Ministry is moving at the speed of life at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
But “speed of light” would be equally accurate.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton will hold their ongoing tour for The Book of Gutsy Women at the church at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Up to 900 guests are expected.
And it was barely two weeks ago that the congregation’s 1925 Spanish Colonial Revival building was identified as a national sacred treasure. The recognition comes with a sizable preservation grant.
And all of this while Senior Pastor Elizabeth Mangham Lott works to launch the St. Charles Center for Faith + Action, an interfaith, social justice nonprofit.
These and other developments are unfolding, Lott said, as part of a prayerful openness to new ideas in ministry.
“We’re really adaptive to the expanding concept of mission and to the way we engage the world and rethink our programs,” she said earlier this week as security and cleaning crews were preparing for this weekend’s VIPs.
Lott said it’s exciting to host the former secretary of state and her daughter – but added that hosting high-profile events is nothing new for the church.
“We have been known in the city for being a think space where people come for smart, thoughtful conversation.”
The church is one of 10 spaces to receive a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places, which recognizes both “important architecture and consequential outreach” of recipients’ facilities, the organization said in a news release. The award also will keep the church busy with fundraising.
“We are raising $500,000 toward a grant of $250,000,” Lott said. “I’m confident we’ll get there.”
And with its emerging nonprofit group, St. Charles Avenue Baptist will gain a much-needed associate pastor and a dedicated focus on the needs of the New Orleans residents.
Lott spoke with Baptist News Global about her ministry, the church and the impact it seeks to make in New Orleans. Her comments are included here, edited for clarity.
How did you manage to land Clinton event?
We hosted Anne Lamott a year ago through Octavia Books and we did a thing with Richard Rohr a couple years ago. So, when Octavia Books got the call that Simon & Schuster wanted them to be the ones to represent Gutsy Women, they wanted us to do it. I guess they see us as a gutsy church with a gutsy female pastor.
Have you been in contact with the Clintons?
I have not. I’ll have a good bit of time with them on Saturday, I think.
Is Hillary Rodham Clinton someone you look up to?
I certainly respect her. I think when it comes to heroes I’m more of a church-nerd person. But she is certainly a feminist hero when it comes to a woman who has been able to take some licks publicly – which is something I am still learning to do – and not to become defensive in the face of strong criticism.
What does their presence communicate about your church?
It’s about our community engagement. Part of my work over the last six years has been to reintroduce the church to the community and to remind the congregation of its own legacy and its own story. St. Charles’ tradition includes being a group that pushes the edge and gets involved – this is what we have done since 1898.
How did the Sacred Places grant come about?
My husband, Nathan, works in historic preservation. He put them on my radar a couple years ago. The application process required a lot of leg work. We started researching before we wrote the letter of intent. Then they came to New Orleans looking for a congregation already further along in rethinking how to use their space for the public good – a place that is historic but also serving some kind of community need. We found out we received the grant at the beginning of October.
How will that grant be used?
Because New Orleans is about learning to live with water – we’ve had two floods this year – there are water issues around the baseboards and also the plaster, because in 1925 that’s what everything was made of. We are learning long term how to live with water, and we are anticipating more of these events. And we are addressing windows from 1925. They will be stripped and re-varnished and old light fixtures will be taken out and replaced.
How would you describe what’s special about the building?
Because of the water in New Orleans, I think that was a part of why architects chose to put the sanctuary on the second floor. And we’re right on St. Charles Avenue, the most historic and grand avenue in New Orleans. And the windows, which have always been clear, are now that 1920s, slightly wavy glass. You feel like you’re in a tree house surrounded by live oaks and crepe myrtles. You just feel there is something special about that sanctuary.
Does the age or architecture of the building make it harder to attract young adults?
I think that’s complicated for so many reasons. One of the challenges we have in New Orleans is the name “Baptist.” New Orleans is a very Catholic town and an increasingly secular town, and we have considered over the years whether we should change the name. I think the name is more of a hindrance than the building or the worship style.
The Clintons are coming. A Sacred Places grant. A cutting-edge nonprofit on the way – is this what you thought ministry would be like when you were in seminary?
No. Not at all. I have colleagues and peers who are in more traditional settings. It still looks like what I grew up with. I’m not satisfied with what I grew up with. Nadia Bolz-Weber said several years back that you have to be rooted in tradition to innovate with integrity. I really hold to that. I want to be an innovator and I want to be part of this new thing being born. It’s only because I have roots that go deep into tradition that I can do it with respect and love. I’m not trying to set fire to anything.