LENOX -- Church on the Hill wants to come down off the hill and invite everyone in the hills to dinner.
Vicky True will sing bluegrass and gospel and share stories about her own life and times she has needed a hand and gotten one. Over the turkey and ham, sweet breads and fruits and coffee, people will have a chance to tell their own stories. And the Rev. Natalie Shiras will talk about the early days of the New Testament, when Jesus and his disciples walked the streets, sat on sickbeds, told parables to barefoot crowds and ate together.
At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, June 1, Church on the Hill will offer a community meal and interfaith service at the Lenox Community Center.
People of all faiths are welcome, Shiras emphasized -- everyone is welcome. The meal will include communion, and anyone is welcome to join in or to refrain, as they feel comfortable. They have invited Temple Anshe Amunim, she said, and they have a longterm relationship with the temple's congregation.
Rabbi Josh Breindel has come to their services and blessed the bread they broke for communion, and Church on the Hill members have come to his congregation's community Seder at Passover. That evening of music and food, stories from the Old Testament an stories from people's lives resonated strongly for Shiras and her group and has influenced their own community meal.
The event comes out of an ongoing movement in the church to find a way outside its own walls. A group within the church wanted to think farther. They felt that churches were becoming irrelevant to many people, Shiras said. Pew has done studies on people's presence in church, and only 19 percent now define themselves as religious, while 72 percent think of themselves as spiritual.
"Churches are just not alive for people anymore," she said.
Her group wants the church to stay alive, and they want spirituality, in any form, to grow.
"What does it mean to be spiritual?" she asked. "It's a direct encounter with the divine, an experience of God's presence."
People may have that experience walking in the woods under the spring sky, or in an encounter with a person, in a checkout line or on the street, she said, or in a gesture of generosity.
The group within Church on the Hill began what they call an "Imagination Conversation" two years ago. It gave them "an opportunity to freewheelingly talk about what was on their minds, what moved them," Shiras said.
They began to reach out into the community in new ways. The church has always had a good relationship with the Community Center, the Council on Aging and the Lenox food pantry, Shiras said, but they increased their efforts.
Columbia County artist Michael Cohen began to teach a free art class through the Community Center.
The Imagination group also collectively read Robin Meyers' "The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus," Shiras said, as they talked about how to reach people. He, after all, was known for talking with everyone -- lepers, unbelievers, children on the streets.
"Not that Jesus had a way called subversive," Shiras said. "What he was doing was unique in his time. He was bringing a message of love into a time of violence and upheaval under Roman domination."
So she and her group came to the idea of communion as a whole meal outside the church.
Communion doesn't have to be wafers and juice, she said. Jesus and the disciples shared a full dinner at the Last Supper, and they ate with a large group of people, rich and poor.
"He broke bread and wine and said ‘remember what we're about -- caring for people," she said. "He talked about his discipls as companions on the way, and word companion means with bread," from the Latin.
So Shiras and her church group decided to offer a sacred meal, sacred in that people will think and feel as well as eat.
"We all need inner nourishment," she said. "There's hunger, people need services," but the people who want to ease the hunger and to serve need nourishment themselves.
She knows about the need and the hunger.
Twenty-three percent of the children in Lenox's schools qualify for free lunches, she said.
"That's a big shift from 10 years ago," she said. "It's hard for people to swallow. Could it be this many people are hurting? Yes, they are."
Her church has worked in the schools this year, collaborated with Multicultural Bridge to confront bullying, helped with Community Center summer camp programs, brown bag lunches and reading programs for children, partnered with the Christian Center in Pittsfield to stock food pantries and to work with transition programs for people getting out of jail. They have worked with the Western Mass. action Committee to give assistance with fuel and rent.
They want to expand, she said. They want to be present, to see what's needed, and to roll up their sleeves.
"Let's be companions on the way, sharing a table laden with food, celebrating a welcoming God and a man who came to show Him."
So they will bring people together to give each other strength.
"We will thank God for what we have," she said, "invite everyone in -- and then go out" into the world.
If you go ...
What: Church on the Hill hosts interfaith community meal with music and storytelling
When: 10:30 a.m.
Sunday, June 1
Where: Lenox Community Center, 65 Walker St.
Admission: Free, all welcome
Information: (413) 637-1001, churchonthehilllenox.org