A res­ur­rec­tion story

When death hit a trou­bled par­ish, mem­bers re­lied on their faith and saw a re­birth

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan M. Pitts

W| hen the Rev. Tom Slaw­son de­liv­ers the Easter homily at his hill­top church to­day, he says, he’ll be­gin on his usual un­con­ven­tional note.

Easter marks what Chris­tians con­sider the most joy­ous event in his­tory: the res­ur­rec­tion of Je­sus from the dead. Ser­vices are cel­e­bra­tions.

But Slaw­son, rec­tor of St. Peter’s Epis­co­pal Church in El­li­cott City, will start by fo­cus­ing on the low­est mo­ment in the life of the man Chris­tians be­lieve was the son of God.

“If you don’t en­counter the cross, you won’t grasp the full sur­prise of the Res­ur­rec­tion, and how it makes it­self felt in our lives,” he says.

If any­one should know res­ur­rec­tion, it’s Slaw­son and his flock. Five years ago, their com­mu­nity was fac­ing death twice over.

First, the Epis­co­pal Dio­cese of Mary­land des­ig­nated the par­ish as “im­per­iled,” warn­ing that if it didn’t change rad­i­cally, it would be shut down.

Then a men­tally ill home­less man en­tered the church through a back door on a Thurs­day af­ter­noon and shot the co-rec­tor and an ad­min­is­tra­tor to death.

“There’s no prepa­ra­tion for that type of event for any­one, clergy or lay,” says Craig Stu­art-Paul, who was se­nior war­den of the par­ish, a lay leader, at the time. “One can­not pos­si­bly imag­ine any­thing worse, any lower event than that.”

But as the sun rises on Easter 2017, St. Peter’s is cel­e­brat­ing a come­back. Its Sunday at­ten­dance and rep­u­ta­tion have grown. Its fi­nan­cial health has sta­bi­lized. Howard County re­cently rec­og­nized the church for its help in the af­ter­math of the flood that dev­as­tated down­town El­li­cott City last year. And as more, and younger, peo­ple find their way through the doors, its ser­vices and out­reach min­istries are bristling with an en­thu­si­asm the church hasn’t ex­hib­ited in decades.

With its 250 mem­bers, St. Peter’s is far from the largest church in the dio­cese. But Bishop Eu­gene Tay­lor Sut­ton — who made the “im­per­iled” des­ig­na­tion in 2012, then re­moved it in 2015 — says num­bers are no bet­ter an in­di­ca­tor of worth than they were in the days when one leader and 12 dis­ci­ples changed the world.

“A church can have a thou­sand mem­bers in the pews and not be suc­cess­ful, or it can have 10 peo­ple and be suc­cess­ful,” he says. “St. Peter’s knows the power of love, they’ve come back from the dead, and they’re shar­ing that mes­sage with ev­ery­one. It’s ab­so­lutely one of our most suc­cess­ful parishes.” amaz­ing St. Peter’s is still here,” says Stu­art-Paul, a mem­ber since 2000. “Look at the his­tory. It has prob­a­bly been res­ur­rected five times.”

It’s hard to say when the most re­cent near-death ex­pe­ri­ence be­gan.

Chris­tians cre­ate churches — in the­ory, at least — as out­posts from which to spread Je­sus’ mes­sage, in­clud­ing his rad­i­cal charge that his fol­low­ers prac­tice for­give­ness and love their ene­mies.

But when they fal­ter and their less no­ble traits emerge, a church can founder and fail as surely as a busi­ness or any other in­sti­tu­tion.

One parish­ioner re­calls a slight. An­other seethes over a par­ish de­ci­sion. Oth­ers fail to over­come a per­son­al­ity clash.

And as fac­tions be­gin to squab­ble, meet­ings to turn into ar­gu­ments, and bene­fac­tors be­gin to re­con­sider their gen­eros­ity, spir­i­tual malaise can be­come fi­nan­cial emergency.

That’s what hap­pened at St. Peter’s, mem­bers say, in the pe­riod lead­ing up to 2012, when the church had to an­nounce they could no longer sup­port its co-rec­tors, pay its an­nual dioce­san fee, or find enough can­di­dates to stock a vestry, the panel of lay mem­bers who help run Epis­co­pal parishes.

When Sut­ton looked at St. Peter’s then, he says, he felt like a physi­cian with a pa­tient in crit­i­cal con­di­tion.

“No­body wants to go through the pain of rad­i­cal surgery,” he says. “But if you’re go­ing to die with­out it, your per­spec­tive tends to change,” he says.

He de­clared “im­per­il­ment” for one of the few times in his ca­reer. Sch­nor­ren­berg, cur­rently ju­nior war­den, re­mem­bers the an­nounce­ment all too well.

“We were told there are two choices: You will re­cover or you will close,” she says. “And to be hon­est, I couldn’t see a way for us to re­cover.” then as­sis­tant bishop of the Mary­land Dio­cese.

The dio­cese was look­ing for new lead­er­ship at St. Peter’s.

“I had al­ways worked in more or less sta­ble si­t­u­a­tions, and I saw it as a mean­ing­ful chal­lenge,” he says in his peace­able drawl.

He was still con­sid­er­ing his op­tions when tragedy hit El­li­cott City.

Par­ish­ioners say years of in­fight­ing had di­min­ished St. Peter’s ded­i­ca­tion to com­mu­nity ser­vice, but the church con­tin­ued its min­istry to the home­less.

A man named Dou­glas Franklin Jones, who lived in the woods on church prop­erty, was one who of­ten made use of its open-door food pantry.

But when Jones be­gan show­ing bel­liger­ence to staffers, the Rev. Mary-Mar­guerite Kohn asked him not to re­turn.

Kohn, 62, a life­long cham­pion for the poor, and par­ish ad­min­is­tra­tor Brenda Brew­ing­ton, 59, who had once worked in the preschool, were at work on Thurs­day, May 3, 2012, when Jones, 56, en­tered with a gun.

A cus­to­dian dis­cov­ered their blood-cov­ered bod­ies that evening. Po­lice later found Jones in the woods, dead by sui­cide.

Stu­art-Paul got the news at his son’s base­ball game. He sped over to find the place swarm­ing with po­lice, and he re­mem­bers the “bizarre” sight of haz­mat work­ers, po­lice cars and TV news crews dom­i­nat­ing the grounds for days.

As soon as they were al­lowed, Stu­ar­tPaul, Sch­nor­ren­berg and oth­ers got to work.

They scrubbed blood­stains from floors, washed fin­ger­print dust from walls and re­placed all the locks a SWAT team had bro­ken, in­clud­ing those that his­tor­i­cally se­cured the colum­baria — draw­ers con­tain­ing par­ish­ioners’ re­mains — in­side the church.

Then dioce­san of­fi­cials can­celed the church’s ser­vices the fol­low­ing Sunday.

The well-mean­ing ges­ture struck some as the fi­nal in­dig­nity.

“Never again will I say, ‘Things can’t get any worse,’ ” Sch­nor­ren­berg says. “I now re­al­ize they can.” re­mem­bers, it was clear they had seized on that con­cept.

If they couldn’t host wor­ship, Stu­art-Paul says, what pur­pose did they serve?

This kind of tragedy, he says — born of ill­ness and vi­o­lence — was “some­thing we must beat. if you can’t beat it in church, where can you beat it?”

Sch­nor­ren­berg says their goals suddenly came clear.

“The death on our prop­erty of two peo­ple — that wiped away all the stupid, all the in­fight­ing, all the nasty,” she says. “Those didn’t mat­ter any more.”

The church was so packed that Sunday she had to run off ex­tra pro­grams. Mem­bers who had quit re­turned. Singing its best Easter mu­sic, the choir brought hun­dreds to tears and — mir­a­cle of mir­a­cles — most stayed af­ter the ser­vice to talk.

“It was sad and happy all at the same time,” Sch­nor­ren­berg says. “If God can be seen, he was seen at that ser­vice, be­cause we to be there, be­cause we on be­ing there. We wouldn’t be run out by death and vi­o­lence and anger.”

When Slaw­son ar­rived, he built on the feel­ing. He asked the par­ish to gather and re­de­fine its mis­sion, and found a fresh spirit of co­op­er­a­tion.

They set­tled on four pri­or­i­ties: grow­ing and re­tain­ing a full church, pro­vid­ing fa­cil­i­ties for com­mu­nity in­volve­ment, grow­ing with chil­dren and young fam­i­lies, and ex­pand­ing com­mu­nity out­reach.

Over the next four years, St. Peter’s added new min­istries to the home­less, saw its build­ing space in use by com­mu­nity groups nearly ev­ery night, raised its av­er­age Sunday at­ten­dance from a low of 35 to more than 80, and left it­self open to lend­ing a hand where needed.

The new at­ti­tude be­came a life­saver last sum­mer.

On July 31, the day af­ter a flash flood dev­as­tated Main Street in El­li­cott City, col­laps­ing build­ings, sweeping away cars and killing two, Slaw­son headed into town and met with all the uni­formed work­ers he could find.

The par­ish ended up of­fer­ing its premises as a base of op­er­a­tions for county of­fi­cials, res­i­dents and emergency work­ers, leav­ing the place buzzing with ac­tiv­ity for three weeks.

Lawrence Twele, head of the county’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment au­thor­ity, was on the scene daily through­out the or­deal.

The church “pro­vided air con­di­tion­ing for the hot and tired, power to keep phones run­ning, food for the hun­gry and drinks for the thirsty, and did it all with­out be­ing asked,” he says. “The gen­er­ous spirit they em­bod­ied ... de­fines what it means to truly be a pil­lar of the com­mu­nity.”

This month, the Howard County As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Ser­vices rec­og­nized St. Peter’s ef­fort with a hu­man­i­tar­ian award for col­lab­o­ra­tion in pub­lic ser­vice.

St. Peter’s isn’t where it wants to be just yet. But the par­ish is now in a po­si­tion to pay its bills, has a full vestry and a new set of by­laws, and by all ac­counts has a com­pletely dif­fer­ent feel than it did five years ago.

The church won’t hold its 175th-an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion — a big-top din­ner and auc­tion — on its birth­day, but on the night of May 6, the Saturday clos­est to the date on which Kohn and Brew­ing­ton were killed.

To Sch­nor­ren­berg, the tim­ing is right for the Easter sea­son, and for a church she hopes will be around for a few more cen­turies.

“The tragedy of St. Peter’s is that those mur­ders should never have hap­pened,” she says. “But hav­ing hap­pened, we had two choices as to how to re­act. We chose the one that said their deaths need to mean some­thing. And now we’re a church again.”

KARL MER­TON FER­RON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

The Rev. Tom Slaw­son, rec­tor of St. Peter’s Epis­co­pal Church, pre­pares to lead morn­ing prayers. He came to St. Peter’s two months af­ter a dou­ble homi­cide at the church.

The Rev. Mary-Mar­guerite Kohn, co-rec­tor at St. Peter’s, was Dou­glas Franklin Jones’ other vic­tim. She had con­fronted him when he be­came bel­liger­ent to church staff.

Brenda D. Brew­ing­ton, a par­ish ad­min­is­tra­tor at St. Peter’s, was fa­tally shot on May 3, 2012, by a home­less man who lived in woods near the church.

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