Adventures in Grace
Taking the Church on the Road in Binghamton, New York
Brian Cupp tugs on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, then sends a few quick text messages before he heads out the door. It’s Sunday morning and he’s heading for church—at the local running track.
Yvonne Kopy pushes open the door to the local Uno Chicago Grill where a few people are already waiting for her. They’re having church.
Maureen Gilli logs on to her Facebook page and posts a message: “See you at Saturday Night Alive” and heads over to the Brothers 2 Restaurant where church begins when the band finishes its set.
Mr. Cupp, Ms. Gilli and Ms. Kopy are part of a committed group of people who belong to new church start, Grace Adventure United Methodist Church, in Binghamton, N.Y. For them and other members and seekers, church happens where it happens, and when and where it happens is an adventure in grace.
“We are really reaching out to people in places where people have not been traditionally reached before and seeing some success with it,” said Mr. Cupp, who facilitates the hour-long “At Your Own Pace” exercise group Sunday mornings at Vestal Rail Trail in Vestal, N.Y. The two-mile trail, one way, allows people to walk, bike or run at their own pace. After the workout, the group gathers for fellowship and breakfast.
Mr. Cupp owns a store and often is not able to get to church at the regular worship times. Meeting with this small group for exercise and fellowship feeds his soul. “We introduce people to exercise, and they begin to feel better about themselves,” he said.
Although there is no scripted program for the coffee hour that follows, it includes a time for fellowship and an invitation to join Grace Adventure at some of its other events and its monthly worship service.
Ms. Gilli is outreach coordinator for Grace Adventure, which she co-founded with her childhood friend, Annette Snedaker, who is the pastor. Although their life paths diverged, they stayed in touch. Ms. Gilli lived in Texas for awhile before work brought her back to Binghamton.
“Annette called me up and said that she was going to start a church and asked me if I would support and help her,” Ms. Gilli said. Laughing, she added, “I know my friend, and I didn’t know what it would entail, but I knew that whatever it was it would be good and that I was along for the ride.”
Nearly two years later Ms. Gilli, Ms. Snedaker and a committed leadership team are making Christ known using various methods.
A leap of faith
Ms. Snedaker took what some might describe a quantum leap in June 2009 when she responded to her district superintendent’s invitation for volunteers to start new church ministries in the Binghamton District of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She made a list of people who might share her vision. And without a building or even a regular place to meet—but with a few kindred souls, existing friends and her day care provider—Grace Adventure was born.
Ms. Snedaker created a launch team for this new church start. “We brainstormed ways we could become known in the community and help people know about a different way of gathering for worship and fellowship,” Ms. Snedaker said.
Their visioning resulted in various ways of reaching out to people to become a part of their spiritual adventure. Member Mark Masland organized the Grace Adventure band by advertising on Craigslist. Ms. Snedaker set up a Facebook page (HYPERLINK http://www.facebook.com/pages/Grace-Adventure/119979308037110) sharing information about places and events and simply inviting people to “just come.” A calendar on the church’s website (HYPERLINK http://www.graceadventurechurch.com/home) provides detailed information of various events, many with catchy titles like “Bible Boot Camp.”
One of the first events sponsored by the Grace Adventure launch team was a bubble tea gathering at a local teahouse adjacent to Binghamton University. A Facebook posting for free bubble tea along with word-of-mouth invitations was expected to draw 40–50 attendees, but 365 people showed up. Grace Adventure launch team members, wearing t-shirts, handed out coupons for a free bubble tea and information about the church. Many attendees signed up to receive e-mails about future events.
Ms. Kopy, who now leads Grace Adventure’s “Theology on Tap” at the local Uno Chicago Grill, was drawn to the welcoming atmosphere of the church. “I know people who have been to a lot of churches and have never felt welcome,” she said. “Also, there are a lot of adults who never went to church as children or youth. They have no idea what the protocol is—what to wear, how to use hymn books. Just entering a church is intimidating. Our tagline is: ‘Come as you are.’”
Grace Adventure, she says, has no rules or rituals. During worship participants can drink coffee, ask questions and get thoughtful replies. Caring and thoughtful dialogue about Scripture and life’s issues is the premise of Theology on Tap, which takes the church where people already are by meeting at a local restaurant. Five to 10 people usually attend the weekly gathering.
“We come to Uno’s, and we talk about various themes: women in the Bible, sex in the Bible, the Kingdom, social justice,” Ms. Kopy said. “Anyone can choose a topic, do research, and we all join in with our thoughts and concerns. We have had members from other churches come and join us.”
Ms. Kopy says Grace Adventure has a vision of Theology on Tap becoming an interfaith-based study with support of the local council of churches. Ms. Snedaker says while social networking, community interaction and use of the Internet help people find the church, what strengthens the connections are the many opportunities to worship and to serve. “We want people to know one another and take on responsibility,” she said. Grace Adventure joins with other ministries and community projects to make a difference. For example, Grace Adventure created a “flash mob” at a local park to help raise funds and conduct a canned food drive for a local food pantry. People came with donations and froze in place for about five minutes, holding aloft their can of peas or their box of macaroni and cheese.
“We also held a flash mob at Vestal Rail Trail in support of the Doggone Fun on the Run, a fundraiser for Southern Tier CARES/AIDS program,” Ms. Gilli said. Prior to the event, Grace Adventure posted a notice on its Facebook page soliciting donations for people who were going to participate in the walk/run. Members also went to the trail with their t-shirts and signs and froze in place.
“It was hilarious,” Ms. Gilli recalled. “We were statues and people tried their best to get us to laugh, smile, or talk. When it was over, we were happy to answer questions and tell people that we just wanted to help our community.”
Grace Adventure has also partnered with other United Methodist outreach ministries like Safety Net, which is housed at First United Methodist Church of Endicott in Endicott, N.Y., and offers people who are coming off the street a hot meal and access to the Internet and telephones to search for jobs and services or to connect with loved ones.
“Sometimes all people need is someone to talk to. We serve food and share the love of God,” Ms. Gilli said. “We also have served at Danielle House, which is a place where people can stay while their loved ones are in the hospital. We provide home-cooked meals and a caring presence.”
Boulevard United Methodist Church in Johnson City, N.Y., offers an event called “Saturday Night Alive.” Twice a month people can come for a free meal and live entertainment. Members serve, and the Grace Adventure Band plays. “It’s a great feeling to help,” Ms. Gilli said. “With the economy, it could be either one of us. It’s humbling. Everyone should serve.”
A new church start is not for the faint of heart. Ms. Snedaker spent a year reaching out and making connections before being officially appointed in July 2010. She logs 700–900 miles a month in her car. With no church office, Ms. Snedaker takes her laptop and sets up working space in various locations. This makes her accessible and interruptible. Still, she looks forward to Grace Adventure’s third year. “We have lots of kids and young adult families. We want to reach an older audience as well, those who have just felt that church wasn’t for them,” she said.
In true Wesley fashion, the Binghamton region is Grace Adventure’s parish. “We knew it was going to be an adventure. We also wanted it to be full of grace,” Ms. Gilli said.
Faye Wilson worked in mission education at the General Board of Global Ministries for 21 years and is the author of several United Methodist Women mission study texts, including the leader’s guide for the Food & Faith spiritual growth study. She is vice president United Methodist Women at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, Quantico, Md., where she is also the musician for four choirs.