BETHLEHEM: Goths meet 'gentle evangelism'

December 15, 2008

If there's a stereotype of a clergy person who initiates a Goth service, the Rev. Lou Divis defies it. At nearly 60, her first grandchild -- she's the mother of four and the stepmother of four -- is on the way, and she's one of the softest-spoken, sweetest-looking people you could hope to meet. Her "day job" is in early childhood education. But unlikely or not, Divis has introduced Goth services at St. George's Episcopal Church, where she serves on weekends as a deacon-in-charge in tiny Nanticoke, Pennsylvania -- population 10,000 -- where the average age is 43. Goths – usually people in their teens and 20s -- are associated with a world outlook as dark as their eyeliner and a fashion sense that mixes body piercing with black period dress from earlier English eras. The meaning of their frequently-worn crosses and other religious jewelry ranges from satire to a sincere expression of faith. Divis first learned about Goth services while studying at General Theological Seminary, and further research taught her that such services are not uncommon in England, even at such venerable institutions as Coventry Cathedral and St. Edward King and Martyr, Cambridge. These days, it isn't unusual for Divis to drive past a closed car lot in the greater Scranton area. One day, she found herself thinking that the church could go out of business as well. Like automobile manufacturers who are struggling to meet consumers' expectations for more energy-efficient vehicles, she thought, "we need to market a 'product,' if you will, that meets people where they are today. Maybe Goth services can provide an alternative energy of some sort." When she presented her idea to Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem, he was supportive. So was the parish's vestry (governing body). When a priest in Colorado, the Rev. Rob Lundquist heard of St. George's experiment, he emailed Divis asking to learn more about the services, noting that he's "seen the disapproval when a young person, with the spikes and piercings and mascara, comes to church. They only come once." Lundquist likened Goth services to "making new wineskins for some new wine." The church building -- built in 1887 -- itself was an inspiration, said Divis, as she described the dark red stone outside and the dark wooden ceiling inside. She spray painted cookie tins from the local dollar store black, and filled them with sand and candle stubs or incense. She dons a black cassock, as does the acolyte, while the priest who presides over the Eucharist wears a white chasuble and stole. It's "a dramatic contrast of dark and light, and the overall effect is lovely," the deacon said. Because the Nanticoke area has a large Goth population, Divis was surprised to see that of the 35 worshippers at the first Goth service, held on Saturday, November 30 at 9 p.m., just a few wore trademark black attire and sported body piercings. Several middle-aged parents brought their children. Only two were St. George's parishioners. Divis described the group as largely "displaced Christians." Although the worshippers didn't look like she imagined they would, Divis had achieved her goal: "to reach out to people who may not know what the church is." While the services are based on a liturgy created from sources familiar to most Episcopalians -- The Book of Common Prayer (from which Holy Eucharist Rite II was used) and Enriching Our Worship -- and Divis preached on the venerable theme of creation, the music wasn't what most Episcopalians sing on Sunday mornings. Instead of being accompanied by an organ, worshippers sing along with CDs featuring music by Goth-approved groups, including "Just Can't Get Enough" by Depeche Mode and "Nova" by Flux. Offering Goth services is just one of the ways Divis and St. George's are "using gentle evangelism to reach out to people with God's love," Divis said in an interview. Monthly Taize services followed by macaroni and cheese suppers have raised donations for the local Emergency Medical Services ambulance. Taize services are marked by silence punctuated by simple chants developed at an ecumenical community in France. St. George's has an average Sunday attendance of 15, though some parishioners remember Christmases and Easters in the 1950s when folding chairs were needed in the aisles of the church, where there is seating for around 100 worshippers. Regardless of St. George's past or future, Divis is convinced that the most important question is, "How is the Holy Spirit speaking to this community? Maybe that language is Goth. Maybe that language is Taize. And maybe it's something else." Divis mused, "Some churches are doing very well with the traditional 8 and 10 a.m. services. But what about serving people at other times? A local grocery is open 24 hours a day, the drug store's in business until midnight. People are going out every day, at all times of day. Why not let them come to church on a Saturday night at 9? "After all," Divis reasoned, "God's love isn't saved for Sunday mornings only, and it isn't just for typical church-goers."