Although I long ago chose an alternative spiritual path for this lifetime, the United Methodist Church has been a constant presence in my life since my children were little. They were all baptized in this church and we attended the Methodist Church in Plymouth, New Hampshire as they grew up. I was committed that they should be exposed to broad information on various spiritual disciplines. It was important to me that they be equipped to make informed choices that worked for them as adults. As part of that process, in addition to public school, they attended Sant Bani Ashram school for a time, a wonderful alternative school education that included information on world religions and cultures. Their Dad and I exposed them to a variety of religious thought and disciplines along the way, but the UMC was the grounding church home for them over their formative years. So, despite eventually moving in a much different direction, I have a fondness and gratitude for this church and was intrigued when we met Pastor Zach of the Grafton, MA UMC in a recent Chance Encounter.
Pastor Zach leads Simple Church in Grafton, Ma. We knew immediately upon meeting him that this Chance Encounter would turn out to be deliciously creative…………and it was certainly that in more ways than one.
We had driven over to Grafton on a beautiful summer Friday to check out a shop we had read about. Grafton, Ma is a quintessential New England town, built around a large green common.
Grafton Mass is a beautiful town!
Grand, huge old homes are scattered along the town’s streets, giving visitors the impression that, here, in this picturesque place, a typical small town finds predictable expression. The white steepled churches on the common bear stately witness to a history where generations have met to express traditional values and perform generally unchanged rituals of life.
Upon first impression, this is not a town where anything alternative would find expression. Ah, but first impressions are just that………..only a fleeting first look. For a true Chance Encounter, you have to pause. You have to pause long enough to talk in more depth to someone you’ve just met. You have to stop and look them right in the eye. You have to listen hard enough to hear what is important to them. You have to be still and silent about your own story and journey, focusing on theirs intently enough to move past the first impression.
As we pulled into the shop, which was closed that day, Arnie got out of the truck to go in and see what hours the shop was open. He encountered a young fellow on a cell phone who seemed to be working in the kitchen of the church where the shop was located. Maybe he was the janitor? Or doing community service cleaning the kitchen? He appeared to be distracted and busy, but when he hung up he ran over to our truck. He quickly began to apologize for the distraction saying, “I hope I didn’t scare you off!”. Something about him gave us pause and as we listened to this engaging young fellow whose story tumbled out, we were captured by the unfolding of Zach’s story. It is the story of Simple Church and Zach Kerzee, it seems, is the Pastor!
First, let me try to explain the concept of Simple Church. Their website (www.simpleumc.org ), just says that “ Simple Church is a United Methodist dinner church in Grafton, MA committed to simplicity, service, and community. Every Thursday night we meet around a good meal, good music and good conversation. Want to check us out? We’ll set a place for you.” It goes on to say also that ,”Simple Church is a United Methodist, farm to table, Dinner Church in Grafton, MA- which means that the whole church is built around eating a eucharistic meal together. We don’t have a building, but meet in rented or borrowed space. We began meeting for dinner in September of 2014.”
When we began to research the idea of Simple Church on the web, we learned that a simple church may, in concept, meet anywhere and has no formal liturgy, programs or structures. Facilitation of relationship is paramount to the concept, so simple church is usually a small group of no more than 20-25 persons with small group participation considered to be essential.
We quickly found that Simple Church is much more than a dinner though. It is a gathering of some pretty interesting people who are working to be change agents. Take that distracted young fellow we met in our Chance Encounter who we thought might be the janitor! It turns out that Pastor Zach is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and is committed to simplicity as a spiritual practice. Zach is interested also in sustainable agriculture, organic farming, bread baking and he enjoys raising chickens. For a janitor, he has some pretty strong credentials.
Assisting Pastor Zach is a new addition to the team from Texas. Pastor LyAnna Johnson who will be in Grafton to work with the team on farming, baking and worshiping for a year before starting a second synergistic branch somewhere in central Massachusetts in 2017. LyAnna is delightful to talk with and we have no doubt that she will bring vibrancy and passion in the expansion of this revolution. Her position is supported by an Urban Ministry grant from the New England Conference of the UMC.
One of the first questions we pondered was, “How do you support the work of your church given that you are committed to small group congregations? Here is the deliciously creative part that I alluded to: The Grafton Simple Church is becoming self-sustaining on a monastic model of baking Artisan bread. And by the way, this is simply the best bread you could ever wish for! And if Zach and LyAnna don’t bring enough talent to the mix already, check out Kendall’s credentials: Kendall Vanderslice, the Head Baker for Simple Church, holds a BA in Anthropology from Wheaton College, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University where she studied the importance of the meal in fostering community. Kendall received her culinary training in the pastry departments of Boston and Chicago’s top kitchens, developing a fascination with the science of bread baking.
On baking days, it is all hands on board. The two pastors, Kendall and a small group of folks from Job Corps all pitch in to produce up to 500 loaves in the rented kitchen space of the Congregational Church that presides over Grafton’s beautiful common. Members of the congregation lend a hand as needed and also assist with selling on Market Days. A goal is to develop a program to employ teens who are aging out of the foster care system and need jobs and mentors to help establishing them in their own adult lives. This is their monastic model of sustaining Simple Church and it is working! They are expanding the bread bakery and acquiring efficient and modernized equipment with the profits.
At the Market in Douglas.Simple Church collaborates on a booth with Potter Hill Farms.
You might wonder how the hierarchy of the Methodist Church views this new twist? While it is not yet officially sanctioned, the local New England District is interested enough in it to fund one of the pastors salaries by grant.
You might also wonder how the traditional church “business” of baptisms, deaths, marriages, etc is conducted? Pastor LyAnna assured us that pastoral care is provided to parishioners exactly as it is in a traditional church. All donations are given away directly to chosen causes and missions and the bread funds everything else. Research on the internet would seem to indicate that the Simple Church has ties to the Christian evangelical movement and takes some inspiration from other churches who have used the “house church” model of meeting in small groups, i.e. early Jewish synagogues, Quakers, Amish, Mennonite, etc. It is firmly grounded in UMC principles and that fact was evident. With this information in hand, we decided to join them for Thursday night dinner at Pastor Zack’s invitation.
So let’s address the elephant in the room: why would two Buddhists be drawn to this church and concept? It’s simple….no pun intended. Beyond the definition of Simple Church, is the community. Community, especially inclusive and welcoming community is something that we keep an eye out for as we travel to different places. For nomads, (Some of our friends have taken to calling us the Wandering Bu’s) , when you run across true community, it is equivalent to the smell of fresh bread. You know that smell instinctively when you encounter it. Whether the focus of the community is art, history, religion, music, etc., true community of like-minded people draws you into its midst easily. Community reaches out in welcome and says partake and find nourishment here.
As we encounter various definitions of community along the road, we have been immersed in our American history, appreciated beautiful local art and handmade crafts. We have had the privilege of celebrating being human with a variety of religious groups, raised our voices in common song and had our souls stirred by the music that built a nation. We have enjoyed the lively exchange of challenging intellectual ideas with all sorts of people with all sorts of perspectives. You can sense and recognize true community by its draw. It pulls you in and builds your tolerance, patience and humanity. It need not be an exact fit, but, for us, true community must stir something in our souls and inspire us in some way. Simple Church is community, as evident on first encounter as the smell of the fresh bread baking in the bakery.
While grounded firmly in Christian principles, Simple Church welcomes all people. We were so pleased to find that they are particularly supportive of the LGBT community. Thursday evening, there were a variety of faith paths represented and we felt welcomed and comfortable: Buddhists guests to a Christian table. (You know you are a fully included guest when you stay to help do the dishes!)
As we arrived, a small group of folks were beginning to gather in the backyard of the Grafton Congregational Church where Simple Church rents space with their contributions to the dinner table. In addition to a delicious soup cooked by staff, the church collaborates with Potter Hill Farm for fresh vegetables. All of the scraps and leftovers from dinner go to the farm to feed the organically grown chickens, pigs and garden. Simple Churches have no buildings themselves and do not intend to incur that complex expense and committment. Pastor Zach would later say that the canopy of trees overhead is their sanctuary. He would point out the woodpecker on one of those trees, who does not worry about who he is and reassure those in attendance that they are welcome and that the dress code is come as who you are.
Dinner with music!
This process of putting people at ease is not random, but rather, it is well thought out. When folks arrive at Simple Church, they do not struggle to find a group. In their article, Sunday School in a Simple Church, Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger comment that, “if people are not moved into relational networks, they will not stay in the church.” Simple Church solves this dilemma by seating people at a common table, providing them with “instant conversation” in the form of discussion questions and then allowing the magic of relationship to happen naturally.
A simple alter set with the Eucharist bread and grape juice.
We chatted at our table about the concept of true self. Is there a true self or are we evolving beings that adjust as necessary throughout life. When we find ourselves in situations where we might not be able to express our true self, how do we “get home”? We were lucky to have Daniel, another minister of a local Grafton church sitting at our table and we thoroughly enjoyed his insight, which matched our own, on the Buddhist concept of Emptiness and Self. As an aside, I am enjoying a new course offered on Audible under The Great Courses called Buddhism; check it out if you are interested. It is taught Malcolm David Eckel who is Professor of Religion and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University. He received a B.A. from Harvard, a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford, and a Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard and his lectures during this course are really great. They are scholarly, but down to earth enough for the casual student. You can see the course description and learn more at:
The time flew by as we all engaged in deep and thoughtful dialogue that helped get to know one another easily. In Simple Church, the sermon is the relationships formed through these discussions. The people learn about one another’s lives through revealing conversation. They are then more able to minister to one another in real ways that are relevant. There is nothing superficial here. No polite Sunday greeting with no further contact. This is a chance to engage in a meaningful way and really get to know who that person is sitting across from you.
Gentle acoustic guitar music bridged the close of our table talk and moved us into other elements of the evening. A subtle structure does support Simple Church. Be not fooled that this is random or chaotic in any way. I heard someone characterize it as loose, but I would not. It is the antithesis of rigid for sure, but the evening had a definite structure and flow. Perhaps the difference is that each element of a Methodist service, while still there, is delivered with relationship in the forefront. There are no pews facing front. You are sitting across a supper table from others. When you break bread off a freshly made loaf and pass wine in mason jars, it is an intimate and direct experience between communicants. And all are welcome to perceive the experience in the framework of their own belief system. Again, while firmly grounded in Christian principles, tolerance and acceptance are practiced here. All are welcome to the table.
Ideas for the next weeks discussion topic are dropped into the guitar case.
Old songs and original compositions followed dinner, further folding people together. As we concluded the evening, the age-old question that all families ask came up……….who is going to do the dishes? Arnie and I stayed to dry and many hands made quick work.
We surely wish this group of folks well in their missions and growth. We will hope to join them a couple more times this summer before we head back to Florida for the winter. We believe that when people of goodness come together to make a difference in a hurting world this defines miracles. It is the small stuff that adds up to miraculous change.
This week I charge you to go meet someone in a Chance Encounter. Sit down and eat a meal with that stranger and listen to their story. Take that conversation about true self out into the world and speak deeply with someone about it. Learn their journey. Travel along the road for a time with them until they are no longer a stranger. Go be part of a community. We are not meant to travel alone.
As Pastor Zach reminded us, “Conversation is a fragile flame. Keep it alive.”
Check out this article on conversation. It’s a good one.