Go Tell It On The Mountain: A Messy Church

Go Tell It On The Mountain: A Messy Church

In another episode of Go Tell It On The Mountain, The Rev. Elizabeth Chandler Felts tells Executive Conference Minister the Rev. Darrell Goodwin that the search committee that called her to serve described their church - Beneficent Congregational Church UCC, in Providence, RI - as a "messy downtown church."

"I said: that's the church for me. I'm ready for messy," said Rev. Felts, who had served six other churches and as a hospice chaplain in various parts of the country prior to coming to Providence over three years ago.

"Beneficent is a bit of an anomaly in New England," she said. "It's robustly multiracial. It is aggressively open and affirming. It has a huge spectrum, theologically, everything from confirmed atheists to old line liberals to Pentecostals to people who also practice Judaism and ancestor worship and Rastafarianism and Buddhism and other things. It's a great range of ages. And it also has a huge socioeconomic spectrum. There are folks who are very comfortable financially, but there are others who are just patching it together with whatever they can - section eight, SNAP, food, banks, kindness of strangers. And then there's everything in between."

"We have more than our share of dreamers and idealists, artistic people, gifted people, creative spirits, outside the box thinkers, misfits, and scoundrels," she said. "And of course, it's Rhode Island, which means people like to find their own way to do things. They don't always follow the bylaws. It's a restless, passionate bunch of people with really strong opinions and very high ideals. And they are always on an urgent mission. They have really done the work for 278 years. It's just an amazing, energetic, wonderful place to be."

"The name 'beneficent' - it means generous in doing good and that's the sole reason they exist," she said. "I'm so excited about how they've really lived into that mission all the way along."

Rev. Felts said the church gives out a lot of scholarships for students at colleges and vocational and technical schools, and the church houses a music school that gives free music lessons to primary and secondary school students. The church also does a lot of crowd funding for nonprofits. Rev. Felts said the church also is in the midst of replacing their failing organ pipes with pipes donated by a closing church in Maine, and they are working to remodel their kitchen.

"Last year we got a couple of generous bequests from the estates of people who admired Beneficent, and when the church council was pondering what to do with that money, I said: why don't you form a working group that is only millennials and gen Z folks and let them decide what to do with the money?  And they were immediately excited about that idea because this is how we teach people to be disciples by giving them responsibility and authority. And this is also how we get to hear their voices and find out what matters to them," she said.

Rev. Felt said a recent Providence Journal article reported that 22 percent of college students in Providence reported skipping meals because they cannot afford them. 

"Food insecurity is higher than I have ever seen it here right now, and within two blocks of us, we have two different college campuses," she said. "So I hope there's a ministry there."

The lay leaders in the church, she said, will figure that out.

Rev. Goodwin thanked Rev. Felts for raising up the importance of lay leadership empowerment, and said the Conference staff is working to develop a Lay Leadership Academy to help provide resources to those leaders who he said "are carrying so much of the justice load" and who are working to determine how their congregations can be relevant in their communities. 

"I heard you saying, and I hope that the people at Beneficent hear you, championing the empowerment of the laity. And really not just championing it, but it also sounds like it's really valuable to you to hear the perspective and the wisdom of the table. That kind of welcomes more people in and I would imagine creates buy-in for how the church moves forward," he said.

Rev. Goodwin will be preaching at Beneficent Congregational Church on Sunday, May 15, at 10 AM. The service is held both in-person and online. 

Watch the full interview here:



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Tiffany Vail

Tiffany Vail is the Director of Media & Communications for the Southern New England Conference.

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