Jim Hamilton, pastor of Church on the Square, a new worship and “discourse” venture in Canton’s O’Donnell Square, says that he is seeking a special kind of person for the church.
“The people who say, ‘I don’t go to church,’ or ‘I thought church wasn’t for me,’” commented Hamilton. “That’s the person I want.” Hamilton, who has been living in Baltimore for several months but last week brought his wife and son to live in Charm City permanently, has moved from Detroit to start a faith community with an emphasis on community.
“Instead of embracing a more traditional model of church, it’s a more engaged, more community model,” Hamilton said, describing his goal for 1025 S. Potomac St., which until the beginning of this summer was Messiah Lutheran Church, which for 125 years was itself intimately involved with the community.
Though he is an Episcopal priest and the Church on the Square is a joint venture between the leadership of the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, Hamilton emphasizes that at this point, he’s not sure what services will be like.
“It’s not about finding people who are going to like my worship style, because, frankly, I don’t know what that will be yet,” he said.
Most important at this point, Hamilton says, is “just listening.”
He’s been going to bars, local shops and business—usually wearing his priest’s collar—and having conversations with community members about “what they value; what’s working in the community; what’s not working.”
Hamilton said that he was in the new Target at Canton Crossing when a woman came up to him, apparently prompted by the sight of his collar, and said, “I heard there’s going to be a new church in Canton; I heard it was going to be a different kind of church.”
Hamilton left Detroit with two colleagues—John Deason and John Repulski—make it happen. Deason, with a background in marketing, serves as Church on the Square’s development missionary. Repulski is in charge of music.
“It made sense to come here,” said Deason. “We kind of fell in love with the urban grittiness of Baltimore that we liked about Detroit.”
However, he said, referencing Detroit’s abundance of vacant homes and entire neighborhoods, “Baltimore is far enough ahead of the curve than Detroit that you don’t have to move into a neighborhood where you’re the only person.”
Deason said that he met Hamilton in Detroit while searching for a church for himself. He walked into Hamilton’s traditional Episcopal church.
“He said, ‘I don’t think this is the place for you, but I’d like to help you find the right place,’” remembered Deason.
Hamilton had been leading two congregations—the traditional one on Sunday mornings, and a more free-form assembly on Sunday evenings.
“I wanted to find a way to take the stability of my Sunday morning church and mix it with the Sunday night church,” he said.
Both Deason and Hamilton note that the Church on the Square hopes to work in unison with positive community initiatives already in progress. One of their major goals is simply making the building available for community events. Church on the Square is already the meeting place for a group of Canton runners, and hosts a yoga program on weekends. Live music and a place for families to watch football games are other possibilities, Hamilton said.
In June, Messiah Lutheran Church held its final service, and Pastor Lee Hudson formally handed the reins to Hamilton.
In an interview last month, Hudson, 67, expressed his high hopes for the new venture, and some sadness for the end of the old. He noted that his congregation had grown too small to have the critical mass necessary for growth.
“The last four years were really, really challenging and difficult,” he said, though he praised the dedication of those that remained, who he—with a bit of self-deprecating humor—dubbed the “bitter enders.”
“They get much of the credit for the good outcome [of the transition],” Hudson said. “They want nothing but to see this succeed; that’s what they fought to the bitter end about.”
Both Hudson and Hamilton noted that former members of Messiah Lutheran Church are involved in the start-up of the Church on the Square.
Hamilton’s actions seem to be in sync with an observation of Hudson’s on the “business” of running a church:
“What everyone says about this business is there’s no real magic to it; it’s just building relationships with people.”
Deason said that services at Church on the Square will likely begin next month. The church is currently considering a Sunday evening service.
by Erik Zygmont