Churches, like neighborhoods, are anchored
to one place. As years go by and demographics shift, it's only natural that a church adjusts to a changing environment.
So it was with St. Paul Lutheran Church, whose attendance had been slowly declining for decades: Its aging parishioners, who had mostly moved out of the Highlandtown area, saw the writing on the wall; their neighborhood church was winding down and had become disconnected from the community it served.
Highlandtown had transformed. For the church to have a future in East Baltimore, it would have to change too.
Its members knew they had two choices. Play the nostalgia card and pine for the "good old days," or reinvent the old church with Highlandtown's current inhabitants-a mix of Latinos, African-Americans, longtime residents, and younger newcomers-in mind.
The congregation chose the latter and in 2009 called Mark Parker, a born-and-raised Baltimorean, to help lead them through their ecclesiastical relaunch.
Parker, then 27, had recently graduated from the seminary and had dreamed of leading an urban church in Baltimore since he was in college. "I felt lucky to have been chosen," he says on a cloudy, cold day in Patterson Park, one of his favorite places.
"It's exactly what I wanted. You almost never get that on your first call" for an assignment to a church.
He grew up in South Baltimore, the son of urban homesteaders who lived in a Dollar House from the city in pre-gentrification Otterbein.
The Parkers were civically engaged and attended Christ Lutheran Church, a progressive congregation that runs a successful church-based shelter."Coming from that place, from Christ Lutheran," Parker says, "I knew that an urban church with a lot of energy could have a major impact on its community."
He also understood that Charm City's famous neighborhoods can be insular and segregated-and that it is easy to spend your whole life in one part of the city and never get to know people different from yourself.
So when he came on board at St. Paul Lutheran, Parker and the congregation opened up the church (renamed Breath of God Lutheran) space to the entire community.
The idea, he says, was for its multicultural, multigenerational residents to get to know one another.
"Bringing people together in community is just as holy as worship. It's reconciliation-and that's what Jesus is all about," he says.
The church certainly had the room. Its space on South Clinton Street is expansive and includes a kitchen, classrooms, a meeting area, a stage, and a gym where kids and adults play pickup basketball on Thursday evenings.
Youth mentoring is a part of the church's mission; so is community service, homeless outreach, education, and social activities for all generations to enjoy together.
Parker is arguably less focused on outward signs of religiosity than many members of the clergy: Praying, attending Sunday services, and being Lutheran are not requirements to be part of Breath of God's faith community.
He'll be the first to tell you that half his congregation had no previous connection to the Lutheran denomination. "'Lutheran' really isn't something that you can be," he says. "All of the members of our congregation are Christians, who happen to worship together in a Lutheran-flavored church."
Fundamentally, he wants the members of the church community to engage with their neighbors and serve one another. "The point of church is not 'church,'" he says. "It's about being of use to each other in this world while we are here together."
One way to be useful is opening a church preschool next year, Parker says. "It's what the children in our community need."
Parker's been the pastor at Breath of God for close to five years now and says he's game for 10 more. His wife, Christine Myers Parker, is also a pastor and has her own congregation in Edgewood, Md. The couple live in a rowhouse near Breath of God and have two young children.
Sunday attendance is up but it's not huge. "We're never gonna be a mega-church," Parker jokes. Still, the church is thriving and more connected than it's been in a long time.
Joe Burk, a congregant who lives nearby, says a quarter of the current members are original, like himself. The rest are newcomers. He credits Parker with growing the flock and making the church more relevant.
"Previous pastors were older, and the church in those days worked more inwardly. One of the first things Mark did was take off the church's dark doors and install stained-glass windows so we'd seem more welcoming. People can see the light inside now," Burk says.
Parker's also more in touch with the larger community than his predecessors were. He's a fixture at community meetings and well-known in Southeast Baltimore's nonprofit circles.
And then there's Pub Theology, a weekly religious discussion held at a local tavern. For the past couple years it's been at the Laughing Pint on Gough Street.
Parker, who often wears a clerical collar (he says it reminds other people-and himself- of his role), picks a topic in religion, politics, or current events, and about 20 people meet at the bar to discuss it.
Pub Theology mixes beer, prayer, and theological conversation. Sometimes the talks get serious, but that's kind of the point.
Parker says people have gotten it in their heads that somehow religion is not polite conversation, that it's too controversial.
"That's pretty limiting," he says. "Religion is an important topic. And why not talk about it in a bar?"
God conversations, he says, don't just happen in sacred places. God conversations take place wherever people happen to be.
to connect and talk about spiritual matters, and maybe they can't have those conversations in a church. And if a beer helps some people feel more comfortable talking, what's wrong with that?"
Parker says sometimes the best pub conversations actually happen when Pub Theology is over-when he's talking with an "eavesdropper."
"It's when I'm paying my bill and some guy comes up to me and says: 'Hey, pastor, I heard what you guys were talking about, and here's what I think. . . .
"I treasure those moments."