and why it means something to us. That’s when you really feel the Holy Spirit moving in you…when you are sharing that good news.

TIM: You mentioned several ingredients in how the church has gained new life, including the Spirit…but honestly, Daniel, I’m looking at the key ingredient, in my view: the leadership you’ve offered at Grace-Trinity has been at the heart of helping the congregation find new life. Is this a model that you think could be replicated elsewhere?

DANIEL: I do. I think part of the reason that things have worked at Grace-Trinity is that it is such an incredible neighborhood. Uptown is a really great place to live. It is also super transient. We have brought in 13 new members so far this year, which is amazing, but we also lose people each year because people move away to a new job or go to a different part of the cities and they no longer want to commute.

I do think it is a model that can work and as Presbyteries struggle, it kind of proves that churches like Westminster that have resources to share would do well to invest them so the whole body of Christ can grow and flourish.

TIM: Daniel, we are aware that Grace-Trinity is watching via the livestream. If I were in Grace-Trinity’s pews right now, and I looked around, what would I see? Who would I see there gathered at worship on a typical Sunday morning?

DANIEL: We usually have a handful of children who are there. We did a survey earlier in the year and of the respondents, it was equally a mix. We had 1/3 people in their 20s and 30s, 1/3 people in their 40s to age 65, and 1/3 ages 65 and up. So there is this really cool diversity of folks there. We have college students and retirees. We have wealthy folks and some that are struggling to get by. I would love if we had more racial diversity among our congregation. We have all kinds of people who are there and I love that. I love that we try to make a space for everyone.

TIM: Daniel, we are going to wrap up our conversation by asking the two Clerks, Jane Mayer from Grace-Trinity, and Vincent Thomas from Westminster, and, in a more formal way conclude this very powerful relationship. We acknowledge that, of course, the relationship will continue but you will no longer be listed as one of our Associate Pastors on our masthead. We are sad about that, but we are also really pleased…so proud of you, Daniel, and Jane and the whole congregation of Grace-Trinity. What you’ve done is remarkable.

Thanks be to God.

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