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