How To Survive The Storm
Faith isn’t developed on the shore, but faith is developed on the stormy seas. — Pastor Kelcy Steele, Varick Memorial AME Zion Church
Pastor Kelcy Steele was on a roll. Rocking on his heels, he dived deeper and deeper into the morning's sermon, pulling apart tidy gospel verses with his bare hands. His long white robe, accented with blue at the collar, was soaked through with sweat. It ran in fast, heavy streaks from his brow down to his chin, glistening as it caught in the light.
“Somebody say ‘Work the text, Pastor!” he exclaimed, springing forward on the ball of his left foot. His shoulders seemed to sail clear through the air, taking his willing torso with them. Shouts of work the text! sprang up around him.
It was a recent Sunday at Varick Memorial AME Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue. Preaching Mark chapter four — the calming of the storm — Steele was in his element. A band had warmed up the crowd. Members of the praise team kept congregants on their feet as they belted Thank you Lord and a rousing Love Lifted Me. By the time Steele declared “It’s preachin’ time,” many congregants had moved from their pews to their feet, and their feet to the aisle.
But a coming storm that he could see on the horizon, he said, was another story entirely.
Steele has braved several storms in the past year. Last August he moved from California to Connecticut, taking on a congregation of 2,000 after serving one of just 200. Then he was given an overview of the Dixwell neighborhood where the church is located, and asked how he was going to rehab its properties and help create affordable housing. And he started to testify on behalf of charter education (he is vice chair at Booker T. Washington Academy in East Rock), encountering a divided legislature in real time.
Now, he said, he is facing down one of the hardest storms yet: Guiding a congregation through joblessness, poverty, and the Trump administration, one gospel verse at a time.
Varick is no stranger to rough waters. First founded in 1818, the church has weathered multiple locations — Broad and Hospital Streets (now renamed) and Broad and Morocco Street (now Oak Street) in the Hill, East Pearl Street in Fair Haven, and now Dixwell Avenue. In its 199 years, it has become one of the city’s most robust black churches, absorbing some of the nearby properties on Dixwell Avenue and Sperry Street with ultimate hopes for expansion.
By 2000, the church’s attendance had shrunk precipitously, the number of weekly congregants shrinking to 250. From 2007 to 2016, the Rev. Eldren Morrison helped the church rebuild its attendance from under 300 to close to 2,000. He saw the congregation through a building project, expansion in the neighborhood, and calls for the community to come together in the wake of police brutality.
Then late last summer, Morrison departed for a parish in Georgia. Arriving in September 2016, Steele started working to fill those shoes immediately, trying to live his faith through community engagement. One of his first priorities was working directly with congregants from the neighborhood, he said — because he sees it as one of tremendous need.
“I feel that the gospel within itself calls for a response and action to community service as well as social justice,” he said before a recent service, the second of three that are offered on Sunday mornings. “Knowing where my church is located, my demographics, the majority of them [attendees] are struggling during the week. When they come on Sunday, they look for that burst of encouragement. They look for the hope.”
A little over a year of services in, he had the right gospel to go with that mission (although he is quick to say that every part of the gospels feels right): Mark chapter four, the calming of the storm. Because, in his own words, there is a storm brewing in almost every pew at Varick.
Already in the service, he and others at the church had tried to provide some calm in the storm. For an hour, Varick’s praise and worship team soaked the church in sound, melodies hammering from the church’s band and seven mixed members up through the legs and chest of every attendee. Congregants came forward with raised arms and tapping feet to deliver testimonials, tens of high heels grinding pink circles into the red carpet.
Then it was go time. “Somebody say: Preach, Pastor!” Steele cried from the front of the sanctuary.
“Preach, Pastor!” voices cried from around the room.
“I’m doing the best I can,” he replied.
The verses go like this. Jesus has said to his disciples: Let’s leave the shore on which we’re standing, and go on over to the other side. Leaving a crowd — sometimes it is a crowd, sometimes it is a multitude, but always it is a mass of bodies still on shore — they board a small and simple fishing boat. Everything is in place to get to the other shore. And Jesus lays down in the stern of the ship. In Steele’s words, he “is 100 percent God and 100 percent human,” and he needs a nap.
The wind rises. The seas become choppy, and ever choppier; waves break over the boat. The disciples fret: they wake Jesus from where he is sleeping, afraid that the boat will capsize and they will drown. He rises, and tells them to have faith. Their faith wavers (it always does) Then he calms the wind and stormy seas with his bare hands.
Which, of course, stuns the disciples. And they ask each other: What matter of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
For Steele, the passage isn’t about Harvey or Irma, or Maria, or Ophelia. Not exclusively at least, although the congregation has been raising funds for Houston relief since August. Instead, the struggle to reach the other shore represents the congregation before him, filling pews all the way to the back of the sanctuary. Several of those congregants are looking for work, he said before the service. Others are dealing with poverty and violence in their neighborhoods, and discord in their families. His mission is to get them safely across to the other side.
“My brothers and sisters, you have to understand that sometimes that something that God has for you and some places that God is calling you to will require you to go across to the other side,” he began, punctuating his sentences with sharp intakes of breath. Some congregants stood up and swayed, raising their arms high as he spoke. From the church’s midsection, a few children fussed.
“Faith isn’t developed on the shore, but faith is developed on the stormy seas. I know that this side is comfortable, I know that this side is predictable, I know that this side is manageable — but life and ministry is not about being comfortable, is not about being predictable, is not about being manageable, but it’s about being mobile and flexible.”
Not just mobile and flexible, Steele quickly added. And not just faithful. But willing to abandon all fear to give in to faith as a way of life.
The church has been built on that mission: members are asked to both practice and spread the gospel, and the church has expanded its mission to education with the recent addition of Booker T. Washington Academy, a charter school in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood. Steele teaches a Salvation 101 class each Thursday night, and the church has begun holding regular prayer clinics for members. An offering from members requested at the end of each service goes to its programming.
Which is why, Steele said, congregants must “wake Jesus up in your ship,” take note of the passengers on board, and batten down the hatches for trials to come.
“We have all experienced some storms,” he said. “Disturbances, disruptions, drama, we all have had some strong winds that try to blow us off course. We all have had some rain and thunder.”
“And those storms, they might go by the name of Harvey, Maria or Trump. Your storm may be identified. Your storm might be cancer, diabetes and depression. But whatever your name is, it always is a change in your life.”
“Look at your neighbor,” he said. “Say, neighbor: A storm is coming. And you have to survive. Say: I will survive.”
A hundred voices rose up in unison. Feet that had been idling by the pews found their way back onto the carpet. Some congregants locked hands and arms while others .
“I will survive,” they bellowed.
“If you have decided to follow Jesus, you must be prepared for the storm that will come,” he said. “Because there’s a storm a-comin. We must not surrender to stress. And we got to remain resilient. We got to solve our problems, recover from our setbacks, because with faith in Christ, we can pray through it, and move ahead. When storms approach, we can praise God and lean into the wind.”
This article is part of our “News From The Pews” series, exploring the intersection of religion and spirituality and current events. If you’re a member of a congregation — any denomination, anywhere in New Haven — and think your institution should be profiled, send an email to email@example.com.