Everywhere these days it seems people in established faith communities –churches, synagogues and groups associated with lesser known religions—are seeking revitalization by young adults.
The group known as Millennials born since around 1985 just don’t regard activity in a congregation important, leaders say.
The answer appears to be what it’s always been: If young adults don’t come to the familiar brick or stone building their families cherish, then the church in the person of its supporters must go to them –and often in round-about ways.
The Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia with its headquarters in Old Southwest Roanoke is trying a modern variation of an old practice. It’s refurbished a grand old residence next to the diocesan office and dedicated it as St. Aidan’s Community.
Three young men are living in what was once known as the Caperton House as they move into their independence as adults-in-training and share daily living in an intentional faith-based way.
Currently the occupants are Ben Cowgill, 22; Joel Davis, 26, and Drew Neikirk,27. Each has his own room on the second floor of the big old house. The rooms are reached by a picturesque staircase, and the lower sitting and dining areas, several adorned with fireplaces but heated by radiators, allow ample spaces for meetings and entertaining. The recently renovated kitchen stocked with food the young men buy and prepare for themselves gives them practice in life skills now that they’ve put parental support behind.
All the residents are in transition, Cowgill explained as he and I toured the house near the First Street Southwest diocesan offices. A 2017 graduate of Roanoke College, he’s a North Carolinian by upbringing. Unlike so many his age, he comes of an active Episcopal church family, and while at college continued his faith journey by attending Salem’s only parish of the denomination. He is exploring a call to attendance at an Episcopal seminary. Under guidance of his bishop Mark Bourlakas next door, Cowgill is spending time for the next year helping with youth leadership and worship at St. Paul’s, Salem, and at the diocesan office.
His fellow Aidan Community members Davis and Neikirk are also busy during the day. Davis, who moved to the renovated house earlier this year, is beginning his career in the administrative offices of Carilion medical complex nearby. Neikirk, who came late in 2016, is a student at Virginia Western Community College.
At times other young adults have spent short periods at the house and there is a comfortable spare room. A new shaded deck invites chatting outdoors. There’s room for another resident who must agree to stay for one year though no more than three.
Dedication of the community house took place on Pentecost Sunday. It represents an experiment envisioned by the bishop who has been in office since 2013 and has now put his staff in place. A similar faith community for those 21-35 has been successful in Charlottesville where, Grace Aheron of Roanoke’s St. James Episcopal Church is on the path to ordination.
What makes the Aidan Community different from another converted house with young adults living in it?
Guidelines make this clear: it is a young adult intentional community with a focus on evangelism and community service in the Roanoke area. If it works as the bishop hopes, it will set young adults with a desire to give importance to God in their lives on a path to do it by sharing prayers and faith and daily communication of spiritual learnings.
Throughout the diocese, the denominational governing unit covering the western third of Virginia, several congregations have developed mission outreach projects needed around their churches. The Aidan Community may fill a need for inner city Roanoke.
The diocese owns the renovated house, once nearly ready for demolition after it was acquired from the family of its last elderly resident in 2013. Around a century old, it was protected from destruction by the Old Southwest preservation group. Making it livable as a temporary home for young men to develop their faith is seen as a gift of God.
If accepted for residence by the diocesan supervisor, a young adult himself, the Rev. Connor Gwin, residents pay no rent. Instead they are committed to a $300 monthly fee to cover a few maintenance needs. Two references are required before acceptance. No smoking is permitted in the house and use of alcohol must be carefully under control with no usage of illegal drugs. A time limit is set on visiting friends and their presence known in advance.
Daily gathering for prayer is part of the house codes along with weekly Holy Communion, eating one meal together and “keeping the Sabbath on one day each week for the whole house. “Being involved in a congregation and maintaining a simple lifestyle are requirements in which the residents are to help each other.
As for St. Aidan, a portrait of whom hangs in the downstairs hall, he lived in Britian in the Sixth Century after Christ. He was among Irish leaders who set up a Christian center on the island of Lindisfarne off the west coast of England. I remember from a trip to the British Isles a picturesque church and its graveyard named for him.