We’re a Church, for Christ’s Sake
When you first approach the Phoenix Project, you might be tempted to voice the question that we hear on an almost daily basis… WHAT is this place? It is an understandable question, to be honest. You probably see the flock of teenagers and young adults gathered in front of the building. They are a beautiful and diverse bunch – some wearing school uniforms, others in the latest Blood on the Dance Floor t-shirt; some with hair of natural colors and some without; tall, short, and average; gay, straight, pan, trans, cis, and questioning; flamboyant, reserved, gregarious, and passionate – it bears repeating, they are a beautiful and diverse bunch. Many come for the free wi-fi or coffee and they stay for the community. You might notice the donated furnishing, the No -isms sign on the wall, the sound system, and the musical instruments. Your eyes might just gloss over the chalice, plate and font that are displayed right in the front window and, despite the fact that is bright yellow, you probably won’t notice the sign in the window that says ‘The Phoenix Project’ in large, orange letters. We have been asked if we are a music store, resale shop, coffee shop, and community center. No one asks if we are a church.
So… what IS this place?
You probably will hear a lot if you walk in the door… loud music, laughter, and voices; a bit of drama and emotion; some swearing and some blessing, although those two can at times be indistinguishable. If you ask your question, you may get a variety of answers and I hope that one of the first answers you get is ‘The Phoenix Project’ although that doesn’t give you much more information that you came in with. Someone else might say Freak Flag, which is somewhat accurate even though Freak Flag is more of a group than a place. You could call us a drop-in center, a computer lab, a resource center, a outreach place, a mission outpost – and yes, you could even call us a church, even though most people don’t. Oddly enough, you are likely to hear the church word invoked primarily in two situations. The first is if I happen to be the one greeting a new person. I often start by saying we are a Presbyterian Church ad follow that to say that we function as a drop-in center. The second situation is when someone’s language gets too colorful or their behavior reaches unacceptable levels of rambunctiousness – then you are likely to hear… HEY! Calm down… this IS a church after all. That is often followed by the question, ‘THIS is a CHURCH? We get quite a few first time visitors during our open hours and we could probably do better with our initial orientation.
So… what is THIS place?
In truth, we are all of these things and more. However, the question itself, with its emphasis on the THIS, begs a bit more specificity. What is THIS place that makes it not that place or another place altogether? This place is the Phoenix Project, a Presbyterian experiment in doing church in a new way. On our best days, this is a place where people from all walks of life can come in and find grace, love, conversation, community, and welcome. In our less than ideal moments, we still have computers and coffee but that might come with a scent of bodies, hairspray, and stale pizza. However, if you have eyes to see, even on the latter occasions, this is always a place where you will experience and witness God at work in the lives of those who enter, constantly creating and recreating us in her image. This is a place where people are invited to participate in what God is doing and a place where you can find the support and encouragement to figure out what that might be. God is doing different things with all of us and we all have to discern our own answers to that question.
So…what is this PLACE?
We are a storefront in the middle of Lakewood, Ohio and we share our block with a bar, a temp agency, a yoga studio, a few restaurants, and a transcendental meditation shop that has never been open. We exist in approximately 800 square feet of space and have one room with a door (well, two if you count the bathroom and I suppose that one is pretty important). Our sanctuary doubles as the main gathering spot during the week. With only one pew, it looks less like a sanctuary than it does a large, poorly furnished living room. In the back of the building we have a computer lab that is home to three desktops computers and a donated copy machine. The computers are getting old but they run Linux Ubuntu just fine and allow people to access the internet, do basic word processing and accomplish other tasks. Our basement provides us with a utility sink in which to wash dishes and some additional gathering space. It serves a practice room for a couple of bands and most recently provided a place for a friend to hold a latin drumming class. My office holds our library, a desk and the aforementioned. Tomorrow I will cede the office to a man from S.A.F.E network who has volunteered to come in and do free testing for HIV/AIDS. We have a youth group and a young adult group that hold meetings here and on the weekends you can find us showing movies, hosting open mic nights, doing bible study, having our worship service and sharing communion.
So, what is this place?
This is the Phoenix Project and we have always has a interesting relationship with our place. We began in local coffee shops and people’s living rooms. We have officially had two different locations and a period of about 8 weeks where we were homeless and borrowing space for worship from a sister congregation. As much as we appreciated their generosity, it didn’t take long for us to realize that their parlor was definitely not our place. In a more abstract sense, it is also hard for us to define our place in the larger world. Our status as a new church development means that we have very little place within our denomination. Until we become an official church it often feels like we are invited to take our place at the kids table while the grownups talk. In Lakewood, we exist in a sort of limbo between religious community and small business.
When it comes down to it, it is difficult to define the Phoenix Project as a place. We inhabit a box of a storefront, but we constantly stretch the boundaries of whatever place we are in and whatever place in which we are put. The Phoenix Project isn’t a place, it is a concept, a movement, a community, and a witness. We are a group of people striving together to grow in faith and faithfulness to a Gospel that, at its heart, is about love and God’s radical redemptive grace. Some people would agree that church shouldn’t be somewhere you go, but something you do. The Phoenix Project is something we do every time we recognize God at work in the world and we choose to participate. The Phoenix Project is what we do when we live into our own resurrection on a daily basis, rising from our ashes and flying. The Phoenix Project is what we are doing each time we choose life over death, creation over destruction, mercy over vengeance, and hope over fear.
We are a church, for Christ’s sake.