Change in the Heart of Texas

Students gather for weekly Episcopal worship at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. | Allie Melancon

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Campus ministry in one of the fastest-growing regions of the country does not look the same as it does in many other places. Along the 80-mile stretch from Austin’s southern suburbs to San Antonio, one finds no long-established Canterbury Houses or settled chaplaincies. The needs are changing too fast to establish that kind of permanence.

Instead, a flexible crew of six lay ministers from the Diocese of West Texas is constantly experimenting on six campuses. What worked 10 years ago does not work anymore, said Allie Melancon, assistant director of college missions, who finds much-diminished appetites for Bible study and heightened wariness of Christians doing campus outreach.

Ministry at a place like Texas State University in San Marcos, which has seen 19 consecutive years of enrollment growth, requires nimbleness, humility, and a sense of humor. Compline at Chick-fil-A? Sure, why not?

“Those things help define our ministry as being a more missional approach,” Melancon said. “It looks different than the traditional ways, but the posture toward the campus, toward college, toward questioning and exploring, are all still at the heart.”

Campus ministers are not the only ones doing things differently these days in the heart of Texas. Church planting too has a distinctive look in this region, known as hill country, where earth movers and new subdivisions are more plentiful than tumbleweed. For starters, the planting unfolds systematically at a pace many other regions can only imagine. A new church takes root with diocesan support every three to five years.

And church planting does not follow a traditional script. Grace Church, San Antonio, began as a Bible study — not as a mission congregation but as a ministry of the diocese.

The Rev. Jay George, rector, does not wear a collar or vestments during worship, which happens in a rented chapel at TMI Episcopal, a private school. Casual is more inviting, he says, noting that shorts and flip-flops are standard fare for worshipers. And being inviting matters in that neighborhood, where residents can hear Christian author Max Lucado on any given Sunday or attend one of eight new church plants within a 10-minute drive of Grace.

“A traditional Episcopal model would be that you go into an area, form a congregation, form a mission and have a bishop’s committee,” George said. “We kind of came at it from the other direction. We said, Let’s grow this congregation until we’re strong enough to take that step and be a mission congregation within the diocese on our own.”

The strategy seems to be working. Having begun as a house church Bible study in 2008, Grace Church became a mission in 2011 and a parish in 2016. It now counts 175 partners (akin to members), 75 regular participants (who are not yet partners) and about 100 in Sunday worship.

Rapid adaptation to shifting conditions is perhaps to be expected in the Austin-San Antonio corridor. The corridor includes three of the five fastest-growing counties in the United States, according to U.S. Census figures.

Austin had the nation’s fastest rate of employment growth (51 percent) of any U.S. city from 2000 to 2015, according to an analysis by the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston. San Antonio ranked sixth with 36-percent employment growth.

But some believe something unique is happening in this area, where trees and trails draw second-home buyers, and jobs are plentiful in fields from tech to the service sector. They’re convinced America is seeing the emergence of its next great metropolis, a sprawling city on the scale of Los Angeles, one that would effectively gobble up Austin, San Antonio, and every town in between. Experts agree it could be happening. Texas State Demographer Lloyd Potter projects 34 percent growth in the corridor, or 1.5 million new residents, by 2030.

“Over the next 50 years, Austin and San Antonio will become a single mega-metro area,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler says in The Texas Way of Urbanism, a Center for Opportunity Urbanism report. “The corridor in between will be the first reflection of this coming future, providing greater connectivity to serve the increasing interdependence and joint economic potential as the two cities grow together.”

If a new mega-city is emerging, however, it is not coming at the expense of local identities — at least not if locals have anything to say about it. Those dynamics, balancing eye-popping change with tenacious traditions and indelible identities, make the corridor a nexus of ministry challenges and opportunities.

Observers see a heightened sense of place taking root in Comal and Hays counties, for instance, where Amazon and Sysco have planted new fulfillment centers, and populations are surging by about five percent a year. This region is no Southern California, where a century-old building is considered old. San Antonio is celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2018. And even though the region is predominantly Roman Catholic, Episcopal ministries sometimes help ground a sense of durable identity on a landscape where so much is increasingly fluid.

“We’ve always been a missional diocese in the sense of far-flung places with new communities springing up in kind of a spiritual wilderness, and the church goes in to provide that spiritual bedrock, the bedrock of Christ,” said the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Brooke-Davidson, Suffragan Bishop of West Texas, who served as rector of a parish in the corridor, St. Elizabeth Church in Buda, an Austin suburb, from 2011 to 2017.

“So we’re looking at that as we’re looking at this corridor. The problem is you’ve got all these overworked, spiritually starved, transplanted people that have moved in. They need community and they need Christ, but they don’t know how to connect.”

Some who live in the area see a mega-city rising and bringing inequality along with it. Patton Dodd, media director for the H.E. Butt Family Foundation, lives on the north side of San Antonio, where much of the city’s residential wealth is concentrated. He observes that San Antonio’s west, south, and east sections (where most of the city’s Hispanics and African-Americans live) lag far behind the north in investment.

In reporting on social conditions in San Antonio for the Foundation’s Folo Media website, Dodd has seen churches springing up almost exclusively where the money is. They are often failing to build deep relationships that would transform lives in resource-poor neighborhoods.

“We see dynamics where the majority of the population is middle class or poor and people of color, while a lot of the power and wealth is in the hands of affluent Anglos,” Dodd said. “The communities where the majority are people of color and low-income tend to have old and declining churches.”

Even religious assets are largely concentrated among the well-off, Dodd said. Aside from mission activities that build not-very-deep relationships, he said, churches generally have not crossed race and class lines to build a stake in other San Antonio neighborhoods.

“It’s unfortunate and ironic to see that the upwardly mobile neighborhoods have better schools, better grocery stores, and more vibrant churches too,” Dodd said. “Churches express inequality just like every other feature of our cities do. They are sites of inequality just like schools are.”

On college campuses, ministry workers navigate between worlds as first-generation college students seek new opportunities. Many commute to save money. These students do not have much community on campus, Melancon said, and ministering to them can be as much about honoring old-school values as it is about using new media technology to stay connected.

For example, meeting the parents is expected of campus ministers who will spend time with a young Hispanic woman, Melancon said. Hitting the road to do a home visit with the parents has become a part of what campus ministry entails.

“There are a lot of barriers,” Melancon said. “If you really want to do good work, meet new students where they are, and build relationships with them, you have to be willing to do things that you wouldn’t do in a traditional Episcopal model. You go to their parents’ house.”

In this complex matrix, some find opportunity. Grace Church has found its sweet spot, George says, in engaging the de-churched, those who have a church background but drifted away. He observes that non-churchgoers are not in worship because they don’t want to be in worship. That means the church does better by inviting neighbors to do things they already want to do: watch an outdoor movie on TMI’s grounds, for example, or serve a meal to homeless San Antonians on Saturday nights.

“We show you that being a part of church is not what you think it is — it’s this,” George said. “And then you go, Oh, well, I like to do that. I like beer and nachos. I like movies. I like serving hungry children. And we say, Well, let’s go! And, by the way, we worship on Sunday mornings. Here’s why we do that and here’s what happens. Come check it out and see if you like it.”

Seventy miles away on the outskirts of Austin, the town of Buda (pronounced b-yoo -dah) is fast ceasing to be a small town, Brooke-Davidson said. While Austin proudly calls itself weird, she said, Buda describes itself as “just the other side of weird.” She sees St. Elizabeth playing a role in keeping Buda in touch with its roots.

In rapidly changing towns like Buda, she said, congregants find opportunities to help newcomers become settled and make social connections. They frequently work with schools to make sure children’s needs do not fall through the cracks. And when tensions run high at public meetings, as they often do when dramatic changes affect a community, churchgoers are sometimes able to help residents resolve differences amicably. It’s all part of being church in a time of rapid change, and knowing which part of the great tradition to bring to bear at the right time.

“The church can model healthy community and healthy dialogue,” Brooke-Davidson said. “In the church we teach people about lamentation as well as celebration. Sometimes there is just grieving that needs to happen. You can’t turn back the clock sometimes, but you can help people see resurrection coming out of that and help people embrace some of that.”


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