An Arlington evangelical church reaches out
Highrock Church has made its hometown its cause as it celebrates, with brio, the Christmas story
ARLINGTON — In 1999, a church was born. A group of about 20 evangelical Christians began meeting in a house on High Rock Street in Needham.
Then they rented space in Central Square in Cambridge, then Davis Square in Somerville. The congregation flourished, and in 2006 it bought a former Greek Orthodox church in downtown Arlington.
But owning the building wasn't enough. Highrock Church wanted to be part of the fabric of the community. So it reached out to help in ways small — and not so small.
Which explains the violins and electric guitars, drums and keyboards, and roof-raising, 41-voice chorus that put on a Christmas spectacular at Highrock last weekend. Every penny in proceeds — about $15,000 — will go to the town. The money pays for a part-time social worker dedicated to helping Arlington's neediest residents — a salary taxpayers would be hard-pressed to cover since state cuts to aid for cities and towns.
The concert has become the church's Christmas gift to a town in need.
"It's almost like a wish or a prayer come true," said Phyllis Brown, who runs the Arlington Youth Counseling Center , the social worker's home base. "They're not just giving kids Christmas presents. They're providing something very substantial to the town, and to people who need that kind of help."
The Rev. Eugene Kim, executive pastor and director of the Christmas concert, said the gift is an extension of the church's mission.
"We're just doing what the church is supposed to do," he said. "We're supposed to be a community that loves each other and loves others and loves God, and that worships and serves. It's an old-fashioned idea."
But in its scale and civic purpose, Highrock's effort seems to be one-of-a-kind among seasonal church fund-raisers in Greater Boston.
"I can't think of anything I know that comes close," said the Rev. Joel Anderle, president of the board of Massachusetts Council of Churches, the state's largest ecumenical group.
Highrock, whose congregation is extremely diverse and highly educated, is part of what some call the "progressive evangelical" movement. Its denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, describes itself as "evangelical, but not exclusive; biblical, but not doctrinaire; traditional, but not rigid; congregational, but not independent." (Anderle's church in Peabody is also a member.)
The Rev. David Swaim, senior minister of Highrock since 2000, is a native of Concord who attended Harvard Divinity School. Highrock, he said, is one of a number of progressive evangelical churches with a different sensibility than the Southern fundamentalists many New Englanders associate with evangelicalism. The focus is on a common love for Jesus, serving others, and asking difficult questions, Swaim said, rather than on divisive social issues.
"Rather than demanding others change, our primary desire is for us to be changed by God so that we become a little more like Jesus," he said.
Highrock puts a strong emphasis on the arts — it employs a creative arts director in addition to seven pastors — as well as on cultivating bonds among congregants and a close relationship between the church and the surrounding community. Worship services, which draw about 800 on Sundays, focus on music and long but lively sermons rooted in everyday experience.
Highrock continues to grow, but its clergy would rather keep a local focus than build a megachurch. It has already planted three new congregations in Quincy, Brookline, and Salem.
When the church moved to Arlington, Swaim said, its pastoral team sat down with every town official who would meet with them, asking each the same question: What were the town's biggest unmet needs?
Some high school students needed adult mentors, so church members started tutoring. For a time, the church ran a medical clinic out of its basement.
Eventually, Highrock discovered that the Panera Bread in town had leftover bread at the end of every day, so it organized high school students — some members of Highrock, but mostly not — to wrap up the extras for distribution at Menotomy Manor, an affordable housing development. Another team began bringing hundreds of dollars' worth of fresh food to Menotomy Manor every month.
The Christmas concert began in 2007, when the town's food pantry found itself in the red.
"We ended up making a lot more money than we thought," Swaim said. "And it was a great concert."
In six years, the concert has become a high point of the church's year.
On a Friday night in mid-December, the wooden pews in Highrock's spare, airy sanctuary were packed. A computer-projected stopwatch on a screen above the dais ticked down against a background of falling snowflakes.
The crowd, diverse and hugely energetic, began to shout along: "Three! Two! One!"
Clamorous cheers, and the Highrock Christmas concert began: an extravaganza of soaring solos, readings, and kaleidoscopes of projected light.
Interspersed between classic carols like "The First Noel" and "Joy to the World," there were soulful contemporary Christian songs. The concert is not just an act of charity — it is an opportunity for Highrock to speak to people who aren't Christians, or who used to be.
If you're tired and weary, come home;
the Father is waiting
to welcome his own,
and you've been gone so long …
Afterward, there were homemade cookies and hot chocolate in the church basement, a plain space transformed this night into a bower of flowers and tea lights.
"Stunning," said Marion Carlson, 65, of Abington, whose friend's daughter attends Highrock's Quincy church, as people gathered afterward. "I don't think I have enough superlatives without sounding trite."
Carlson attends a conservative Baptist church, but not everyone at the concert was religious, or a prospective church-goer. Patrick Gilbert, 24, a law student at Boston University, came with roommates who are also involved with Highrock's Quincy congregation.
"I love the tradition," said Gilbert, who was raised Catholic, but "I don't really believe in the core tenets of the faith."
The concert has grown so elaborate that rehearsals begin in early fall. By the week before, the church is humming every evening with teams baking cookies, making music, and buffing up every nook of the church.
Among those helping in the kitchen one night were Elizabeth Lincoln, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and her teenage daughters. The Lincoln family moved to Arlington this year from New Haven. They had planned to join another church in a nearby town, but when they discovered Highrock closer by, they changed their minds.
One of the draws, Lincoln said, was Highrock's commitment to Arlington.
"A lot of times, Christian people just tend to stick to themselves, but this church has a place in the community," she said. "I always look for ways for my kids to do a service activity."
The food pantry got the proceeds from the concert for several years, but then, with the help of other churches in town, its finances stabilized. So Highrock went back to Christine Connolly, health and human services director for the town, to see what else it could do.
The town in 2009 faced severe budget cuts when the state slashed aid to cities and towns. The Youth Counseling Center's budget was on the chopping block. Its social workers not only provided mental health services for young people but pointed the way toward help to anyone who needed it.
"We had to think creatively to figure out what we were going to do to keep the program running," Connolly said.
The center changed its operation so that, instead of working as salaried staff counselors, its social workers became independent contractors paid by their clients' insurance. The new system saved the town money — the Youth Center's annual budget dropped from about $400,000 to $180,000 — but there was no way to pay for connecting adult residents who were in crisis with the help they needed.
"We can't bill health insurance companies for people who need help filling out food stamp applications," Connolly said. "That's an unfunded service we needed to figure out how to provide."
Highrock, meanwhile, was looking for another way to help the town. Swaim met with Connolly and came up with a plan: The church could fund a part-time social worker to step into the breach. None of the town's churches, including Highrock, wanted to lose a place they knew they could send people who walked in off the street looking for help — a place where clergy knew they would be taken care of by a professional.
The Christmas concert had a new purpose.
In a town long dominated by Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, and where evangelical churches are less familiar, some were wary of Highrock's generosity at first.
"I'm always leery — is there a subtext that you want to convert people?" the counseling center's Brown said. "As a person who works for a secular agency, I have to be really careful that is not what we are getting involved with."
But she said Highrock has never given her cause for concern. And when Jocelyn St. Cyr, a social worker and member of Highrock, applied for the job, she seemed like a perfect fit. (Connolly said St. Cyr was hired through the standard municipal process.)
St. Cyr said she is passionate about helping people in need navigate a tangled web of social service programs. In addition to the referral work, she also counsels young people.
"We have expanded her role, because we love her — we think she is terrific," Brown said.
St. Cyr said she is seeing more and more middle class families struggling with the shame of having to ask for help.
"So for me, there's the piece that is helping them find a food pantry, or something like that," she said. "But also the piece of helping people find hope, and realizing they're not the only ones."