The journey to St. Lydia’s began when Emily Scott and Rachel Pollak came from the Western United States to the East Coast to attend St. Lawrence College. Scott, an Episcopalian, hailed from Bothwell, Washington. Pollak, a Unitarian, came from Salt Lake City, Utah. Both also went on to complete graduate degrees at Yale Divinity School in 2007. By this time they were friends sharing ideas about what “doing church” would look like in the Twenty-first Century.
Scott graduated from the Institute of Sacred Music as a liturgist and musician. She had a passion for worship, arts and liturgy that emerged from her upbringing as an Episcopalian. Pollak received a Master of Arts and Religion from Yale. However, their paths diverged after Pollak moved to study at the Art Institute of Chicago while Scott stayed on the East Coast to work at a local church in New York City.
After she moved to the massive city, Scott began holding more and more dinner parties. The first traces of an idea about a new church can be seen in those friendly gatherings.
“If you’re younger and living in New York, you’re probably not making a lot of money and maybe living with a bunch of roommates in an apartment where not much kitchen space is available,” she said. “So, people would come over and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t had home cooked food in forever.’ I started to think about how important the meal was.”
She recalled her college research on early Christian meals, and her attendance at Yale’s Marquand Chapel for a special Eucharist (communion) service that featured eating Mediterranean food around a table.
Putting her education and practical experience together, the ideas of a meal, church, and modern aversion to old religious forms rolled around in her mind like gold nuggets until she had an “Eureka!” moment. The notions fused into a new religious format, a dinner church. Scott cast the idea before other priests, her friends and family. They encouraged her to move forward, not just talk about it.
“A good friend of mine said, ‘If you want people to grab hold of this idea, you have to show it to them,’” Scott recalled.
As a newbie pastor, she didn’t think she could sustain such an experience without a sidekick—at least to cheer her up and clean-up the dishes! At some point in every start-up, the entrepreneur recruits her first disciple or partner. That is usually a turning point.
At about the same time, Scott heard that her old seminary partner Pollak was considering a move to New York to pursue an art career in sculpture and printmaking. The consideration led to a serendipitous moment. In spring 2008 on a North Metro train ride with Pollak to New Haven, Connecticut., Scott pitched her vision.
Pollak listened with growing enthusiasm. “It was the train ride where the church started,” Scott said laughing.
Pollak was surprised by her own response. She did not go to Yale Divinity as a Christian, much less as a potential church planter. But she did come with an insatiable curiosity about religion, the same curiosity that led her to complete a religious studies degree. Now, it spurred her to brainstorm the idea of a dinner church with her friend.
"I had felt compelled enough by the Christian story and Christian practices to go to divinity school without having identified as a Christian," she recalled. "But the fact remained that I didn't feel at home in traditional churches. The language was unfamiliar and I didn't feel comfortable saying creeds, [but] I felt inspired by Emily's vision.” The ability to advance on a spiritual quest at one’s own pace with a friendly group of fellow travelers appealed to Pollak.
“There was something intuitively right about starting with a practice I already felt at home in--sharing a meal with a group of people around a table," she said It was a mind meld of idea and experience.
At Yale she had been drawn to sacred music, attending chapel and talking to people about their own faith journeys. Through two years at the school, she filled herself up with theology, ethics and liturgical traditions. Her time there was in fact like a test drive of an unfamiliar car.
“Through all these things, I was not about to sign onto something before I knew what I was getting myself into,” she said. “It was a lot of investigative, preventative research.” Her religious questions and new found knowledge thrust her onto a path that a detective would call the rhythm of a case. The rhythm to a result accelerated at art school.
While attending the Art Institute, Pollak discovered that other students and professors didn’t necessarily understand what she was doing. Instead of being immersed inside a religious community, she was now part of a tiny minority among the art students interested in religion. Suddenly, she was faced with the need to articulate her faith without the help of her spiritual counselors and friends. The challenge turned into self-enlightenment. In having to explain herself, she discovered how religious faith was fitting into her life.
“It was through beginning to develop a practice as an artist and making things that I learned how I fit in and what Christianity identity was going to mean to me,” she said. The artist forsees a parallel between her work as an artist and her work as a church leader. “A willingness to learn from the process of making something deeply informs our work at St. Lydia’s. We always see it as a work in progress; we always see it as a thing influx, a thing with a mind of its own. Sometimes we only have to listen to what it’s telling us and not force it to be one thing or another.”
Scott brought her friend into the position of Community Coordinator, a part-time assistant and administrator for the church. While Pollak finished her last year in graduate school, Scott developed the idea with nine to twelve dedicated worshipers meeting inside a friend’s apartment. After a few months, Scott knew that the next step was to find a location which they could call their own. After spending the summer looking up and down streets searching for an open building, the church found a place in the fall of 2008 at Trinity Lower East Side inside the heart of Manhattan’s East Village. However, it wasn’t a good fit for what they wanted to do.
“We looked at an established church and saw that it might not be the place for us,” Scott said. “I sort of needed to craft a place where I could start from scratch.”
During the try-out period, they developed the three pillars of the church’s community: working together; sharing a meal; and telling each other’s stories. At Trinity, the group officially became known as St. Lydia’s—the name of a Biblical first-century businesswoman known for her hospitality. In September 2011, the congregation decided to move into their own location at Church of the Redeemer in Brooklyn as numbers were growing to a couple dozen each week. However, when the Long Island Diocese diagnosed the church’s poor physical condition, they decided to move them out and by November the church was renting space from the Zen Center. While the space has many of the elements conducive to their current needs, Scott knew that they needed a permanent space that was designed for a dinner church. And it would be a stable home for people, not a picnic in the park.
St. Lydia’s has grown to two services of about 25 people each. Its leaders realized that financial stability will come by seeing the church spread as multiple micro-churches. Scott says, “Just like bread from the kitchen, St. Lydia’s comes in batches. A church of 30 people can’t hope to be financially sustainable…And so we plan to grow by batch number instead of by batch size. About a year ago, we started worshiping on Monday nights in addition to Sundays nights. We'll keep growing this way, adding more services as we go,” the pastor mulls over the strategy. “In this way, a church the size of a couple of bowling lanes can sustain a pretty sizable congregation, and afford that New York rent.”
St. Lydia's church-raising video:
Next: "The Meal." Part 3 on St. Lydia's
St. Lydia's now meets every Sunday and Monday at 304 Bond Street between Union and Sackett Streets in Brooklyn. Arrive between 6:30 and 7:00. An eight minute walk from Union Street stop on the R and a six minute walk from the Carroll Street stop on the F/G.
Photos from St. Lydia's and photographers Sean Flynn and Patrick Paglen.