Come one, Come All

05.08.14

Opening Up the Church

Reverend Winnie Varghese revitalizes a historic New York East Village church by taking risks and representing the community.

Reverend Winnie Varghese’s diverse Manhattan church is a stark affront to the old adage that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. The congregation has tripled since she arrived five years ago. What’s her message? Salvation is corporate, not individual. Evangelicals have got it wrong. The church is insecure. It’s time to stop either deifying or criminalizing the poor, and get on their side. 

Reverend Varghese’s office is more like an attic-treehouse, accessible only by a narrow spiral staircase. Inside, a waxed plastic bag printed with President Obama’s profile rests atop a pile of books and papers. Congregants call her, simply, Winnie; she has little of the slicked-back, camera-readiness of many charismatic preachers. “I’m not much of a believer in anything,” she tells me, eating a SunChip.

And yet Varghese is the head reverend at the storied St. Mark's Church-In-The-Bowery—New York City’s oldest site of continuous religious practice. Its steeple rises at the intersection of East 10th Street and Second Avenue in the East Village, declaring itself as a neighborhood meeting place. The church has a history of coziness with establishment figures and hellions alike. A vice president is buried in the graveyard and Patti Smith launched her career with a poetry reading in the backroom. 

Despite its rich history, when Varghese came to the space in 2009 there were only 30 people showing up to Sunday morning services. She was (and remains) the only clergical staff member. In the past five years, she’s filled the sanctum’s metal chairs; worshippers often end up sitting on the risers. In Varghese’s estimation, St. Mark’s revitalized itself by “taking risks because we didn’t have anyone to lose.” One of these risks was being honest about who they were.

“St. Mark’s is a church that looks like the city,” she says. “Our folks don’t mind if someone who lives in a group home goes traipsing through the service with 25 keys around their neck. People come off the street, they come in from Wall Street wearing blazers, we have artists and writers and teachers. You don’t know when you’re talking to someone who they are and what they do.” 

A Sunday congregation invariably attracts folks who are Latino, black, white, able-bodied, living with impairments, young, old, upper and working class. 

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Meghan Hickey

Varghese, 41, was born in Dallas, Texas and soon after moved to her parents’ native Kerala, India. When she was 4, the family moved back to Texas for good, where she forgot Malayam and picked up perfect English. She remembers sitting down with her dad as a teenager and saying “I don’t know what it means to say I believe. I don’t think I believe.” He responded that he respected her and took her very seriously, but just the same the bishop would be coming from India next week to do her confirmation. A required college class called “Women in the Hebrew Scripture” changed her course. For the first time, Varghese saw the message of human dignity and hope in the Bible. She went on to study at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary, working as a chaplain at UCLA and Columbia University after graduation. After seven years at Columbia, she applied to work as the head reverend at St. Mark’s, which was in a transitional period. It was the culmination of a dream she didn’t know she could have in 1993, when she started the ordination process.

At that time, “the bishop and the deployment officer in Los Angeles literally couldn’t imagine who would deal with me as a priest,” she says. “If I had just been a woman or just Indian or just gay, I could have found something. But it was complicated when it was altogether.” As the HIV/AIDs epidemic became increasingly developed and fatal, gay priests were beginning to come out across the country. And while Varghese had imagined her life in the church would necessarily be as an academic or lifelong chaplain, opportunities started opening up. After Priest Gene Robinson, an out gay man, was consecrated as a bishop in 2003, it took her a few years to understand that she could actually apply for a job like the opening at St. Mark’s. When she started there, what would have been an impossible job for her six years earlier was now considered not a good-enough job.

“Those people who are worried that you allow a gay bishop in and it changes everything—they’re right. It changes everything,” she says. 

Since arriving at St. Mark’s, Varghese has been named the Social Concerns chair of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Their work includes prison ministries, thinking through reparations from slavery, working to end sex trafficking and promoting LGBT rights. This faith-in-action focus is an enormous part of what she thinks it means to be a modern Christian. “People seem to think that if they can out-argue their Facebook buddy, then it has something to do with a guy sitting on a bench outside of St. Mark’s. And it doesn’t,” Varghese says. 

She says faith is an often-overstated piece of Christianity. “The idea of the story of the life of Jesus really works for me. The idea that there are riches in that story to be plumbed for the rest of my life really works for me. That we would try to organize communities around that really works for me. But I don’t know that I know anything more than that,” she says. 

There is ample work to be done in the East Village, where she often finds drug needles and tiny pink spoons from a neighboring frozen yogurt shop littering the front yard. The church is more than her office; it’s her home. Varghese and her partner—a political crisis manager—and their two children recently moved to the rectory next door. This all-in approach comes naturally to Varghese; she is present as both a confidant and an orator. Her incisive sermons are delivered from the St. Mark’s circular altar, completely from memory. With trepidation, she stopped preaching from a text a few years ago after realizing it broke the dynamic between preacher and congregant in an open space. Chris Davis, a St. Mark’s member, says that there is “something innate” about her preaching style. “Winnie’s power as a speaker comes from her ability to speak deep truths about the human condition and the need for justice in the world with such a clear and passionate conviction that it makes her authority apparent to anyone who is listening.”

St. Mark’s presents an alternate model to the “mega church” growth strategy she sees many Evangelicals employing. “People are told to be really uniform, to look for people who are like each other because that’s how you create community, to look for people who can pay, to look for young people, to look for professional people and to not talk about difficult things. I’d say that all those things are wrong. And it’s not working.” St. Mark’s has grown by creating a space for debate and doubt; all who attend are encouraged to take communion, regardless of their affiliation, and to speak openly about their lives. “The Evangelical movement would say that you go to the margins and make those people Christian, but that’s not what Jesus ever did. They get the first part right—he did go there. But what the Jewish tradition and our tradition teaches is that you go to the marginal place and see how those folks are doing. If they are cared for, then yes, you are worshipping properly. Salvation is corporate, not individual. This is God’s universe. He’s not interested in his little bundle.”

For as much damage as intolerant Christians have done to the Church in the past, Varghese sees a hopeful future. The new pope, she says, “has made concrete what it means to be on the side of the poor.” St. Mark’s is spreading the work they do, from running a food pantry to working with churches in other countries where LGBT individuals live under even greater threat of violence. “Agnostics can draw from us a sense that there are [religious] communities who accept people for who they are, that are optimistic and hopeful about our ability to make good in the world. The idea of human flourishing is supported here,” she says.