Works and Days



St. Pauls Lutheran Church: Ava Kamb, Winter Shadow 2016

It would be impossible for me to define an average day during my externship in Brooklyn, New York this past January, as every day I engaged in activities as diverse as writing liturgy to learning how to handle a cordless drill. I shadowed Ben McKelahan, a Reed alumnus who works as a Lutheran pastor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, serving both a Spanish-speaking immigrant population and Parables, a young adult artistic congregation. Part of his job involves bridging the two communities (who share the space of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church) in a neighborhood that is undergoing gentrification.

This externship gave me the opportunity to develop my understanding of religion in both an academic and a personal sense. At the start, I found church life foreign and abstract, as I did not grow up religious and my understanding of Lutheranism came from a movie and a couple of texts I read before flying to New York. But throughout the week I was able to learn quickly through lengthy conversations with Ben and through working with the various communities that make up the church in Brooklyn. While studying the bible with Lutheran pastors, shaking maracas at a Parables spiritual dance party, and sharing chocolate de maíz with immigrants from the Dominican Republic as they described their favorite psalms, I began to understand what it means to be part of the Lutheran church community, and each day I was struck by the warmth and energy of everyone with whom I interacted. I was curious to see how God becomes present in people’s day-to-day lives, and I think I saw it best in the relationships individuals shared with one another.

Although my future career plans are still hazy at this point, this shadow opportunity unequivocally made me a better student of religion. I have always loved traveling internationally because it gives me the opportunity to grow, explore, and challenge myself in new situations and cultures, and this trip reminded me that I can have these same experiences in my own backyard (so to speak) if I am willing to step outside of my comfort zone. I want to extend a huge thank-you to Ben for allowing me to shadow him and putting up with my endless questions, to Hannah for offering me a bed in her apartment, and to the other communities I spent time with, who welcomed me into their conversations, homes, and lives however briefly – I am very grateful. 

St. Paul's and the Church of the Parables, Reed Winter Externship Program, Meredith Mathis

Meredith Mathis participated in a Reed Winter Externship, contributing to community services and support at St. Paul's and the Church of the Parables with Ben McKelahan.

The activities I did varied a good deal from day to day. One day I went to a clergy bible study and got a tour of a Senior Center at the St. James Matthew Emmanuel Lutheran Church, and went to a Mission Developer’s lunch (where pastors talked about their experiences and difficulties and offered each other support). Another day I met with a pastor and talked about the process of establishing a homeless respite bed program run by the Lutheran Church of the Messiah, met with the non-profit El Puente, and went to a church council meeting. I also got to sit in on meetings about planning future camp activities, walk around the neighborhood St. Paul’s is located in and check in with community members, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a number of pastors and seminary students, work on an art project for an upcoming three kings celebration/community event, and attend Sunday service, a Three Kings party and parables.

One of the most engaging parts of this experience was discussing the respite bed program being developed (mentioned above). This respite bed program was intended to house homeless community members overnight in the church, but certain community members were against the program, and the church building had to be renovated before the city would let it run.  A lot of what I got out of that experience is that bureaucracy and community disagreement will come up regardless of how good or necessary a program is. But for one, it’s good to realize that if I’m going to do community work of any kind, the city will always have jurisdiction over the physical spaces I’m trying to cultivate into community spaces or convert in times of crisis (this bed program was a response to crises of homeless individuals’ lives being put in danger because of the cold in New York), and there is no forcing a sense of urgency in other people even if their position on an issue is inflicting direct harm onto others. However, the conflicts that were being dealt with didn’t stop efforts to organize and make changes needed to get the program running eventually.