Outreach at St. George’s

By Kathryn Willis
Kathryn Willis

On a cold February night in 1985, a homeless man had curled up to sleep in the entrance foyer of Faulkner Hall. Next morning, at a gray-dawn 7 A.M., a small band of St. George men, members of the Brotherhood of St. Andrews, discovered the would-be guest “trying to play the piano in Faulkner Hall but still a little drunk.” Charles Sydnor recalled listening to “Roger’s story of being a Vietnam vet who had lost his way, and stories of others on the street.”

The Brotherhood’s Fritz Leedy, a St. Georgian and a realtor, took on the implicit charge that resulted from this “drunken angel” on the doorstep whom, they all agreed, had “brought us the message of the plight of the homeless.” The result was the formation of a non-profit dedicated to responding to that message. Rappahannock Refuge eventually acquired a home on Lafayette Boulevard, which opened its doors to 14 residents on January 5 1987, was christened “Hope House,” yet only just scratched the proverbial surface of fulfilling the enormous demand for services.

Soon, recalled Sydnor, “we realized not only our need to expand but the need for alternatives, as homeless single persons were not always a good mix with the families and children of  Hope House.” St. George’s associate rector, the Rev. Judy Fleming, rallied area churches to staff overnight shelters in church basements for supper, sleep, and breakfast, aided by Ed Jones and others of our congregation. 

Another St. Georgean passionate for social justice, Thurman Brisben, fired the effort to house the single homeless, first at the vacant Maury School, and soon was joined by Barbara Gear of Fredericksburg United Methodist. Shortly thereafter, an Essex Street property was repurposed as “the house that love built,” in Gear’s words. On Thurman Brisben’s passing, the home was named in her honor.

Both Hope House and the Thurman Brisben Center soon took on their own identity, expanded their mission, and today still thrive; it was St. George’s that early identified the field that needed tending, and sewed the mustard seed.

As Charles Sydnor observed, there is a “biblical mandate for social justice.” He pointed to Matthew 25, when Christ says that in caring for the least of these ill and hungry souls, we are caring for him. Further, in our baptismal covenant, we answer “yes” to the pledge to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” This is our Christ-centered mandate. It speaks to the heart of the social gospel; and, from its earliest years, to the heart of St. George’s.

The ministry of Edward McGuire, who at age 20 in 1813, entered the ministry when St. George’s was, “in a state of complete prostration” and much “discouraged.” as noted in the history of St George’s by Carroll Quenzel. With fewer than a dozen members, St. George’s needed “zeal and energy,” which McGuire brought in abundance. That energy focused on the condition of the poor, and rallied St. Georgeans to service. In the winter of 1817, he noted in his journal, “provisions scarce and prices very high,” and “little can be done at this time by the indigent to provide for themselves the necessities and comforts of life.” By 1817, McGuire was a part of the Benevolent Society, joining with its members to seek contributions by direct appeal to individuals.

Another of McGuire’s outreach efforts included education. He established the area’s first Sunday School in 1816, educating the poor in “useful knowledge” and “moral and genuine piety” (a broader mandate than in our times). One department focused on the 3R’s and the other on scripture, psalms and hymns, according to Ben Hick’s article on McGuire (“Plaques of the Church, Part 6”). In 1823, Faulkner Hall was built for this purposeful education. McGuire noted in 1846 that two of five Sunday Schools were composed of 80 “domestic servants” (slaves) “often taught by the rector.” Beyond the congregation, McGuire founded, in 1816, a Female Academy for “young ladies” in those “branches of science which constitute a liberal and polite education,” and offered to provide boarding, according to Hicks’ research. McGuire also served as a trustee of the Female Charity School and, in 1823, made appeals for their “impoverished state of the funds.”

In 1905, the Junior Brotherhood of St. Andrew, a group of about 20 young St. Georgeans who met on Friday night with the mission to “bring men to church,” worshipped together, and invited other young men (and travelers) to come to St. George’s services. Four or five of these fellows were also active in The City Mission. Founded by St. George’s rector Rev. W.D. Smith in concert with Mrs. J. B. Ficklen in 1901, its mission was “to look after the needy,” which included gathering donations of clothing and giving them away—an early version of School Dressing Days and Goodwill combined, also with roots in St. George’s answer to community needs.

This reflection reveals an emerging pattern: as a downtown anchor church with a vision for social ministry, St. George’s has, from its earliest years, seen a human need and shaped Christ-centered responses, which helped to launch community-based efforts that eventually evoked early leadership and each initiative formed a life of its own.

Presently, St. George’s continues its role, in response to Christ’s call, as a groundbreaker and an agent for convening other like-minded people, congregations, and organizations. St. George’s was early involved in School Dressing Days, Micah Ministries, Community Dinners, the Moss Free Clinic), FredCamp, and most recently, The Table.  Finally, through our preschool, we are addressing early childhood education for underserved children.

St. Georgeans have always led the way; they have been joined by hundreds of others, whose spiritual response to human need continues to be expressed in tangible, sustained actions improving the greater Fredericksburg community.

Outreach is not solely dependent on hands and heart. We also financially support the important work of dozens of organizations: Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Hospice Support Care, Habitat for Humanity, Moss Free Clinic, Community Dinners, Food Bank, Food Pantry, Rappahannock Council Against Domestic Violence (Empowerhouse), Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault, Refugee Care, and several others. And there is the lovely, full-of-grace tradition of giving away our Easter and Christmas offerings.

As The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori noted in our Adult Forum during her Lenten visit this spring, congregations that pursue highly engaged involvement in answering human needs are congregations that grow and thrive. We find ourselves giving ourselves away in service to others. This is the heartbeat that pulses through the life force of our parish. This outreach often goes hand in hand with advocacy for social justice. We recently focused on the role of St. George’s in civil rights and racial equality during the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s, with our Adult Forum programs and with the Lenten Forgiveness and Reconciliation events led by Bishop Katharine.

An echo in that advocacy is sounding with the congregation’s clear support of same-sex (GLBT) equality in both religious and civic life, which has early roots in both Tom Faulkner’s and Charles Sydnor’s ministries, and continued momentum under that of Jim Dannals. Another social action group is being born: Girls In Real Life (GIRL), which addresses women’s education, trafficking, and related issues.

Along with social change, another factor that shapes St. George’s response is economic. While homelessness was present long before the continuing Great Recession, our contemporary times pose a new layer of need with the working poor. As Ben Hick observes, during the ‘90s, our region’s population rapidly increased, and folks who came to our area were “displaced from their original roots, and experienced both sociological and economic dislocation.” They constituted a kind of “exodus to a promised land” of economic hope, which, for many during the boom, was fulfilled.

Yet, when the economic downturn occurred, as Ben Hicks further notes, the working class found itself with no extended local family and a weak social network. Their financial cushions long since depleted, their homes in foreclosure, and their medical bills mounting, they are increasingly obliged to spend resources on medications and other essential services, to the exclusion of food.  As a result, the Food Bank, our own The Table, and other programs address food shortages not with transients but with permanent residents whose low-paying jobs do not stretch to cover nutritional needs—especially fresh, healthy choices rather than salt/sugar/fat options, which often compound health challenges.

Yet it is not unique, in the long road traveled for centuries by St. Georgeans. From female education and service to the poor, to homelessness, medical services, civil rights, GLBT equality, hunger, and women’s advocacy, St. George’s often leads the forefront in answering need—even when the response is socially uncomfortable.  At St. George’s there is empowerment that flows from our love of God. We thank God for the continued means and the congregation’s will to answer Christ’s call.