Windham reverend mixes outreach with good eats

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On Wednesday, Dec. 4, the Rev. Tim Higgins of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, donning his clerical collar, sat down at the bar at Sebago Brewing in Gorham and ordered a beer.

Higgins had been asked by his bishop to “move the front line” of his ministry. But in his first effort to establish a “ministry of presence” in Lakes Region bars and eateries, Higgins, who leads the church located at the corner of Windham Center and River roads, failed to attract much interest.

“I had a beer, and I brought some work with me, and I didn’t really converse with anyone but the tender at the bar,” he said.

That was not the case two days later at The Grateful Bread Café & Bakery in North Windham, where Higgins ate lunch with three St. Ann’s church members, this time wearing a sweater and khakis. Dawn and John Vivian, two longtime St. Ann’s members, discussed their grandchild’s coming baptism, and Jim Purcell, who joined the church last month, spoke about his recent return to the Christian faith.

“I don’t like what I see happening out there, nowadays, how people are treating one another,” said Purcell, who previously practiced Roman Catholicism, when he lived in Nova Scotia. “We’ve got to get back to church. It’s getting rough.”

According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 27 percent of Mainers attend church weekly or almost weekly – the third lowest percentage in the nation. Yet St. Ann’s, which draws members from an area that includes Bridgton, Lewiston, Portland, Scarborough, Saco and Waterboro, is one of the fastest growing Episcopal churches in the country. The church has seen attendance rise 40 percent in the past five years, according to Higgins.

Still, Higgins has been encouraged to evangelize outside of the church, he said.

“Our bishop has asked us to move the front line,” he said. “Culture has changed. Folks are not coming to churches anymore, or fewer and fewer are. You’ve got to make yourself available in the community.”

Higgins said that a confluence of factors has led to the statewide decline in church attendance, including an increasing ethos of individualism, the popularity of Sunday morning youth sports, and the spread of a naturalistic spirituality.

“God used to be a part of giving the help to pull yourself up,” he said. “God’s not so much a part of folks’ daily lives, daily commitments, daily culture, I think. Just not as important, not as active. Folks are spiritual. There’s a whole new separation between spirituality and religion, whereby I can get my spirituality on the top of a mountain or in the river, or at the lake or something like that, which I agree with completely. But … we need one another, and church provides that community to help us grow in our faith, and then also grow in our spirituality with one another. You don’t get that on top of a mountain.”

“Don’t separate naturalism from what we do on Sunday morning, as well,” Higgins added. “The two can very easily live together.”

Higgins will continue his “ministry of presence” at the Frog & Turtle restaurant in Westbrook on Dec. 12 from 5-6 p.m., and again at The Grateful Bread on Dec. 13 from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

“It’s about getting into the community where folks live, and in a more relaxed atmosphere,” he said. “Folks come and have a conversation about whatever they may or may not have going on in their lives at that time.”

The Rev. Tim Higgins of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Windham, left, eats lunch with church members, Dawn and John Vivian at The Grateful Bread Café & Bakery in North Windham on Friday, Dec. 6. Higgins hopes to move “the front line” of his ministry by meeting with church and community members in restaurants across the Lakes Region.