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Pillars of Community

Neighborhoods outside are changing, but these three East Austin churches are focused on the communities inside.

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The Old Guard of the East End

Ebenezer Baptist Church

The first thing to know about Ebenezer Baptist Church is that the congregation is relentlessly welcoming to visitors. There will be no sliding in a side door and slinking into a back pew. Expect a handshake and hello from literally every single member of the church.

The experience is akin to visiting someone’s home, and in a sense anyone who walks down the East End District is a guest in Ebenezer territory. Since their founding in 1875, the predominantly African-American church has been a literal and figurative cornerstone of the neighborhood.

Though the modest chapel is tucked back on the corner of 10th and San Marcos streets, the church’s property encompasses a stretch of 11th Street that includes landmarks like the mosaic at Urdy Plaza and the Texas Music Museum. Across the street, the historic brick Street-Jones Building (it now houses MiJo’s and other businesses) is named for two prominent members of the church: one was one of Austin’s first black architects and the other a Deacon who smoked barbecue on 11th Street in the 1950s.

These days the most popular barbecue joint on the block is no longer linked to the church, and its fanatical brisket devotees are just one of the many signs that demographics have shifted. Only half of Ebenezer’s congregation of 500 still lives in East Austin, and many are now commuting from as far away as Pflugerville. But as much as a visit to Ebenezer brings up questions of race, what’s more striking is the disparity in age. Nearly the entire congregation is over the age of 50, and approaching a stage in life when fixed incomes and rising property taxes can take a serious toll on a community.

Helping to make sense of it all is Dr. Ricky Freeman, a disarmingly straight-talking pastor who took over leadership of the church in 2012 after spending 30 years preaching on Chicago’s South Side. He’s reverent of Ebenezer’s past, but a large part of his mission is to attract a younger crowd to help write the next chapter of the church’s history.

“Institutions like this demonstrate longevity and commitment to the values of the church,” says Freeman. “It’s an important anchor for the community, but as the community changes, the church has to change. The people around us require different delivery systems and different ways to be active in the church and do ministry.”

In the ‘90s and early ‘00s, that meant banding together to rid the community of crime and encourage business. Ebenezer helped achieve these goals through participation in the city-run Austin Revitalization Authority and its own Economic Development Corporation, but the resulting landscape is one where for many transplants, brunch is the new church. “There was an era when there weren’t many other things you could do on Sunday other than worship. How we adapt to that — that’s the dilemma,” says Freeman.

The church is working to develop a strategic plan for the future, but in the meantime prospective members should know that despite the older congregation, there are surprisingly liberal undertones. Ebenezer is rare amongst Baptist churches in allowing the ordination of women and in the willingness to explore alternative readings of the Bible, such as a path to salvation for those in remote parts of the world who haven’t been introduced to Jesus Christ. “I try to push to see the range of interpretations of passages and to be able to adjudicate between them,” says Freeman.

Balancing the static nature of scripture and ideas of inclusiveness is an ambitious order, but just like moving into a new community, a handshake and a warm hello work wonders.

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The Families that Pray Together

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church

When the Virgin Mary appeared in the Villa de Guadalupe outside Mexico City in 1531, she looked like an Aztec. The local bishop was skeptical until a witness brought a cloak of roses picked during the dead of winter. When the roses were removed from the cloak, they revealed an image of the Blessed Mother.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in East Austin honors its patron saint with a humble patch of roses in front of its tall brick chapel at Ninth and Lydia streets. The flowers are hard to see after mass because of the large groups of families that mill about outside. “You’ll notice that people don’t go home right away,” says Albert Banda, a Pastoral Council Member who has been attending the church for 55 years. Although that sounds like an exceptional tenure, it’s actually the norm. Entire family lineages hover on the church steps until the crowd clears to head next door for a breakfast plate of tortillas, eggs, chicharrones, beans, and nopales topped with two strips of bacon.

As with any family gathering, food plays a large part in church. Parishioners arrive early in the morning to cook fresh flour tortillas for everything from the yearly bazaar to more somber events. When parishioner Jesse Castro passed away on May 28 at the age of 72, a group of several hundred gathered the following Tuesday to celebrate his life over fried chicken, picadillo, brisket, and plenty of desserts. Castro, who owned Atlas Cleaners, was known as an outgoing greeter before mass, and a jack of all trades capable of both fixing church bells and manning a grill. “His family ran the hamburger booth at the church bazaar. People would come just for the hamburgers! Even if you didn’t know his name, you knew him from the hamburgers,” says Teri Aguallo, a fourth generation member of the church.

Families like Aguallo’s form a cherished communal history that keeps the church united despite shifting neighborhood demographics. Before the 1950s, the city’s Mexican-American community was centered around their former church on Guadalupe Street near Republic Square Park. Downtown development sent the congregation to East Austin, and now nearby development is once again testing the strength of the community.

Another element that bonds members of Our Lady of Guadalupe together is the sense of social identity provided by project-specific ministry groups. Each service organization has their own focus, ranging from organizing the patron’s feast day to helping the sick.

But whether you’re a Guadalupana or Carmelita, everyone is encouraged to volunteer their personal talents. Sometimes that means painting a statue of the Blessed Mother for the courtyard, or building a canopy over that statue for the humble purpose of keeping the birds from “going you-know-what on it.” That type of grandmotherly affection runs throughout the church, down to the greeting you receive when you arrive for the first time.

“We say this is your Mom’s home,” says Ramon Gomez, chair of the Pastoral Council. “Welcome home to Guadalupe.”

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Christianity goes Contemporary

Vox Veniae

When you walk into Vox Veniae, you are likely to meet Chissy. It’s hard to tell her age, but it’s clear from her erratic voice that she has seen hard times. Pastor Gideon Tsang explains that she’s sometimes homeless and has struggled with addiction. Most members of the church treat her like family.

Chissy’s struggles are a harsh reminder of the church’s proximity to the intersection of 12th and Chicon streets, an area that struggled with drugs and prostitution in the past.But the area’s reputation sharply contrasts most everything else about Vox. Its chapel occupies the main room at Space 12, a former nightclub on Airport Boulevard renovated to look torn straight out of the pages of a design magazine.

The exterior is covered in minimal geometric murals created by an in-demand local designer, the interior is walled with Pinterest-worthy shelving housing a library for community service project Inside Books, and ambiance is provided by strands of tastefully strung Christmas lights fulfilling the religious context of their name.

If the whole thing sounds a little Portlandia-ish, well, it is. There’s a crew of baristas manning fancy Chemex coffee makers at the entrance, a three-piece band kicks off the music with a dissonant swell of feedback and a pulsing synth organ, and the crowd is filled with fashionable twenty-somethings. But despite the hip window-dressing, this is a church — and a very devoted one at that.

Once services start, the unity is palpable, from the chorus of voices raised in song, to the rapt attention paid to the guest speaker who is visiting from a partnering NGO in New Delhi. Pastor Gideon Tsang, a tattooed 41-year-old in selvedge denim and tightly-rolled shirt sleeves, asks the guest a series of questions about schooling disabled children in a format that wouldn’t be out of place on NPR. It’s no surprise that the tone carries over to their weekly podcast in which scripture is peppered with pop culture references.

“We really see this as a group art project,” says Pastor Gideon. “Liturgy means work of the people, so whatever you’re passionate about and whatever you’re good at, just bring it to the table.”

The church was non-denominational from 2006 until 2011 when the congregation decided they wanted to become part of something larger. Vox decided to join the Evangelical Covenant Church, a loose collective of congregations formed in 1885 by Swedish immigrants whose diversity spans from typical suburban churches to an intentional community in Chicago that has been living off of a shared purse for 50 years.

“In my opinion, the one distinction about Covenant is that they’re adamantly pluralistic about Christian tradition. So the things that different denominations split over, they refuse to,” says Tsang.

While Vox Veniae’s decidedly Millennial approach has succeeded in creating an environment where young people feel at home, they face the opposite problem confronting other congregations: they need older members. Near the end of the mass, Tsang makes a blunt appeal to the crowd about recruiting older Christians looking for a parish. “If I’m your ceiling of wisdom, you’ve got a problem,” says Tsang. They may be the hip new kids on the block, but they aren’t too cool to respect their elders.


Photography by Dan Gentile

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