Riding with the Wind: A Fresh Start for St. George's Macomb

April 09, 2014

After almost five years marked by uncertainty and the physical and emotional loss that occurs when a congregation splits apart, members of St. George’s Episcopal Church, Macomb, feel a new wind blowing.

A 2014 Vitality Grant from the Diocese of Chicago has allowed them to move their services out of their rector’s home and into their own space. Generous donors have provided furniture, local artists have given or loaned gorgeous artwork, and new outreach ministries are in the works.

“We’re riding with the wind,” said the Rev. Paula Engelhorn, who has been the congregation’s rector for three years this May. “The $20,000 Vitality Grant takes a great deal of pressure off of us. We now have a space where we can grow, and all these wonderful things are happening. You can’t plan them; you just have to ride the wind. The grant has given us the space to do that. It is exciting work.”

As of January, St. George’s new home is at 321 1/2 University Drive in Macomb, near the campus of Western Illinois University. The church rents half the red brick building from Prairie Hills Resource Conservation & Development, which occupies the other half. Big signs outside proclaim “The Episcopal Church.”

Inside, the space is decorated with artwork by parishioners and well-established artists in the community. "Madonna of the Corn,” a painting donated by parishioner and artist Janice Owens, is hung across from the entrance to the church. On loan to the church are artworks by Karla Runquist—a bronze piece entitled “Follow the Carpenter” and a print entitled “Three Faces of Jesus.”

Artist Sam Parker loaned the church his “Tree of Life.”

“We have other art coming in,” Engelhorn said. “A couple in the church is bringing in primitive art from Mexico, and they are bringing in different ones every season. We have another “Tree of Life” was donated from Mexico. The artwork is just blooming.”

Other gifts to St. George’s include a table and 60 chairs donated by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, DeKalb. Hymnals and prayer books were donated by the Diocese of Chicago. Grace Church in Pontiac donated a Hammond organ and speakers. The Rev. John Crist, a retired priest in the diocese, has found someone to make an altar, which Engelhorn says could be in place by Easter.

“We started from scratch, with nothing, and look at all the wonderful things that have happened,” Engelhorn said. It stuns me how much people have given to us.

“The holy spirit has its hand in it. We just have to stand aside and let it happen. It has taught me a great deal about trusting the holy spirit. We may not have gotten what we wanted, but we got what we needed, and more.”

The University Drive location marks the first time the congregation has had its own home since 2008, when what was then the Diocese of Quincy and about 60 percent of its members broke away from the Episcopal Church and became founders of the conservative Anglican Church of North America.

Engelhorn said there were about 12 members in the congregation when she arrived. That number has grown to about 20.

“It’s slow but steady growth in a town that has never seen a woman priest,” she said. “I’m very proud of our little congregation. We live out our inclusiveness, we have gay, transgender, black, white. We accept all people, everyone is welcome.”

Over the years the congregation has met in local Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.

“Most recently, before we received the Vitality Grant, we were meeting in my house because we didn’t have enough money to rent our own space, and we ended at my house for a year because I didn’t know what else to do, and it seemed to me that the important thing was to keep us together,” Engelhorn said.

Despite their small numbers, they have active outreach ministries. They are one of the parishes contributing to the Loaves and Fishes food pantry, which serves families in McDonough County, and they also volunteer at the Soup and More monthly dinners. Engelhorn said the congregation gives away hundreds of children’s books every year for summer reading programs, and last year the congregation gave a graduate student almost $800 in scholarship funds.

A Commitment to Outreach

Back in the fall, when asked about her congregation’s participation in the diocese’s Thrive program for congregational vitality, Engelhorn said, “We've been in litigation over our church building for almost five years now, and the Thrive team has helped us renew our commitment to a welcoming and meaningful Episcopal Church experience with or without a church building.”

But now, with a building of their own, Engelhorn sees many more opportunities.

“I feel like when we were in my house we were thriving, but we were also treading water. Now, we will be able to swim.”

Engelhorn is practically bubbling with ideas. She plans to start a campus ministry at the nearby university, maybe offering Blessings to Go in a format similar to the Ashes to Go programs that have spread across the country on Ash Wednesday. She’d like to have a café in the church building where students can come for coffee and conversation. At the end of April, the St. George’s congregation plans to offer a blessing of the animals as part of the university’s celebration of Earth Day.

“A lot is happening very quickly,” she said. “I’m trying to move where the energy is flowing. When it moves, I want to move with it.”

Moved by the Spirit

Engelhorn’s move into the ministry, which happened later in life, was not something she anticipated. “Not in my wildest dreams, ” she said, did she think she would become a priest. “I avoided answering this call as long as I could. I was a registered art therapist.”

She’s definitely not in it for the money.

“I don’t have a salary; I have a small house stipend. That’s all I have. This is a work of love. And my husband, John, is every bit as dedicated as I am. He is the treasurer of the church, and we’re very involved in the community.”

Engelhorn received her BA from California State University, Long Beach, her MA in psychology from California State, Sonoma, and her MDiv from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. She taught high school for seven years and taught graduate art therapy students at several universities, including the University of California, Santa Cruz; California State University, Sonoma; and George Washington University in Washington D.C. She also has led workshops in sacred art and Native American traditions.

Reflecting on all that has transpired over the last several years, Engelhorn said the experience of being locked out of their former church has had some positive consequences on the St. George’s congregation.

“You know when you’re locked out of a church—they actually changed the locks— it does give you an incentive to make it. It gets you right down to the bone. We have a strong drive to keep the Episcopal Church alive in this part of the country,” she said.

“I’ve had a core group of wonderful people who, over the years, have moved from the thought that the church is the building to the realization that the church is not the building; they know they are the church.”