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A Small Church In A Small Neighborhood Has A Big Heart

Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL

March 05, 2008

Grace Episcopal Church is swimming upstream but then, that's not new for the scrappy little church in Hartford's Parkville neighborhood.

The neighborhood, one of the capital's smallest, is home to cultural anchors like Real Art Ways, as well as restaurants and bakeries that offer food found in Portugal, Vietnam, the Caribbean, South America and Africa. The neighborhood had a history of diversity before diversity was a buzzword.

The church began in the early 1860s as a mission of Trinity Episcopal Church. The neighborhood was nearly rural, with no trolley or bus service. Within a few years, the mission had a thriving Sunday school. By 1913, Grace was an independent parish.

Last week, a study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said Protestants are barely a majority in this country 51 percent after historically holding a majority in American religious life. The study also showed that people today change religions fairly freely, and a good number of Americans slightly more than 16 percent of the 35,000 interviewed end up unaffiliated with any particular faith group.

What does that mean for places like the little church at the corner of Grace Street and New Park Avenue?

Members of Grace Episcopal 85 voting members from nearly 30 ZIP codes come to church looking for comfort, solace and personal growth, says the Rev. Richard A. Maxwell, the rector since 2004. His challenge is to urge members to look outward in expressions of their faith perhaps to the people who come to Grace for a different kind of comfort.

In one wing of the church, members gather for the solemnity of High Mass. In another, volunteers from the church as well as people who attend other churches, people unaffiliated with any church, and people from the neighborhood run a thriving weekly food pantry for 200 families.

Carol Hilton, a member of St. James' Episcopal Church in Glastonbury, has run Grace's pantry since the mid-'90s. Over the years, in an attempt to respond to growing needs, volunteers have added a nurse who gives blood tests, and a small clothing pantry. Volunteers ask their clients for proof of residence, because the church is small, and the need is large. They want to concentrate on Parkville residents, though they don't refuse anyone. If they find someone from, say, Enfield (and that has happened), volunteers include a list of food pantries closer to Enfield in their bag of food.

This week's fare includes canned beef stew, bacon and a treat, Pop-Tarts. Hilton says she tries to vary the items, which get clients through about three days of meals.

Last Thursday, a small crowd gathered on the church's side porch waiting for the door to open at 9 a.m. Inside, a volunteer named Angel was getting his blood tested. "I hate needles," he said as he turned away to wince. He has been volunteering for nine years. Other volunteers from the neighborhood are also clients; they're not comfortable taking the food without helping out. The door opened, and the people streamed in, quickly but orderly.

"We all approach God in different ways," said Maxwell.

If nationwide, people are finding fewer traditional expressions of their spirituality, Maxwell has plans. He talks of converting a basement room into an art studio to add to the classical music concerts already hosted by the church. What about reaching beyond the pantry to other neighborhood needs? Mega-churches which Grace most likely will never be aren't mega because God ordained them so. They're huge because they break memberships into tiny groups and serve them.

If the neighborhood has grown exponentially, there is still an abundance of children, said Maxwell, and come what may, the little church on the corner will be there for those who seek comfort and solace, be it in the pews or at the food pantry.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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