Our Time with the Fisherfolk

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On Thursday evening, we rolled into Aliquippa, Pennsylvania to visit the Community of Celebration. This community is historically related to 1970s revival at Church of the Redeemer in Huston, Texas, where my parents met. My parents spent several years in a community that sprung up around that church, and also moved up to Woodland Park to be a part of a new intentional community not totally unlike the one that is now at Aliquippa.

Of course, this was all before I was born. I don’t have any memories of Church of the Redeemer, or Woodland Park. I think my parents visited the Aliquippa community once many years ago, but I was too young to remember that. Even still, my parents experience in community had a huge unconscious impact on my spiritual development. My parents’ time in community shaped them, and they, in turn, shaped me.

(This is all to give a little background on how we ended up in a “rough” neighborhood in Pennsylvania, staying with ten people much older than we are, none of whom we actually knew.)

Even as we pulled off the freeway, we could tell that Aliquippa was a very different place than what we were used to as people from the Western states. We passed a Croatian Center, and a plaque directing us toward St. Elijah’s Serbian Orthodox Church. We passed several signs advertising a Greek Festival beginning September 17, with “Food,” “Games,” and …”Rides”?! (I had to check that one every time we passed the sign. I’ve never so much as heard of a local ethnic festival with rides.)

“Must be a lot of eastern Europeans out here,” I remarked, stating the obvious to my bride.

She concurred. “It kind of makes sense, though, when you think about it. We are on the East Coast, ant that is a natural point of entry for people coming from Europe. It’s the same reason we have so many Asians on the West Coast, and Mexicans in the Southwest.”

Moving into Aliquippa proper was a bit of a downer. It was clearly a once-booming place. The buildings were all beautiful old brick structures, the kind that adorn the historic downtown districts of many communities across the country. But instead of being renewed, or renovated, the buildings suffered from sleepy dilapidation and partial abandonment.

The Community of Celebration looked, from the front, only a little more lively than the rest of the neighborhood. It consisted, so far as we could tell, of a complex of rowhoses and a small building at the end.

The rowhouses of the Community of Celebration, from the backyard.
The rowhouses of the Community of Celebration, from the backyard.

We had conducted only minimal email contact with the Community prior to our visit, so we weren’t quite sure what to do. The small building looked promising, particularly with its rusted sign indicating that the Episcopal Church (and particularly, the Community of Celebration, Fisherfolk) welcomed us.

When we came inside, the office door burst open, and we were welcomed by a lanky, be-ponytailed man named Bill who hailed, “You must be the Kidds!” gave us friendly hugs, and commented on the family resemblance. As the sign outside prophesied, we felt welcomed indeed, as if by Christ himself. The warm and quirky (and warmly quirky) hospitality and fellowship was a theme of our time there: we felt both honored and blessed by both their efforts and their open arms.

We were shown to the guest house, simply but comfortably furnished, and invited to join the community for Evening Prayer.

The Community of Celebration has three moments for daily prayer, which they do according to the Book of Common Prayer adapted to the heritage of the community. Praying with them was a real treat. The music was identifiably related to what I grew up singing, and the prayer book liturgy appealed to my second-hand Anglicanism. At the front of the assembly, they had a large icon of the Trinity based on Rubilev’s famous image, flanked by a smaller icon of Jesus and Mary with the Christ-child. They were all beautiful, and very well done, with just enough imperfections to give away that they were products of the community, not manufactured by specialists.

To top it off, the prayers were held in a comfortable little octagonal chapel. It was a fairly new building, and although it was simple, modern, and cozy, it did not stifle the sense of holy mystery. Its windows pointed outward to the beautiful community green space behind the rowhouses, and the ceilings were high and hard, amplifying both our speech and our song. In the chapel, the timeless smell of incense mixed with the distinctive smell of recent construction and fresh paint, to create a unique ancient-future scent of the holy.

After prayers, our new friend Bill came over to us and said, “Has anyone told you? You’ll be having dinner with us tonight.” This came as a welcome surprise: we had not yet figured out how we were going to forage food for our empty and road-weary bellies.

Bill and his wife, Mimi, listened carefully to our adventures, our thoughts, and our plans. They very graciously invited us to observe the work and life of the community first hand, and, hearing of my interest in seminary, encouraged and equipped me to make an informal visit to Trinity seminary the next day.

The next day, Bill also took us down to the local coffee shop, also recently opened with support from the community. We got to listen to all the ways that the Community seeks to uplift and restore the people around them, fighting the forces of decay and disintegration that hound the neighborhood outside the walls of their Christian family.

We are truly grateful to God and to the Community for our time with them. I hope that God gives us more opportunities like this one. It was a blessing to be so welcomed, to make a new connection with a piece of my heritage, and to witness the Church at work in such a clear and powerful way.

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