First Church of Christ par­ish rein­vents it­self with a new mis­sion and an out-of-box ap­proach to spir­i­tu­al­ity

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Cas­san­dra Day cday@mid­dle­town­ @cas­san­dras­dis on Twit­ter

MID­DLE­TOWN » As the Rev. Ju­lia Burkey strides into her of­fice dressed in blue khakis, a sleeve­less white blouse, san­dals and with her hair pulled back into a pony­tail that’s se­cured with a ban­danna, the last thing one would peg her as is a pas­tor.

Ex­cept for the fact that she just walked into First Church, the Gothic Re­vival brown­stone struc­ture at 190 Court St. — the one well-distin­guished by its pur­ple and green door.

In 2018, First Church, a mem­ber of the United Church of

“It’s ex­cit­ing and en­er­giz­ing — the op­po­site of me com­ing up with an idea and then hav­ing it fiz­zle out.” — Ju­lia Burkey, who leads First Church on Court Street in Mid­dle­town

Christ de­nom­i­na­tion, will cel­e­brate its 350th an­niver­sary. The par­ish, founded in 1668, is the old­est church in the city. The found­ing mem­bers of this Protes­tant re­for­ma­tion church first gath­ered in 1652, a year af­ter Mid­dle­town was in­cor­po­rated as a town.

Burkey, who took charge of the par­ish af­ter the Rev. John Hall left in July 2011, is in­ter­ested in trans­form­ing the idea of re­li­gion by op­er­at­ing out­side of the box.

“What I found is, if a few lead­ers come up with an idea for the con­gre­ga­tion but it’s not con­nected to the heart of the con­gre­ga­tion, if it doesn’t come demo­crat­i­cally from the peo­ple — even if it’s the same idea that you would have got­ten to — it doesn’t re­ally work. It falls flat, ” said Burkey.

This is her first min­istry post out of sem­i­nary.

“It’s ex­cit­ing and en­er­giz­ing — the op­po­site of me com­ing up with an idea and then hav­ing it fiz­zle out.”

Burkey, who dons ei­ther a black or white cas­sock for Mass, is proud of the par­ish’s new mis­sion and how it was ar­rived at. It’s a sim­ple sen­tence but each phrase is rich with mean­ing, Burkey said.

“We walk to­gether in the path of Jesus to cre­ate more good in the world by ex­pe­ri­enc­ing and em­body­ing God’s love, nour­ish­ing the di­vine spark in all peo­ple, and of­fer­ing a spir­i­tual home within and be­yond our walls,” the mis­sion reads.

“It’s the most pro­gres­sive Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tion that ex­ists and has al­ways been on the front lines of women be­ing or­dained and the or­di­na­tion of LGBTQ peo­ple,” she said. “It was the first his­tor­i­cally white church to ac­cept peo­ple of color and African Amer­i­cans. It’s also been on the front lines of so­cial jus­tice.”

Burkey cites an Amer­i­can Pew re­search study that found “peo­ple are leav­ing re­li­gion so quickly, that in 30 years, with the rate of peo­ple leav­ing the church, and frankly pass­ing away, most churches will be gone,” she said, “if church doesn’t do some­thing to rein­vent, recre­ate and re­ally trans­form the world.”

That fact gal­va­nized the mem­ber­ship to act.

So in Jan­uary, she chal­lenged her con­gre­ga­tion to come up with a mis­sion and vi­sion for First Church. They were very re­spon­sive to the idea, Burkey said.

Over six weeks, 100 peo­ple met weekly and broke into small groups to tackle a ques­tion each time.

“It had a sub­tle goal of get­ting peo­ple to con­nect and get to know one an­other,” Burkey said, in ad­di­tion to its greater pur­pose of break­ing down the tra­di­tional par­a­digm of re­li­gion be­ing a top-down in­sti­tu­tion.

“How can we make it so we’re not just main­tain­ing an in­sti­tu­tion, but so we’re ac­tu­ally cre­at­ing a com­mu­nity cen­ter and activating peo­ple’s own sense of spir­i­tu­al­ity and bring­ing that in di­a­logue with other peo­ple — cre­at­ing re­la­tion­ships,” Burkey said was the idea be­hind the fo­cus groups.

That’s some­thing very im­por­tant, es­pe­cially in New Eng­land, where, Burkey said, iso­la­tion is com­mon. “There is a per­va­sive sense of lone­li­ness, so be­ing united, at least seek­ing a mis­sion, is re­ally pow­er­ful in it­self,” she said. “Gath­er­ing peo­ple is re­ally pro­found,” said Burkey, who came from a spir­i­tual, not re­li­gious fam­ily, she said.

Her fa­ther is a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and mother is a Bud­dhist. “They raised me and my brother to find our own ver­sion of truth.”

In fact, Burkey’s great­grand­fa­ther was the Rev. John K. Stout, pas­tor at St. John’s Ger­nants Church in Leesport, Penn­syl­va­nia. She keeps a framed pho­to­graph on the book­case in her of­fice of her great-grand­par­ents, where her mother is seated along­side other young peo­ple in Sun­day school.

In late April, the vi­sion­ing team dis­tilled dozens of easel-size pages into three es­sen­tial el­e­ments of what First Church is pas­sion­ate about: “be­ing rad­i­cally in­clu­sive of peo­ple around the mar­gins, feed­ing peo­ple in need (which in­cludes body and soul) and dis­solv­ing the stigma around men­tal ill­ness,” Burkey said.

Those ideas were fur­ther nar­rowed down, Burkey said, be­cause “if we try to do it all, we don’t do any­thing re­ally well.”

That’s when the con­gre­ga­tion de­cided to fo­cus on be­ing rad­i­cally in­clu­sive, she said.

And fo­cus on the young peo­ple of the par­ish. Just this week, First Church wel­comed its first youth min­is­ter.

To cel­e­brate 350 years of First Church, and align with its new mis­sion, the church has come up with sev­eral pro­grams through the end of the year, in­clud­ing in­cor­po­rat­ing more of the arts — live mu­sic and dance — into Sun­day ser­vices.

At the Sept. 24 10 a.m. ser­vice, the Heart­beat Dix­ieland Jazz Band will per­form.

Nov. 18, there will be a well­ness fair, dur­ing which peo­ple can me­an­der their way through ev­ery room of the church and find a dif­fer­ent heal­ing arts prac­ti­tioner, such as yoga, sound heal­ing, es­sen­tial oils and other al­ter­na­tive paths to well-be­ing.

“We re­ally want to claim church done dif­fer­ently,” Burkey said.

And Nov. 12 at 5 p.m., First Church will be part­ner­ing with Rus­sell Li­brary for a com­mu­nity meal at its 190 Court St. lo­ca­tion.

The event will in­clude a short interfaith panel with speak­ers from dif­fer­ent re­li­gions.


The Rev. Ju­lia Burkey, who leads First Church on Court Street in Mid­dle­town, con­vened a vi­sion­ing team com­posed of nine parish­ioners in Jan­uary that met for 12 weeks, dis­cussing six ques­tions in small groups.

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