What do you do when a once-vibrant ministry that defined a parish's commitment to social ministry outlives the needs of the surrounding community and the resources of the parish to sustain it? That was the challenge facing Saint Aidan's, San Francisco, when Aidan's Way, our flagship ministry, had to face the reality that we as a community could no longer maintain this beloved program in the parish.
For more than a decade, Aidan’s Way offered an after-school program for at-risk children, welcoming all faiths, races, and ethnicities. The goal of the program was to provide educational services in a loving atmosphere to neighborhood children for almost no cost to the families.
As the years progressed, many of those who were most passionate in our congregation about this ministry were lost through death and grave illness. Those who were left, along with the paid director, were trying to make something survive that couldn't. We could no longer support the program financially, the volunteer pool shrunk to levels where we sometimes did not have a healthy adult-child ratio, and we discovered that we were no longer serving mainly neighborhood children. Instead, our ministry had become an inexpensive after-school alternative for families who could easily pay more than the $25 cost per semester. As California regulations of childcare increased, we realized we could not afford neither the required renovations to our space to meet state standards nor the state’s expectations of two full-time staff members and two years of advanced operating expenses in the bank.
During a meeting with the comptroller of the diocese, the Aidan’s Way Advisory Board and members of the St. Aidan’s Vestry, I felt with a heavy heart the responsibility of having to name the elephant in the middle of the room: that it was time for us to end our Aidan’s Way ministry. In that moment, we all experienced a profound death. Some members of our congregation were very angry. Others were in denial. Still others looked to blame me or the Diocese or the Vestry. These are all normal parts of the grieving process.
But Resurrection existed for us, too. After we reached the decision to close that day, our group moved from a meeting room into our church. We joined hands and offered God thanks for this important ministry in the life of our church and the neighborhood. We gave thanks for all the children and their families who benefitted from the program. We asked God’s Spirit to be with us to offer us inspiration as we looked for new ways to minister with children in our neighborhood. And from this liturgy we knew we could still provide a safe, loving place for children in new and exciting ways.
“When we realized we had to make other plans for these children, I was devastated,” said Pam Wong, a longtime member of our parish and volunteer at Aidan’s Way. “Initially, there was a great emptiness and I cried often and hard. Time has helped soften my loss and now I can remember more fondly the gift I received from all of our children and their families. I can still do things with them. For example, right after the closure of Aidan’s Way, I led a group of twelve children from the neighborhood in the most amazing dance for Pentecost, which was a moving and joyous time.”
After more than 6 years of volunteering, Judy Bley, a member of the parish who volunteered weekly for the program, found it hard to adjust, and she felt deeply for the parents and children who had relied on our program to provide a safe and enriching environment. “I see children as our future and received deep personal satisfaction in being a part of helping children to grow, achieve success in school work, and form lasting bonds. However, the reality was that our children came from far and wide and were not, for the most part, members of our surrounding community. It was not possible for us to maintain all of our financially draining programs.”
As our neighborhood changed, we realized that what we were ultimately experiencing was the Holy Spirit inviting us to adapt and change, as well. The Rev. Diana Wheeler, our parish deacon and Director of Aidan’s Way, reached out to Si, Se Puede, a program similar to Aidan’s Way in our neighborhood, and she facilitated a joint venture between St. Aidan’s, AmeriCorps, and the United Farm Workers, housed at the Vista del Monte Apartments just across the street from St. Aidan’s.
We now have volunteers there on a weekly basis, our resident story-teller visits regularly, and our congregation has made a commitment to helping the children with their plot in the local community garden. All of this involves no capital expense of our parish, but it does commit our talent and time in new and liberating ways. If “in the midst of life, we are in death,” we have found that the converse is also true. “This new adventure with our neighbors across the street helps us to never forget those people and things we will always love, but instead invites us to find meaning in them in new and powerful ways,” said the Rev. David Stickley, our current parish deacon. “In many ways, we have experienced dying to self and living to Christ by being as fully alive as we possibly can to the community around us without the heavy encumbrance of program expense.”
Since the closure of Aidan’s Way, we have also offered two summer camps for children. We offered a week of Spiritual Arts and Practical Arts, with a focus on non-violence for children in elementary school. As well, we helped to coordinate the Friends of God Summer Camp with two other parishes, where campers spent one week at St. Aidan’s, one week at St. Gregory of Nyssa, and one week at Grace Cathedral focusing on different Godly Play stories. We welcomed volunteers and campers from seven local Episcopal Churches, along with children and staffers from Roman Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian, and non-religious backgrounds. The camp was very successful and is currently being planned for 2012, with another week planned at St. Aidan’s.
Letting go of things dear to us is always difficult, and this proved to be no exception. The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that “In the midst of life, we are in death.” While this may not exactly cheer us on our way, it does serve as a wonderfully poignant reminder that life is a process that must include letting go from time to time if we are to be born again from above, and filled with the life-giving love of the Spirit. This is not to say that the grieving process must end; if it did, it might mean that the love we let go of is also gone, and as a people of faith, we believe that love never dies.
But, the people of St. Aidan’s will tell you: from a death comes new life. After all, Resurrection is truly what we’re all about.
The Rev. Tommy Dillon
Rector, St Aidan’s Episcopal Church