St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church

I am thrilled to tell you that St. Verena Coptic Church will begin meeting at Redeemer's facility on January 13th. 

That sentence requires some explanations, and some thoughts on hospitality. First, the explanations.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the form of Christianity practiced primarily in Egypt and Ethiopia. The Copts trace their spiritual ancestry to Acts chapter 8, in which the Ethiopian Eunuch is converted to Christ. It is said that he brought his new faith to the Nile River Valley, and Coptic Christianity began. Today, the Coptic Church is the primary expression of Christianity in northeastern Africa.

There are presently about 20,000 Egyptians living in the Nashville area. A great number of these are Coptic Christians, and they attend seven congregations in the are. Copts worship in Arabic; however, their bishop has concluded that Nashville needs an English-speaking congregation. So, he dispatched Father Theodore to our city, and a new church plant is underway. 

After looking for a place to meet for about six months, Father Theodore and I connected recently. I was thrilled with the idea of offering him space of their church plant to worship. After dialog with the Elders and Staff, and after forming a committee to guide the process (under the direction of Fr. Kenny), St. Verena will begin to worship here in mid-January.

What does this mean for us? Primarily, we will need to give them access to the sanctuary on Friday night and Saturday morning until about noon. Other parts of the facility are still open for our use (so any 12-step meeting won't be moved). If you typically do your work on altar guild, flower guild, music, etc. during that time, you'll need to rearrange things a bit. Also, we'll have to keep this in mind when we schedule weddings. Otherwise, that time period is pretty quiet around here. Fr. Theodore is also aware that something might come up that would cause them to have to bump their time a bit on a particular weekend, though we'll work hard to avoid that.

We expect some extra strain on our facility, and I'm sure that there will be some unintended consequences. We'll be maintaining open communication, and adjusting things as we go. We'll have a period of trying things out, and then determine how to move forward in the future.

So, why are we doing this? Well, it isn't for money. They will have some costs associated with cleaning, sound, etc. But we aren't charging them for the facility. So, why? Because of Christian Hospitality. 

An Oral History of Church of the Redeemer and Christian Hospitality 

This is an edited version of a letter I wrote to our Staff and Elders a few weeks ago. We discussed the Coptic Church at an Elders' meeting, and your leaders were 100% gracious. I decided it would be helpful to write to them, letting them know my thoughts on how Redeemer has been both giver and receiver of Christian hospitality. 

I’m grateful for the discussion we had last night about the Coptic church plant. I’m especially thankful that the discussion wasn’t about IF we should do it, but HOW. That is a mark of our generosity as a congregation. Many churches wouldn’t have even considered it, and those who did would have gone back and forth for months, ensuring that it would never really happen. I have to say that I’m proud of us.

The discussion made me think about our culture as a church, and reminded me that not everyone has been here since “the beginning,” a mere 12.5 years ago. I woke up this morning at 5:00 a.m., filled with emotion about our culture, and wanting to make sure that the best of who we are is preserved as we move forward. And that’s why I’m writing today, to preserve a little institutional memory.

Before Redeemer was a church, when we were just an idea, I met with Tim Woodroof, the then-pastor of Otter Creek Church of Christ. Troy Smith, who grew up in that church, introduced us. We had breakfast at the Puffy Muffin; Troy, Tim, and me. We talked about a lot of things, but eventually talked about our space-needs. Tim offered to host us on Sunday evenings at Otter Creek. He also told us that he would not charge us rent, though there would be a cleaning fee. He was warm and welcoming.

At our first service, many folks from Otter Creek showed up. Several continued to visit throughout our time there. When we finally left, about a year later, I was asked to come on Sunday morning and give them the Benediction. I still get stopped in public places by people who were there that day, people for whom that blessing was profoundly moving. What to me felt like normal liturgy, for them felt like a move of the Father.

We met at 5:00 p.m. on Sundays. After service, we often had dinner in their fellowship hall. We used their childcare areas, too. We had special services there as well, like Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday. 

There were some odd moments. Sometimes, we had to move to other service times, once with only a few hours of notice. One Sunday, the “stage” was decorated to look like ancient Egypt. The year we celebrated the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, they had an incredibly loud square-dance event going on in their fellowship hall. Teenagers in odd Western costumes kept poking their heads in to watch us. You can’t make this stuff up. 

The people of Otter Creek were amazing to us. So kind, so helpful, so welcoming and loving. If something went wrong, like the time our babysitters did nothing to clean up the childcare space, I would just get a polite e-mail or phone call. We would take care of it immediately.

We left Otter Creek because we wanted to find a Sunday morning worship space. While we were looking, we were pointed toward this building on Caldwell Lane. The negotiations for buying the property were great. The price was amazing, far less than they could have demanded if they had sold the land to housing developers. However, we did have to negotiate a time of overlap. We ended up sharing this space with Brookhaven Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the previous occupants, for several weeks. We all got another chance to practice hospitality. 

Soon after moving onto Caldwell Lane, we had the opportunity to host a new church plant. Steve Fry was leaving Belmont Church, and was starting his own congregation. We invited them to meet here, which they did, on Sunday evenings for about a year. They took over the sanctuary, for sure. A huge video screen came in, and you could clearly hear the praise music from the street. Sometimes the bathrooms got overloaded, and sometimes our children’s stuff got moved around. But it was a blessing to them, and to us. They were grateful, and we offered our space at no rent. We felt like we should love our neighbors as we had been loved.

Since that church left, we have hosted two others. Each of them were smaller, met on Sunday evenings, typically in the chapel, though sometimes in the living room. They both left not long after they got big enough to meet in the sanctuary. 

Besides churches, we also host other groups. Homeless men with Room in the Inn, small Christian concerts, Hutchmoot, 12-step groups, parties, fund-raisers, Anglican meetings, book-clubs, voting booths, and even an occasional youth group traveling through town have all received our hospitality. 

Starting a new church is hard, or at least there are hard things about it. One of the hardest is finding a space that will work. Some churches are happy to meet in an unused movie theater or in a hotel conference room. But for some of us who are more embodied, a sense of place is quite important. Those of us who were here “in the beginning” know this well, which is why we’ve historically been as generous as we could be with others in the same position.

God has richly blessed us. Our facility is amazing. We’ve worked hard to make it this way, to be sure. But God has been awesome. We have this place debt free, and are doing very well in both giving and attendance. I feel like a key way we show our gratitude to the Lord, and a key way we maintain our character as an institution, is to pass love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and to lay down our lives for fellow believers. 

When the Coptic church meets here, there will be struggles. They will break something. They will leave something dirty. Something might event get stolen, or at least lost. We’ll probably have to move them around a couple of times. Feelings will get hurt. That’s what happens. But what an opportunity we have! To engage in partnership with fellow believers from a different culture, to offer a home to the “homeless,” to love others in Jesus name. I’m thrilled!

Church of the Redeemer is such a great community. I’m honored to be part, and I’m so thankful that you all are so generous. Thank you.

Blessings to you, and blessings to our Coptic brothers and sisters in Christ.