Welcome to a Church Where the Bread is Fresh, the Coffee's Hot… and the Waves are Epic
By: Sherri Gragg
Galveston is a city of beautiful old churches. Churches crowned with soaring steeples, and adorned with breathtaking stained glass and magnificent pipe organs. At first glance, Galveston Central Church is much the same.
But look deeper. This church is utterly different.
Come As You Are
Step inside the doors on a Sunday morning to find that a section of wooden pews has been replaced with sofas, loveseats and recliners. A modern worship band goes through instrument checks on a stage beneath the pipe organ. An eclectic group of worshippers including native Galvestonians, students, families, professionals, and a large number of homeless men and women greet each other over snacks and mugs of coffee.
Powerful speakers blast a Top 40 song, chosen to reflect the day’s theme. People on the street outside are drawn in through the open doors by the music and their own curiosity. Steadily, the space fills. No empty seats here. A homeless artist, Robert, moves his canvas near the stage. Today’s message is taken from Genesis chapter one. While the pastor speaks, Robert will work alongside him, painting his interpretation of the creation story.
Breathe deeply to find the sanctuary is filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Everything about this place says, “Come. You are welcome here…just as you are.” “We actually mean that,” said Rev. Michael Gienger.
A Creative Community of Radical Grace
When the four remaining members of 130-year-old Galveston UMC turned over the keys to Gienger three years ago, they did so in the hope that new life would fill their beloved church home. Gienger set out to build a new faith community with eyes firmly set on a guiding vision “to be a creative community where radical grace is both believed and practiced.” That vision has led Central Church to undertake an unusual approach to ministry. Members practice sustainable gardening to feed their hungry neighbors. They develop deep relationships with the homeless that reach far beyond a feeding or clothing outreach. “Our homeless population feels like this is their church, that they are part of the congregation,” Gienger said.
Through a partnership with St. Paul’s UMC, Central Church has formed Iconoclast, an outreach program that seeks to help at-risk students break free from the “school to prison pipeline” by helping them envision a successful future through the power of poetry.
But perhaps no ministry of Central Church is more unusual than Surfer Church. Each Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m., Gienger meets a small group of surfers on the beach to share in a devotion. Afterward, as the last rays of sunlight play across the surface of the ocean, the members of Surfer Church take to the waves.
Gienger is excited as Central Church enters its third year, but he also knows there are fresh challenges ahead. Since they have outgrown their space, the church is exploring the possibility of moving to two services and beginning a building project. Leadership is also serious about moving beyond “crisis management” with their homeless community. They want to explore ways to empower their homeless friends to achieve greater stability.
And they forever want to seize the opportunity to offer true hospitality and community to their community. Gienger knows it will rarely be easy, “Grace is always messy,” he said.
It is also beautiful. A new member, Scott, came to Central Church as a homeless alcoholic searching for grace, and he found it. After his ocean baptism last summer, he was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he wanted to give something back to his church family. “All I can do is make bread,” he said to Gienger.
“From day one, I had prayed that we would be able to have fresh baked communion bread,” Gienger said. “I wanted to the church to smell like fresh-baked bread when you walked in.”
And now, because of radical grace, it does.