A constellation of stars has been assembled to help guide Middle Collegiate Church in New York City from the ashes of its historic building destroyed by fire Dec. 5.
Located in the city’s iconic East Village, the congregation claims numerous actors, entertainers, activists and thought leaders as members or “movement partners,” many of whom will perform or speak during “March to Rise: A Live Benefit Concert for Middle Church” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 25.
The livestreamed event is designed to raise funds for the rebuilding of the church and to inspire wider partnerships in ongoing and future ministries, said Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, executive minister for justice, education and movement at Middle Church.
“Insurance does not cover nearly what we need — we need to raise double that. We are in the early stages of a capital campaign,” she said. “We also see this as an opportunity to collaborate and bring people in.”
The church, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America and has strong Baptist connections, has a reputation for leading on social justice, anti-racism, LGBTQ and women’s causes locally and nationwide. As a result, celebrities often are drawn to it, Hambrick Ashcraft said.
“Middle has been a hub for artists forever, and being in the East Village of New York, that’s going to attract a certain kind of artist and activist.”
Nearly 20 of them have volunteered to participate in the fundraiser that will include performances by singers Norah Jones and Ani DiFranco and actors Ellie Kemper and Aunjanue Ellis, among others. Inspirational messages will be provided by numerous speakers, including Chelsea Clinton, 2017 Women’s March organizers Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, motivational speaker and bestselling author Gabby Bernstein and transgender pastor Paula Stone Williams. Jacqueline Lewis, the senior minister at Middle Church, also will speak.
The live event will be streamed from Bloomingdale’s Studio 59 and will be hosted by Tituss Burgess, an actor in the Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and Bevy Smith, known for her co-hosting role in Bravo’s show Fashion Queens.
Burgess and Jones are Middle members who, like other artists, are drawn by the congregation’s welcoming spirit and emphasis on social action, Hambrick Ashcraft said. “They find in Middle a place where they can express themselves spiritually and be committed to love and justice.”
That commitment has continued and even grown since the fire, said Darrell R. Hamilton II, executive minister for operations and resource development at Middle Church and a BNG columnist.
While the congregation had adopted virtual technologies and programs well before the coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic and the fire have inspired further innovations and offerings online — including virtual meet-ups for Middle Church members in other states.
“We are growing. People from all over the country are organizing ways to get together,” Hamilton said. “People are feeling closer, filled up and hopeful — building or no building.”
Although there are no blueprints yet for a new facility, Hamilton said the fundraiser will help expand the church’s influence.
“Yes, the brick-and-mortar needs are real, but how do we keep spreading the message and the meaning of revolutionary love? This is a first step in helping us to do that,” he said.
It’s also a step toward equipping the church to continue growing its online community, Hambrick Ashcraft said. “That’s one of the reasons we need more funds. When Middle was built 100-plus years ago, digital churches weren’t a thing. Now, we are a digital church, and we have to have funds to pay for high-end recording studios, high-end technology, additional editors and sound engineers.”
Supporting those causes also promotes the ministries and causes that have drawn members and friends to Middle Church, she said. “We’re always looking for ways to innovate and explore new ways to continue sharing the message of revolutionary love into the world. This is a time for us to put our heads together and dream about what the church could look like for us as a movement.”