Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City–St. Paul’s Richmond

Sabbatical Update

St. Paul’s has a rich and challenging history and has an interesting vision for ministry in its context. Like Grace, the choice of location opposite the State Capitol was strategic. There, the similarities between the two congregations end. St. Paul’s was built in the Greek Revival style. Grace, constructed 15 years later, is Neo-Gothic.

The built environment surrounding the two churches is also radically different. Compared to Richmond’s Capitol Square, Madison’s is both more intimate and more vibrant. Richmond’s Capitol Square is much more expansive than Madison’s. The Capitol itself is set back much further from the street giving the square more of a park-like feeling. Perhaps it was only because I visited on a fairly warm day but there were relatively few people in view. A few were eating there lunch on benches on a tree-lined sidewalk inside the high iron fences but the sidewalks surrounding the Capitol were largely empty. I didn’t take a full inventory but my impression was that St. Paul’s was the only non-governmental building around the square. There were no restaurants, retail, banks as there are on Madison’s Capitol Square. Moreover, St. Paul’s is oriented away from the square. Its main entrance is on Grace St. which forms the (roughly) northern axis of the square. Its walls on the side facing the Capitol are monumental and unfriendly.

But once you turn down Grace St., there’s a very different feel.Just beyond the main entrance to the nave is a courtyard and a few feet within that courtyard a covered passageway that connects the nave to the rest of the church’s facilities. There is access to  the garden within the courtyard during the day.

Inside, the church seems to be bustling with activity. I visited on Wednesday evening and again on Thursday. On Wednesday evenings, they present an alternative, contemplative worship service at 6:00, followed by a simple supper. Other groups (bible studies, book groups) eat at the same time and then convene separately for their discussions.

The contemplative service, “Center,” combines communal worship with opportunities for private devotion. There’s a labyrinth on the floor, stations with icons and other prompts for spiritual reflection, and opportunities for creative expression. It’s a lovely, intimate, spirit-filled time. Leaders and participants were somewhat self-conscious about the low attendance the week I was there. I was moved as I watched worshipers engage with the various opportunities for spiritual enrichment.

On Thursday, I had lunching conversation with St. Paul’s clergy. When I arrived around 12:30 pm, the Parish Hall was full of people participating in St. Paul’s weekly lunch for the homeless. Many years ago, Richmond’s downtown churches collaborated on the effort to provide weekday lunches for the homeless. A healthy and hearty meal is prepared and I could hear occasional singing accompanied by a piano.

I came to St. Paul’s largely to get a first-hand look at their downtown ministries. In 2012, they created a position of “Downtown Missioner” with the express goal of connecting St. Paul’s with the downtown community. Melanie Mullen has held the position for four years now and talked about all of the expectations and ideas that were brought together in the original position description and how it has evolved over the years as she has lived into the position. Now, she focuses on several areas. One is worship–she is responsible for developing and leading Center. She is also involved in community organizing and the Laundry Love effort which is a monthly activity at a downtown laundry.

In addition to all of that, St. Paul’s hosts a weekly lecture series on Friday noons entitled “Eyes on Richmond” with speakers and lunch catered by local restaurants. The week before I was there, they had hosted a mayoral forum that focused on the criminal justice system.

St. Paul’s is a vibrant and remarkable church. They conversations they have begun about their history and legacy are important and can serve as a model for other such conversations that need to take place, not only around slavery and the confederacy, but around other issues where the Episcopal Church has been complicit in and profited from oppression. St. Paul’s is also creating innovative ministries and missions to connect with their neighbors and wider community. The questions they are asking are questions we all should be asking, or reflecting on how our particular contexts might give rise to different questions and different opportunities for mission.


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