Let’s face it. When most people think of Bushwick these days, the words “Christian fellowship” do not exactly jump into the imagination. For many younger Christian transplants to the city it can be hard to find a welcoming place of worship, especially one that forgives the trespasses of young Brooklynites- rolling out of bed after 10, quite possibly showing up hungover, and not donning their “Sunday best.” That’s where Bushwick Abbey, a new Episcopal church based on values of community, acceptance, and modern living, stands out. The self-proclaimed “Church That Doesn’t Suck” service takes place every Sunday in the unlikely holy space of music venue Radio Bushwick. When Pastor Kerlin Richter realized that there were no English-speaking Episcopal congregations in Bushwick closer than the Halsey L stop, she created a new church where parishioners of all faiths, ethnicities, and sexual orientations are “welcome to participate and bring [their] whole selves.”
With her wispy blue hair and black framed glasses, Kerlin looks more likely to be a barista at your favorite coffee shop than a dispenser of Christian homilies. A native of Tennessee who came to Bushwick by way of Portland, Kerlin reached out to Tari Sunkin, the owner of Radio Bushwick, about about hosting the church at the Radio Bushwick space in October. Sunkin’s ground rules for the nascent church were simple: “It has to be welcoming and community-oriented.”
At less than two months old, the Bushwick Abbey congregation is admittedly small (with less than 30 members), but its modest size lends itself well to the intimate, do-it-yourself aesthetic to worship. Members lay out their own chairs and bring their dogs up to the stage to read the morning scripture, a questionnaire given out for people who would like to stay in touch has options for congregants to be reached by text or e-mail, where they can get in touch with the pastor if they just want to go out for a cup of coffee. The members of the backing band close their eyes during prayer, and Pastor Kerlin tells everyone that if they want to check them out, that they’ll be playing at a bar in Park Slope next Saturday. The song lyrics for hymnals aren’t inaccessible and arcane, with wishes that for those of us who are “unemployed and overworked, may our impress on the earth be kindly and creative.” Practical hopes for a practical and down-to-earth congregation.
Sitting there with everyone during the service, throwing my voice into the hymns and filling out the prayer card with gusto, a part of me wanted to feel like Bushwick Abbey was a lot like the Genesee Baptist Church in Rochester, New York where I grew up, but it wasn’t. The congregation, although perfectly friendly and polite, was almost entirely white, a fact that doesn’t have all that much of anything to do with the idea of community worship, except for that it kinda does, especially in a place like Bushwick.
Kerlin says that at least part of the reason why she felt the need to start Bushwick Abbey was related to the fact that new parishioners who might have loved the predominantly Afro-Caribbean congregation further in to the neighborhood might not have the access that they would like, a reality that seems bound by the idea of a cultural commute as much as a physical one. In Bushwick, where the contrasts in preferences for bars, restaurants, grocery stores and other places of commerce between the newcomer and longtime resident is so stark and clear, it’d be nice to think that a little coffee and communion at the Radio Bushwick space might transcend all that, but it didn’t for me in the end, and I hope that as the church grows, it can be a better reflection of all of Bushwick, and not just part of it.
For Kerlin, your personal relationship to religion in general, and Christianity in particular, isn’t as important as what she sees as a mission to make it known that the overarching meaning of Christ should be love for all who come to worship, or even seek out some free coffee, bread or water with new friends on a Sunday morning. Beer is also available to purchase if that’s more your thing. “The big narrative of Christ is what you shouldn’t do, but that’s not the whole story.” Kerlin says. “To welcome everyone is a more faithful reading of scripture than to look at it as ‘who do we keep out.’”
Bushwick Abbey meets every Sunday at noon at 22 Wyckoff Avenue, two blocks from the Jefferson L stop. If you’re interested in learning more about the Bushwick Abbey congregation, you can e-mail Kerlin Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the group’s Facebook page.