Hartford Pew Review: Asylum Hill Congregational Church
By Kerri Provost
July 13, 2011
Live jazz and cold lemonade.
On a gorgeous summer morning, offering bribes seems like the only way to encourage people to delay their picnics and beach trips by an hour or so.
Newsflash: bribery works.
Asylum Hill Congregational Church has several “Jazz Sunday” services each year, according to the Welcome Table volunteer I spoke with on a recent July morning when I happened upon one of these special services.
Kris Allen (saxophone), Joe Campolieta (trombone), Dan Campolieta (piano), Lou Bocciarelli (bass), and Charlie Dye (drums) played “Sunny Side of the Street” for the prelude, which began minutes after we were escorted by a friendly greeter to a cushioned pew of our choice. About half of the pews were occupied at this time, and people chatted quietly during this time and seemed happy to see one another; it’s hard to believe that AHCC is basically in the backyard of the Cathedral of St. Joseph, which could not feel more different.
Rev. Erica Thompson — the Associate Minister — spoke clearly, succinctly, and without pretension. During the welcome message that immediately followed the prelude, she encouraged visitors to wear name tags, visit the Welcome Table, and stay for lemonade after the service. In between Jolie Rocke Brown’s stunning rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Heaven,” an upbeat version of “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound,” and Traci Christiansen Keen’s solo of George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Rev. Thompson talked about the power of music in our lives and how it has tied in with her own faith journey. Her words were not especially ground shaking, but anyone who finds music playing an important role in her life could relate to most of the message.
At another time, she listed examples of ways that humans fall short of our potential. What stuck with me was when she said that we have “too many highways [...] too many self-help books.” This struck me because of how humans have gotten in their own way in such obvious ways here in Hartford, particularly with the development of anti-people/pro-car infrastructure during the mid-twentieth century.
There is something to be said for spending money on a good sound system. Every word, note was clear. In other venues, I have struggled in the audience with either a performer/speaker’s poor diction and/or a sound system that crackles and drops out. AHCC has money enough to maintain the building and support equipment that makes possible a morning jazz concert with some Jesus and God thrown in. Asylum Hill Congregational Church is the rain venue for the Monday Night Jazz series, which should give an indication about how well this church is equipped.
While the collection plates were passed around, the jazz band performed “Pennies from Heaven.”
And here is how good the music was — during the postlude (”What is
this Thing Called Love?” by Cole Porter), after everyone had ample time to vacate the building, about half of the congregants remained either seated or hanging around, chatting quietly. The other half, I learned, did not just jump immediately in their cars. They were mainly scattered between Drew Hall or gathered on the lawn, munching on doughnuts and drinking cup-after-cup of lemonade.
Friendly is an understatement. We were greeted by several people, all of whom seemed genuinely happy to see us. The Welcome Table offered more bribes — popcorn and stickers. Others sought us out to say “hello.” There was little racial diversity to speak of, but it would not be accurate to describe (at least on surface level) the congregation to be internally segregated — everyone seemed friendly to one another. There were a few young families, some same-sex couples, and a wide-range of ideas about what one ought to wear to worship. AHCC is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which has actually come out as endorsing same-sex marriage. There were congregants with various abilities, and AHCC seemed to make an effort to meet the needs of all. There were two sign language interpreters during the service and according to the bulletin, AHCC has an Infrared Hearing System. They also have large-print texts available, which is standard. The “Statement of Inclusiveness and Diversity” on the AHCC website states:
We welcome people of every race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, marital status, economic circumstance, and physical and mental ability into the worship, rites and sacraments, fellowship, and leadership of our church.
Translation: they do not merely tolerate. One’s identity, relationships, or abilities are not going to hinder the ways she can be active in this church.
Other efforts of inclusion appeared in the bulletin, explaining that during the benediction, people are invited to join hands with others, but “we understand for a variety of reasons, others may not be comfortable with this symbolism.” Though not written down, I wondered if the handful of sanitizer bottles I saw around the building were connected to some of the possible reasons for why people might resist the hand-holding.
I’ve heard AHCC referred to, disparagingly, as a white liberal congregation. It does appear to be that, and with many of its members driving expensive cars and wearing clothes from places more expensive than Target. But that’s so dismissive, especially when they appear to be doing more for the area than some of the neighborhood-type churches. On July 30th, they are hosting a community health fair: free screenings for breast and prostate cancer, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, depression, dental health, and more. Given the lack of access so many residents have to health care, this offers the chance for some to address issues in a non-emergency room setting. Moreover, an entire section of AHCC’s website is dedicated to volunteer opportunities, both in- and outside of the church, like rehabbing homes in Asylum Hill. Their motto is “We are a church in the heart of the city … with a heart for the city.” Because the social justice aspect exists, we really can’t just roll our eyes at them.
For those who might be interested in the music and theatrics, but not in a regular Sunday service, I suggest either seeking out one of these jazz services, or, waiting until the Boar’s Head Festival in 2012. The one we attended in January 2011 during a snow storm was worth the price of admission and very slippery walk home! For this, there are costumes, dancing, music, and live animals, like camels and geese. Not understanding the purpose of the festival does not interfere with one’s ability to enjoy it.
Stronger Points: Good musical taste, inviting building and grounds, and friendly congregants. Attempts to be inclusive. Females not relegated to KP duty. The message of the day was not impossible to wrap one’s head around; it was also positive — nobody is alone and most find themselves falling short of being their best selves…and that’s normal. Music during the “lemonade on the lawn” time. Children were well-behaved during service.
Weaker Points: Lack of bike rack. Only one worship time on Sunday mornings. Racial/ethnic demographics could better reflect the area.
Asylum Hill Congregational Church is located at 814 Asylum Avenue. They have off-street parking and are on a bus line.
Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford.
To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.