Capital Campaign Kick-off Dinner Remarks
Invocation, Vince Maggio
Let us assume a reverential awe of mind and spirit.
Eternal Spirit by whatever name we call you; we call upon you on this important occasion. For it is in your presence that we have experienced our true nature as we searched individually and collectively for your “kingdom” in this past 50 years! This search has led us so far that we wish to continue to grow into an expanded 21st century church exhibited by a reverence for your creation, and for everyone else, within it in an atmosphere of love, peace, and justice. We pledge ourselves to continue that search, with your guidance, aided by the spiritual and material resources at our disposal.
In the name of every true great saint of every faith in pursuit of your will we pray, but we give added credence to the Jewish prophetic mystic who became a son and savior among so many peoples and in so many ways for 2000 years!
Church is not just a place. And church is a place. Covenant is not just some building on some street. And yet Covenant is a building--our building on our street.
Covenant is where you come each Sunday as part of your familiar routine. Covenant is the smiles you know, the warm hugs you feel, the reconnection you need. But Covenant is also the sidewalk, the flower-lined path, the clear glass doors, the open vista into the Narthex.
Covenant is the beauty and profundity of silence as its own form of worship. And it is the way the sanctuary chair sets your body into a particular posture, regulating your breathing during the silence.
Covenant is the stirring choral and instrumental music that says what words alone cannot say about awe and wonder and praise and gratitude. And Covenant is the smooth hard surfaces and the precise shape of a sanctuary that allow the sound to reverberate in a way that acoustically captures even the smallest note.
Covenant is the sermon that compels you to see a well-known story in a new light. And it is the ray of light moving across the sanctuary wall that you stare at after the sermon, as you absorb and dissect and revisit Laura’s words.
Covenant is where our youth stun us with keen observations about our world, revealing wisdom far beyond their years. And it is the awkward dismount into a bean bag chair and lock-in supplies and an empty antique bathtub that serves as seating or storage depending on the day’s mood.
Covenant is where we study the Bible, appreciating its poetry, understanding its authors, learning its context afresh with each reading. It is also the intimate classroom and the old fireplace and the French doors.
Covenant is where we baptize one another, the public profession of faith that after 400 years remains our denominational namesake. And it is also the vessel into which we climb for this passage, the hot tub we jokingly call it. Covenant is the water into which we are submerged.
Covenant is where you come to contemplate during a meditative walk of the Labyrinth. And Covenant is the ever-turning brick-lined path that you travel, the crunch of gravel beneath your feet.
Covenant is where you came out of your shell as worship leader, sharing both the inspirational and the deeply personal with our church family. And it is the lectern—tall, strong, sturdy—that you leaned against during the harder parts of that experience.
Covenant is where you learned to appreciate the children’s choir in all its zeal and enthusiasm. And it is also the classroom where practice takes place, the upright piano, the rhythm band instruments.
Covenant is where you fellowship over food, during the coffee hour, during a Seder, with your deacon’s group, at a committee meeting. Covenant is also the refrigerator and the sink. It is our beloved coffee maker and the assortment of mismatched platters. It is the forgiving Narthex carpet.
Covenant is where we educate our children about God, and Jesus, and love, and acceptance, and hope and peace. It is also the playground and child-sized tables and glitter glue and a grassy field.
Covenant is the celebration of the Advent Season, the stories in the lectionary, the singing of carols, the rare visitation with long-missed friends. And it is also the Advent wreath, the piano and the songbooks, the crock pots full of wassail.
Covenant is where your children were wed, where you married when you thought you might never love again, where you finally wed your partner of four decades. And Covenant is also the literal aisle you both walked, it is the site where your loved ones sat, witnessing the very making of your family.
Covenant is where we challenge ourselves, our assumptions, our comfort levels through adult education, focusing on learning more about how to understand and improve the world around us. And it is the handheld microphone and the whiteboard and the classroom with enough room for all curious minds.
Covenant is the darkness of Lent and the light of Easter, the putting away and bringing out of Hallelujahs, the tragedies and miracles and unresolved questions of our most important season. It is also snuffed candles. It is the meaningful changing banners and paraments and stoles.
Covenant is where we say goodbye to our loved ones and where we grieve their loss. It is where we call out their names on All Saints and All Souls Sunday. But Covenant is also the room we came to for comfort in the face of tragedy. It is the cup of tea and hand holding our hand and the office where we planned a memorial service. Covenant is the candles we light, it is the pictures we display to recognize the pieces of us who are now gone.
Covenant is where we dedicate our babies, where we promise to be a community of faith, love, and support for them. And it is also the sanctuary with a clear view of a baby being passed from family to minister and back again, where there are no bad seats for important life events.
Covenant is where we give of our monetary resources, where we scrimp and save in order to give as a testament to ourselves, to God, that this community is one of our priorities. And Covenant is the process of creating a new space for our community.
We do not—would not—divorce our spiritual experience from our aesthetic experience. We recognize that the physical informs and affects the way we commune with one another and with the sacred. With that appreciation in mind, we look forward to the designing of our new space together—reusing what others so lovingly built and adding to it for a campus that meets our needs, enriches our community and enables us to continue being a prophetic voice of progressive Christianity in Houston.
Thank you so much for being here tonight. Your presence is a gift to us and to this project. I want to recognize that two of our three architects and their partners are able to join us this evening. Unfortunately, Carrie Glassman-Shoemake is attending a family wedding out of state this weekend. However, please join me in welcoming architect Ernesto Maldonado, and architect Katie Ormond and her husband Eric Ormond. Thank you so much for being here.
I want to also say a special thanks to Susan Wegner and Carl McAliley for setting our evening’s tone with your beautiful musical offerings.
And while others will no doubt echo this sentiment, I want to acknowledge that this evening would not be possible but for the indefatigable efforts of Nancy Henry, who orchestrated almost every aspect of this event. Helping Nancy to realize her vision of tonight’s dinner were Michelle Bennack, Pamela Jones and Joyce Courtois. Thank you for your service to this community of faith and for organizing this incredible dinner.
Finally, those of you who were part of Covenant years ago will recall that Jackson Hicks generously donated a special dinner before our last capital campaign. Jackson’s generosity truly knows no bounds. Tonight’s dinner was lovingly provided and substantially underwritten by a similar donation from Jackson and Company. Thank you for this amazing meal!
And for everyone else, again, thank you all for being here and welcome.
Covenant History 1965-2015, Sidney & Mary Lee Burrus
For 50 years we, the people of Covenant, have thought of ourselves as people on a journey. Our most enduring symbol has been that of a sailboat, with a cross for a mast.
Covenant grew out of a Sunday School class at River Oaks Baptist Church in the spring of 1965. When the church called a pastor who was both theologically and socially quite conservative, the group decided to form its own church in the hopes that it would become a renewing influence in the Southern Baptist Convention. We were initially dually aligned with both the American Baptist Churches and the Southern Baptist Convention.
John Cook was our founding minister. He left at the end of that first summer to return to Yale, where he finished his graduate studies and then became a professor in the divinity school. He has now retired, returned to the Houston area, and is worshipping with us again. The other founding members who continue to be active in our midst are Gene Cope, Martha Murphree, and John and Ann Pirtle.
Covenant has encouraged active lay leadership throughout its history. Our members lead worship, administer the business of the congregation through the church council, aid in ministry on the diaconate, and serve on committees that implement the goals we have established for ourselves.
The early Covenant leadership was primarily male. But since 1974, when the diaconate was first opened to women, all offices in the church have been shared equally by both women and men.
Throughout our history we have valued most a meaningful worship experience. We ask that proclamations be couched in language suitable to our time and place, that the message be one that challenges, that causes us to see ourselves and our relation to the world in a different light. We ask that the worship service empower us to re-enter the world each week with new compassion and new understanding.
We have always valued music as part of the worship experience. Don Strong was our first Minister of Music, and his high standards have been continued by Fran Avera, who has ministered to us for over forty years. Covenant has always had an excellent and dedicated choir, and we have had a succession of gifted organists and pianists, including Carl McAliley, who adds much to our worship experience through his thoughtful selection and accomplished performance of keyboard music.
Education has also always been an important aspect of Covenant. There are weekly Sunday School classes for both youth and adults, and from time to time there have been additional educational presentations ranging from studies in contemporary theology to a discussion series on morality and justice. Since 1991 the church has offered a mentorship program for our youth. Each middle school and high school student is paired with an adult mentor, who is charged to meet with that student on a regular basis and to participate in a number of specific activities.
Mission, and in particular local mission, has always been a strong emphasis in Covenant. The early Covenant set out to give 50% of its income to mission causes, and for this reason chose not to build a church building. Although attitudes toward owning a building have changed, we continue to affirm our commitment to minister in partnership with those who live, work, and worship around us.
Our congregation has wrestled with whether a church should be involved in political activism. That controversy was perhaps at its most intense when we took a congregational stand in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Covenant sponsored a family of Vietnamese refugees during the early 1980's and later that decade we became a Sister Church to Iglesia Horeb, a church in Nicaragua brought to our attention by an interim minister, Doug Sullivan.
Covenant has always been characterized as having strong feelings of community. Deacon's groups were established in the early '70's to create mini-communities in the church. Support/awareness groups flourished in the '70's. Church suppers, retreats, informal camping trips, movie groups, and other study groups have strengthened ties between members of the congregation.
Bill Kerley was called to be our pastor in 1966. He was a particularly gifted proclaimer to our congregation for nearly 15 years. We had two ministers during the '80s that were not a good fit for us. In both cases neither of us were the people we claimed to be or thought we were, and we spent painful months coming to terms with those relationships.
Jay Leach was our pastor from September of 1990 through July 2000. We experienced a time of healing, renewal, and challenge under his leadership. In addition to being a sensitive minister and an outstanding preacher, Jay was actively involved in the larger Houston community, and provided strong leadership for a number of interfaith mission initiatives.
Interim ministers have included Art Travis, Larry Spencer, Doug Sullivan, Virginia Burrus, Bill Wade, and Tim Noel. And members of Covenant benefitted significantly from the informal ministry of Leon Meeks for over thirty years.
In 1992 Covenant withdrew from the Southern Baptist Convention over issues of polity and inclusiveness. Since that time we have become more intentional about expressing our welcome to the GLBT community.
We shared space with four churches during the first thirty-five years of our institutional life: the chapel at St. John the Divine on River Oaks Boulevard, Bethany Christian Church on Westheimer, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on West Alabama, and Bellaire Christian Church on Alder. But in 1995, after several years of discussion, we voted to pursue ownership of our own facility.
On June 30, 1997, the congregation purchased the tract of land at 4949 Caroline in the Midtown area. On January 30, 2000 Covenant held its first worship service in our current facility, which was dedicated on March 5th of that year.
Jeremy Rutledge was our minister from 2002 until April of 2012. During his tenure our congregation grew larger, leading us to add a second service and a second minister. Laura Mayo came to Covenant, first as an Associate Pastor in 2006, and then becoming our Senior Minister in January of 2013. Jodi Bash is now our Director of Children and Youth, and thanks to Laura and Jodi’s good work, the large number of families with children in our congregation is the fulfillment of our dream of twenty years ago to grow our congregation.
And so we have outgrown our facilities and need to undertake another challenging adventure. Which is why you find yourself here this evening. The history ends here. The future begins.
What a beautiful evening and a beautiful gathering of community we have shared tonight.
I am honored to speak briefly with you about my 40+ years as a member of the Covenant community. Many of you know some of the details of my journey with Covenant, so forgive me if I repeat stories you have heard before.
I came to Covenant as an elementary school student when my family moved from Ft. Worth to Houston in the early 1970s. So, joining Covenant was not my decision. My wise parents searched for and found a place that would nurture and mold me and my family these many decades. I could speak for hours about the role of Covenant in my development. Tonight let me share only a few memories.
About the intellectual stimulation I received here: I was in High School when Jeff Martin left Houston for Harvard and Gini Burrus enrolled at Yale. Very few seniors from Sharpstown High School ventured farther than College Station or maybe Baton Rouge. Watching role models move to (and succeed on) the East Coast gave me motivation and inspiration to consider a broader path. I followed their lead away from home, although I turned left--geographically, and maybe politically--to the West Coast. Portland, Oregon and Reed College became my home for 4 years. I am convinced that my decision to leave Houston and Texas was related in no small part to the example I witnessed by the trailblazers (in my 16 year old eyes) Gini and Jeff.
About growing in my theological understanding: I was in Junior High when I entered Covenant's conversation about naming God: articulating a gender-inclusive / a gender-neutrality / an all-inclusive God unbound by He, or even, Her. Imagine my Monday mornings in World History class, following a conversation with Leon Meeks and Jeannie Gambill about the birth myth of the hero.
About my deep belief in social justice: I remember sharing with pride that my church had formed (at least in part) as a result of another church's decision in the early 1960s to entertain racial exclusion. In the 1980s Covenant's vocal welcome of gay men, lesbians, couples and families; leaving the Southern Baptist Convention because of exclusion of gay leaders and women informed my image of a radical inclusion that mirrored Jesus' ministry. I understood what "living a first century faith in the 20th century" really looked like: It looked beautiful! Housing refugees, offering Covenant's Mission's Committee Budget to untold organizations doing good work in Houston, Pakistan, Guatemala, and elsewhere. A focus on environmental issues as witness to my understanding of my role as a co-creator with God in our fragile earth.
About compassion and community: being ordained a deacon by Covenant was an other-worldly, dare I say, grace-filled, experience. Being a deacon to a number of you helped me grow in the realization that we are our brother's and our sister's keeper. Serving and receiving communion remains one of the holiest moments of sharing our faith and our love with each other. And, on a practical level, bring a deacon taught me fantastic social skills. Introducing myself to visitors (and then remembering names!) was a skill developed during 3 years of coffee fellowship time. (Full disclosure: that skill has become rusty as I rotated off the diaconate. Note to self: work on this!!)
About the profound beauty of music: I probably need not articulate the ways music is important to me, nor the fact that Fran's tutelage has led me to an appreciation, not just of church music in general, but specifically, techniques of vocal singing and exquisite music-making. That music is a prayer, that music flings my soul to the farthest point of the universe, that music connects me to wise women and men who trod before me and will come generations after me: these understandings of the mystery of God have been graciously taught by Fran over 40 years of Thursday night choir rehearsals and active participation in worship.
These are only a few facets of the long and beautiful relationship I've had with Covenant. I've left out stories of worship planning, the Rothko chapel, deacon's meetings and deacon's groups communal meals, Advent friends, the growing bouquet of children and youth, our labyrinth, the miracle of our harpsichord, the rituals of weddings, funerals, celebrations, the challenges of a growing congregation (and especially the challenges of a not-growing congregation). And while I love to reminisce, I look with equal joy and confidence to my entwined future with a growing and vital community of faith. Which social justice experience will we embrace in the next 40 years? How will our theology develop? Who will our teachers be? Which child will lead us and where will she take us? With whom will we make music tomorrow?
As we contemplate, design and implement Covenant's next year, the next 40 years, the next 50 years at Covenant, may we do so with joy, welcome and peace, remembering both our shared history and also our highest aspirations for a communal future of love.
I’m not positive but I suspect I am the only active member of Covenant who found this church through an ad in the Houston Press. I’ve been accused of noticing the ad because I was scouring the personals. To be fair the ad was located in that general area of the paper but I’m sticking to my story that I was checking out the restaurant listings. I noted the ad because this was in the fall of 1995 and my life was undergoing huge change. I was nearing 40 and hadn’t been active in a church since my late teens and had just stopped drinking and found 12 step meetings. I was determined to change my life permanently so I took what I heard at meetings very seriously. It seemed the crux of the program involved finding a connection to God and I thought I might need a little outside help. I was intrigued by the word Baptist being included in an ad that stated “We welcome persons of all racial and ethnic heritages, all sexual orientations, and all faith perspectives to our Christian community.” I wasn’t even raised Baptist… we were Methodist but I thought to myself, “this I have to see”. It was the first and only church I visited.
I came to Covenant for the first time in December of 1995 and we were meeting at Bellaire Christian Church on Alder Street between Bellaire and Gulfton. Services were at 1:30 in the afternoon. The congregation was dwarfed by the size of the sanctuary and as I remember it there were about 40 attendees on an average Sunday. After church we would gather in the narthex of that building and form a circle where we would share our “Celebrations and Concerns”. On one of my first Sundays someone shared a prayer request for the Baptists who at that time were intent on converting our Jewish brethren. I thought to myself “these people are awesome”. Any Baptist church that is praying that the Baptists will see the error of their ways was intriguing enough to keep me coming back.
I also recall an early sermon that was completely affirming of the worthiness of gays and remember this was 20 years ago in Texas. I remember looking around at the congregation who at the time was mostly older than I and thinking “well they won’t be back next week”. Then it dawned on me they had been here for years. I was the newcomer. It was precisely what was being said from the pulpit that kept them coming back. I felt at home at Covenant. I had spent a couple of decades thinking I needed to get back to a faith community and when I finally got serious about including God in my life Covenant was here for me.
When I got to Covenant serious talk had begun about having a permanent home. I remember multiple meetings in the parlor of that church on Alder Street where we envisioned all our hopes for a new church building and most of the faces I remember from those days are in this room tonight. Most of you know from personal experience or have heard that during construction we as a congregation came to the lot at 4949 Caroline and wrote our hopes for this community on pieces of paper and stapled them to the beams of the building. I don’t remember what I wrote but I know that what has occurred has far exceeded what I could have dreamed. I suspect that is the same for many others who were present that day.
In this community I have been allowed to be a deacon, a worship leader, a committee member, a community volunteer, a Children’s Education teacher, even a yoga practitioner. When I was ordained as a deacon I brought my entire family because I knew they wouldn’t believe it unless they witnessed it. I remember too whisking them away as quickly as possible after the service so they wouldn’t grasp quite everything about this “liberal, ecumenical congregation”. When asked by parents what we were discussing in Children’s Education I occasionally responded that we were doing “Manger Makeover” or “Today we are discussing Glitter, Glamour and Galatians”. In truth my fellow teacher and I stuck to our lesson plan and we got the honor of knowing some of the most amazing young people you could ever meet.
In this community I am challenged both spiritually and intellectually. I once confessed as worship leader that sometimes you guys are over my head. I remember a social outing with a young Covenant couple and the discussion turned to writers. One of them turned to me and asked me who my favorite existential writer was. I remember a long pause before I blurted out “Did you guys see the dress J Lo wore to American Music Awards last week?” I felt a bit smug when they looked as baffled as I had just been.
In the twenty years I have been a part of Covenant one thing I have consistently believed is that this is the right faith community for me. I believe in the difference we make in the lives of those who participate here and I believe in the difference we aspire to make in our community especially the marginalized. I am consistently moved to tears at worship. From my life away from Covenant I know there are so many who need what we have here. A few folks I have told about Covenant are here tonight. One recruit recently told me I was an awful salesman. We had discussed his searching for ways to grow spiritually and I casually mentioned what my church has meant to me. I am reluctant to promote too much because I know what a turnoff that is to me but we have something really special here that can make such a difference in the lives of others. It is so gratifying to see all the newer faces who have their own stories about how they got to Covenant. The fact that one of the main reasons we need to expand our building is that we need room for our children and youth is especially gratifying to those of us who joined at a time that there was not a peer group for younger people.
I have so much gratitude for the gratitude Covenant has played in my life these many years. I have felt loved and supported through every challenge I’ve gone through and I also have felt affirmed and celebrated for every great thing that has occurred in my life. I want to thank those whose dedication and sacrifice has supported this community for years before I found it and wish all of you newer than I the many years of growing up here at Covenant that I have experienced. I would like especially to thank our friend Richard Huff who we lost just this past August. He helped make our home on Caroline a reality and his dedication to our church is something I want to honor by giving more of myself to this community that he so loved. I look forward to being a part of the exciting days ahead as we work together to do the things that will allow many others to find what we have found at Covenant.
Hello, I'm Lynn McLean, and I'm honored to co-chair the Stewardship and Capital Campaign Committee with the amazing Barbara McKittrick. In early October, members of the Stewardship Committee began calling on our fellow committee members as well as members of the Building Committee, the Diaconate, and Church Council. I have to admit to being caught off guard by the idea of personally calling on people to talk about pledges as we are doing in this campaign. My first thought was “are you kidding me?” followed closely by feelings of anxiety about the prospect. However, reassurances that pledge amounts are private and the discussion is about why our family has decided to financially commit to the church's operating and expansion budgets have led to a genuine enjoyment of the discussions that we have had when we were called on and with those on whom we have called. I am thrilled to announce that with most, if not all, of the pledges in from those participating early, we have raised a total of $650,000 toward our overall capital campaign goal. We thank those of you who have pledged for your generosity, and we look forward now to expanding our effort to include everyone.
I was at a dinner recently – a fundraising gala for a local ministry – the young man next to me, a third year med student from Corpus Christi leaned over to me and whispered, “Which fork is for salad?” I explained the beauty of start out and work in.
Table etiquette matters. Does the fork go on the left or the right? If you have both a red and a white wine glass, which goes closer to your plate? And where is the water glass--inside or outside of the wine glasses? Seating charts or chair of choice? And who is in charge of making sure conversation flows?
Table fellowship embodies our religious tradition – consider Passover, potlucks, casseroles for the families of new babies and after funerals, food for the hungry, a plate of cookies for a new neighbor, communion.
My new friend form Corpus Christi wanted to get it right, wanted to be proper . . . there is a Middle Eastern proverb that Jesus might have known: I saw them eating and I knew who they were.
We’ve just finished a wonderful meal. Did you notice the etiquette of those at your table?
Jesus offended a lot of people with his table manners. He ignored the finger bowl by his plate. He ate whatever was put in front of him. He thought nothing of sitting down to eat with people whose lives declared their flaunting of religious rules. People saw him eating and knew who he was: someone who welcomed everyone, even or especially those excluded by polite society, by eating with them.
Those we include around our tables tell us who we are. Our literal tables include meals at Hospitality Apartments for family members here to be with loved ones at the Medical Center; AniMeals on Wheels so that elderly people are able to feed their pets food we’ve donated and sorted instead of being forced to share their much-needed human food; a communion table where every person is welcomed and loved and celebrated; meals at Grace Place; meals prepared with our first Sunday food offerings.
I’ve seen you eating and I’ve known who you are – you are creative, resourceful, generous, and welcoming. We’ve made tables and space in some unlikely ways. We’ve set up tables and chairs outside, in the sanctuary, Meeks House, Narthex, and on the porch. We’ve managed beautiful receptions with only a small refrigerator, a microwave, and many volunteers. We’ve added folding chairs, we’ve scrunched over, we’ve talked louder, we’ve made room and we’ve made more coffee.
And now, it’s time, it’s time to make new space, more space, to expand . . . we will need to expand our creativity and sharing for this to happen and I know we can. I have watched us live into the welcoming church we are with what we have, imagine what we can do with more space. Imagine who we will welcome. Imagine how we will live into the call of God to provide hospitality and spiritual home within our community and within our walls.
I saw them eating and I knew who they were.
Perhaps there are times and places for small family tables. And it is important that our tables get stretched and expanded. As you have made and continue to make your pledges, picture a Fellowship Hall with tables and chairs and plenty of room – room for every person here and for the people we don’t even know yet – tables of welcome.
I see us eating and I know who we are.
We are people who love, people who work together, people of generosity and welcome.