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“Social Ministry” and an Atmosphere of Welcome

June 24, 2016

Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, takes hospitality very seriously. “I think what we are most well-known for is being welcoming,” said Catzel Bumpus, Director of Lifelong Learning at the parish. “It’s the thing that people say the most about Presentation: that we’re welcoming of all people, no matter what their background or who they are. Everybody here is made to feel welcome. I would say it’s our biggest, strongest quality.” This sense of welcome manifests itself in a variety of ways, from the youth ministry absorbing a large number of young people from surrounding communities whose own parishes may not have active ministries for them, to the fact that Sunday Masses regularly see attendees sticking around for an hour or more, talking and socializing while children play.

This sense of community has not happened by accident, however. Church of the Presentation is always seeking new ways to create opportunities for members to come together in informal but substantial ways, forming social bonds and strengthening attendees’ sense of belonging and investment in the parish community. The parish’s “social ministries” are diverse and engaging, and always designed to be widely appealing. For instance, during the summer, Presentation hosts tailgate parties during which families can park in the church lot, use parish-provided tables and extension cords to prepare and enjoy food and drink, and listen to live music from a local band made up of parishioners. “Hundreds of people come and hang out for four hours; they talk, the kids run around and play,” Ms. Bumpus said. “It’s just a nice event where you can bring people who aren’t members of Presentation, and it’s a great experience of community.” Similarly, each Halloween the parish hosts “Trunk or Treat,” during which families park their decorated cars in the lot and costumed children trick or treat from vehicle to vehicle. Prizes are awarded for best decorations and costumes. The event is simple, inexpensive, and brief (about an hour and a half), but the impact is significant: hundreds of families attend each year. Past programs have also included campouts on the parish soccer field, sometimes featuring bonfires and singing or outdoor movies.

Though the primary goal of such gatherings is to foster a welcoming community and the formation of relationships, Church of the Presentation views them as catechetical opportunities, as well. At “Trunk or Treat,” for example, handouts are distributed with information about the theological meanings of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. Parish campouts have included evening Mass or night prayer before bed. This helps to connect the social aspect of the events to the mission of the parish and its evangelization: including liturgical elements emphasizes the purpose of the parish community and why its members gather together, said Ms. Bumpus. “It’s not just so we can eat popcorn or s’mores. We gather because we’re a Eucharistic community.”

Both the social and the catechetical aspects of Church of the Presentation’s many events and activities contribute to an atmosphere of welcome rooted in the gospel. It is also profoundly evangelistic. Ms. Bumpus noted that many people outside the parish, whether estranged Catholics or those not familiar with the faith, may have misconceptions about what the Church is and teaches, and as a result may not feel hesitant about attending Mass or other parish events. “But these kinds of things make people feel like, ‘Okay, I can belong here. I’m loved here,’” she said. “That’s what’s important.” The programs are straightforward and involve minimal resources beyond those already available or readily donated. They also appeal to an extremely diverse range of community members, regardless of their level of theological knowledge or parish involvement. Despite their simplicity, however, their impact is enormous. As a result of Presentation’s stance of active hospitality, even towards those who may be suspicious or wounded, many hundreds of individuals and families have been drawn into closer relationship with one another and the parish as a whole.

By: Katherine Brown, Los Angeles, CA

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