Can you renew a church with food? It certainly doesn’t hurt. As you may remember from Sunday School, when Jesus said to his disciple Simon, “feed my sheep,” it could be taken two ways. In my experience, the best churches seem to take both meanings seriously. I’ve joked with Presbyterian friends about their denomination’s love of pot-lucks and church dinners, but at First Presbyterian they really do seem to be serious about feeding their flock.
Similarly, the Orthodox Church in Lovejoy that was the site of Sunday’s Buffalo Mass Mob shares a meal with the community every single week after liturgy. Amy Betros of St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, which I wrote about here, once told me, “nothing happens here without food.” And the Latin Mass practitioners at St. Anthony’s have a coffee hour every Sunday with just the yummiest homemade pastries.
Unexpectedly, this became something of a theme last Sunday. After the Mass Mob, I dashed from Lovejoy back to my own neighborhood for First Presbyterian‘s community hot-dog picnic. I’d gotten an invite from the church’s business manager, Christina Banas.
I arrived to find fellow urbanist Chuck Banas, Christina’s husband, manning the grill, and looking the part of chef. He was cooking up Sahlen’s, Nathan’s, and turkey dogs, in addition to bean burgers, the veggie option.
But before I could dig into my first dog (Sahlen’s, of course), set in a roll and slathered with ketchup and mustard (of course), some unusual movement caught my eye. Out at Symphony Circle was what appeared, from a distance at least, to be a giant hot dog. Perhaps after running around the city all morning, I was so hungry that I was hallucinating? I had to get a closer look. Fortunately, hot dogs are highly portable. I took the dog for a walk.
And lo and behold, at the circle there was indeed a giant hot dog, waving a “Free Hot Dogs!” sign to passing cars. Wearing the hot dog costume was none other than Chris Hawley of the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, a mutual friend of Chuck and Christina and I. Somehow Christina had roped him into this – church business managers have a gift for volunteering people – buying the costume especially for the occasion.
I joked with Chris that he looked like a stunt from a Michael Moore film, but as I watched I was impressed by the positive reactions from drivers passing by. Figuring he could use some help, I took up position on the circle opposite and held up my hot dog as if I were about to bite into the tastiest thing ever, so everyone driving by could see. And they did.
It was warm enough that people had their windows down, and there is no driving fast through a traffic circle, so in some ways it was almost a dialog between hot dog hawkers and drivers. One driver said she was going home to get her kids and bring them back. Another asked if we had wings. Some gave funny looks, some thumbs up. Some took pictures, so you may have already seen this on social media. Chris said about two of three reactions he got were positive. Not a bad response rate.
Chopin looked on, bemused. Perhaps he was holding out for a Polish sausage.
The urbanist in me was fascinated to observe how, even in just the short time I was there, I saw several cars that went through the circle multiple times. What was up with that? Symphony Circle is at the junction of two Olmsted parkways – were some people out for Sunday drives on the parkways? That was once common in Buffalo but fell out of favor over a half century ago. Or were they just coming back to confirm that yes, there was indeed a giant hot dog, and they hadn’t just imagined it?
The positive reaction to even this small amount of activity at the circle reinforced my thinking that we could be a lot more active and creative in how we use our Olmstedian circles. What if it wasn’t just a few crazy urbanists on a mission from God, but a regular occurrence to see activities and events – “programming” – happening at the major circles? Why should Bidwell and Elmwood be the only part of the parkways seeing regular active use? Especially so at Symphony Circle, with neighboring institutions including Kleinhans, Grover Cleveland High School, and Karpeles nearby that could find ways to use the space? The same for Ferry Circle, when the arts center opens.
Aside from those urbanism thinks, the best message from Sunday is that First Presbyterian is alive and kicking. Just a half-decade ago, the church was in such financial straits as a result of the recession and looming repair needs that all options were on the table, including a merger that could have resulted in the congregation leaving the building. Rev. Philip Gittings, a Pennsylvania minister with a reputation for turning around struggling churches, stepped in to help the church – one last project before a long-desired retirement. As I wrote in the January Buffalo Spree, Rev. Phil stayed longer than he planned, but was instrumental in putting the church on a sound footing before passing away last year. He was beloved by the church and those of us in the community who were fortunate to get to know him.
Since then, Interim Minister Rev. Elena Delgado has been helping the congregation work through the loss of Rev. Phil and get ready for what’s next. As this recent Buffalo News article relates, Rev. Elena has a knack for helping churches that are between permanent ministers. The church is now close to hiring (“calling,” as the Presbyterians say) their first permanent minister in over a half decade. A candidate will be visiting to preach a sermon early next month.
Work on re-pointing the tower, at which point the metal anchors can be removed, will begin next year.
First Presbyterian, moving past a difficult chapter of focusing on survival and building repairs, has been finding its way back to re-engaging with the community, and returning to a focus on ministry. That was the point to which Rev. Phil wanted to bring the church, and he was always looking to try new things.
What happened on Sunday definitely qualified as trying something new to reach out to the community.
I think Rev. Phil would have said, “hot dog!”