“If you use the model of judging a church’s health by how full the sanctuary is on a Sunday morning, you might think that the small gathering of worshippers is a sign of a church in trouble.”
But that, according to the Rev. Ray Bagnuolo, is not the entire story. Bagnuolo is the stated supply pastor of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“Complex specialized and inner-city ministry, such as this, are not that easy to assess,” he said.
Jan Hus was built in 1888 in the heart of the Czech/Austro-Hungarian immigrant community as the first Bohemian Brethren Presbyterian Church in the United States.
It faces the same issues as do many historic inner-city church buildings — changing neighborhood demographics over the decades and the need to maintain once vibrant but now aging edifices in the midst of shifting attitudes toward ideas of church and religion in American culture.
But unlike many inner city churches that have become weighed down or worn out by the challenge, Jan Hus has sought to meet it head on.
In 1915, to accommodate its growing ministry in and amongst community, the Jan Hus Neighborhood House was built. In its lifetime, the Neighborhood House has served as student housing, a temporary home for those facing life transitions and a refuge for those fleeing Nazi persecution.
In addition to its programs to support the homeless — a mailing address for those who have no permanent address of their own, a weekly meal, safe storage for personal items and computer use for resumes and job searches — Jan Hus also is home to the Jan Hus Playhouse, a 150-seat theater that has hosted productions by the Remarkable Theatre Brigade as well as the Jan Hus Homeless Theatre Troupe.
“While Sunday’s gathering of worshippers is faithful, lively, and small, and while we continue to work to grow — if you come in on Monday or any other weekday you will be in the midst of nearly 500 people who come to Jan Hus for several mission and user programs from 7 a.m. until after 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday,” Bagnuolo said.
Banguolo cautioned against seeing the Sunday morning worship activities as more ‘legitimate’ forms of ‘church’ than what happens during the week at Jan Hus.
“In this setting,” he added, “it is important not to separate all the ‘activities,’ but to see them as integrated or moving toward integration. We see worship in a broad inclusive way, so that all the things we do — whether welcoming a person who is homeless, offering those in need food and clothing something to eat or wear, or establishing solid relationships with all our building users — is worship.”
It is from this place that Jan Hus is seeking ways to bring groups together in support of missions, programs, and the wider community.
“All of it is the Gospel to us, and there are enough examples in the Gospel of hospitality and generosity to solidly ground this belief and our practices,” Bagnuolo said.
This sense of welcoming hospitality exists in spite of the challenging structural aspects of the century-old building, which has no elevator (and six levels), a split-level lobby, and a pair of classic New York 10-foot high stoops that lead into the sanctuary.
But the structural challenges don’t seem to be obstacles to the vibrant ministry that practically overflows from Jan Hus.
In addition to the homeless services, Jan Hus provides meeting space for 12-step programs and a full time Senior Center and Preschool with recreational programs for both children and older adults. The church also sends out 700 meals each day to housebound seniors in the neighboring community.
The Jan Hus Playhouse is currently showing “Helter Shelter,” a story of ‘corruption, discrimination, and dehumanization in the New York City shelter system’ which features not only documentary footage, break dancing and interactive theater, but which was created and performed by some of the guests of the Jan Hus Homeless Outreach and Advocacy and is based on real-life experiences of the cast members.
For Jan Hus, what happens on Sunday morning is just the beginning of an unfolding story of a church seeking, like the martyr Jan Hus for whom it is named, to speak out against the injustices of the day, preaching in the common language of the people, offering a cup of cold water and the love of God to all who are thirsty.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.
Jim Nedelka also contributed to this story.