Southside Abbey: Worship starts around the table

Southside Abbey: Worship starts around the table

November 3rd, 2012 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Southside Abbey meets Friday nights at Hart Gallery on East Main Street for a meal and discussion.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.


Southside Abbey got its name, according to the Rev. Bob Leopold, when a friend just blurted it out. It fit, he said. In medieval life, Leopold said, the abbey touched everything -- including helping shape the surrounding community -- in so many positive ways. It also proved to be a vehicle with which to do something new within the patterns of the old. "Some abbeys," he said, "were pretty radical places."

The Rev. Bob Leopold believes the centuries-old model for worship does not work for a significant number of people today.

Rather than trying to figure out where "church" went wrong, he feels time would be better spent trying to serve other people.

As such, Leopold, 33, an Episcopal priest, has begun a new worshiping community, Southside Abbey, which meets Friday nights at Hart Gallery on East Main Street for a meal and discussion.

"Church used to mean an assembly of people," he said. "Eventually, it came to mean a building. We need to reclaim that [definition]."

The problem, said Leopold, who has the blessing of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee in his effort, is not the content.

"We want to keep the content similar," he said, "and change the structure. The structure has been the roadblock."

Instead of erecting a building, assembling a staff and planning programming, the new community meets in a gallery, at the start of the traditional Hebrew Sabbath, around a meal where all are welcome.

"Traditional models are not meeting everyone's needs," said Leopold, who has lived in the area with his wife for four years. "We want to present new [sustainable] models ... meet people where they are, when they are [available] and feel their needs," he said.

The Southside, Leopold said, is undergoing urban renewal and has an energy, spirit and diversity that make it appealing. He wants residents of adjacent Alton Park and the Westside to have a voice in it as well.

The Friday assembly begins at 6:42 p.m. with a meal that is either provided or potluck. The time refers to Mark 6:42, which states, "So they all ate and were filled."

Readings are done around the tables amid the meal. The subsequent conversation, message or open-source sermon follows.

"We invite people to have a conversation shaped by what they've heard," said Leopold, adding that he sometimes doesn't even take part.

At the close, he said, "I sum up. I may call us to action."

Ben Thomas, a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church who with his family has been part of Southside Abbey since its start several month ago, said he likes the new community.

Its easier to walk in and become a part of a group sharing a common meal, he said, than to walk into an unfamiliar church offering a service with unfamiliar language and terminology.

"You could [do that] in the context of what you normally do," Thomas said. "It feels normal, like I could be a part of that."

His four children -- two 5-year-olds, a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old -- are welcomed as part of the gathering.

In some churches, Thomas said, "they're sent somewhere else. Here, they're integrated into the fabric. That helps relax their sense of what church is. The whole family looks forward to coming.

"The intergenerational aspect is huge," he said. "To eat together [with several generations] rarely happens, especially at church."

Southside Abbey is different in other ways, too.

No offering plate is passed, but a companion nonprofit foundation that allows people to make gifts for the community's basic needs is expected to be approved by the state any day now. The community also received a grant from the diocese to help seed its start.

Southside Abbey suggests its worshipers become involved in community partnerships. To date, they have been cleaning and greening the neighborhood, working with nearby Battle Academy and in area reading programs, trying to end the community's "food desert" status, and, in general, being active community participants.

Numbers -- the church is drawing at least 40 a week -- are less important than working alongside people, Leopold said.

"We want to cast big shadows," he said.

"I am employed by the Diocese of East Tennessee," Leopold said, "but I work for Jesus."

The diocese, he said, is backing him for three years. It takes that long, he said, to build change into the system.

"We're constantly reevaluating," said the clergyman, who previously served as a priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

Southside Abbey wants to be "not competing" with other churches, Thomas said, "but to be enriching."

It should be a place of restoration, he said.

"The growth of the gospel anywhere," said Leopold, "is good for the growth of the gospel everywhere."