HARRISONBURG, Va. — In March, Tom and Carolyn Albright got a phone call from the police. A member of their church had been sleeping in a garbage dumpster and was crushed by a compactor early one morning. He died from his injuries.
“Three hundred people turned out for his funeral, and we’re still grieving,” said Tom Albright.
The man who died had been one of the most fervent members of Ripple Church in Allentown, Pa. He lived under a bridge and struggled with addiction. He was affectionately called “Tony the Evangelist,” because he handed out the church’s business cards among his homeless friends.
“You gotta come and see,” he said of Ripple Church. And they did.
The Albrights started Ripple, a congregation in Franconia Conference of Mennonite Church USA, in Whitehall, Pa., in 2006.
After three years, they moved with their church into the heart of Allentown, a city of 118,000 residents, 42 percent Hispanic.
The urban church grew quickly. The Albrights have experienced uncertainty, conviction, joy and great challenges.
This summer, the Albrights spent a week in Harrisonburg with Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Oasis program, which offers respite and soul care for church leaders and pastors.
Spiritual camp for adults
Oasis is part of EMS’s Summer Institute of Spiritual Formation, which provides training and certification for spiritual directors.
Director Linda Alley calls both programs “a spiritual camp for adults” — especially for “pastors who need space and support in processing their work and their own spiritual direction.”
For the Albrights, Oasis was an opportunity to worship, to meet with spiritual directors, to enjoy the stimulation and engagement of classes without the obligation to meet credit requirements.
The Albrights both earned certificates of spiritual formation by attending SISF every year from 2007 to 2009. Also, both earned certificates of ministry studies in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
Experiment in ministry
Those years at the seminary, beginning in 2007, also marked a time of transformation, uprooting and calling. The SISF environment of openness and questioning helped the Albrights discern their future.
When they moved Ripple to the city, hosting weekday meetings at a community center called The Caring Place, “I felt the call,” Tom Albright said, “and Carolyn did too.”
In 2009, with the blessing of their adult children, they embarked on what was at first a Franconia Conference-related ministry. After multiple moves, Ripple lives comfortably at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in the downtown area.
Five pastors, all bivocational, work with Ripple’s congregation of more than 100: Carolyn Albright, a bilingual fourth-grade teacher; Tom Albright, a career counselor for special-needs youth at Freedom High School; Angela Moyer, an occupational therapist; Danilo Sanchez, who also works for Mennonite Central Committee; and Ben Walter, a Biblical Theological Institute graduate who also paints houses.
Tables, circles, sidewalk
Tom Albright calls Ripple a restorative church that measures success by relationships and ripples. “How are relationships forming, and how is that spreading out into the community?” he said. “It’s a whole different way of living, working and worshiping.”
The church meets in three smaller groups — an idea that developed because of lack of space but eventually has become a much-beloved format.
The Church of the Tables, the Church of the Circles and the Church of the Sidewalk each has its own unique feel. Worship services begin with a simple and short message and then move into discussion.
The Church of the Sidewalk, held on the steps in a semi-covered porch, was immediately popular with smokers and people who wanted to bring their dogs.
Hosting worship here provided a welcoming place because, as Tom Albright said, “the doors of church are incredibly hard to get people through.”
During their week of Oasis, the Albrights enjoyed bike rides in the country, daily worship at Martin Chapel, visits and dinner with friends and mentoring by spiritual directors.
Carolyn Albright took a class in sustaining practices in worship “because we are meeting so many different needs,” she said. The church ministers to many on the margins, such as the homeless, non-native speakers, people struggling with addiction and single parents.
The Albrights returned to Allentown refreshed and thankful.
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