The Christian season of Lent has historically been a time of preparation: 40 days of fasting and study leading to a new convert’s reception into the church during the celebration of Easter. More recently, the season has been known as a time to “give something up,” such as meat, alcohol or sugar, as a sign of fasting.
But others, like the Rev. Miriam Lawrence Leupold of First Presbyterian Church in Albany, N.Y., see the season as a time to embrace new practices that enhance one’s faith through action.
“Lent takes on a deeper level for people when they adopt a new practice,” she says of the commitment. “It doesn’t reach their spiritual depth to give up chocolate—it doesn’t resonate with a lot of folks. By doing this, they are able to something that they might not normally do, in a certain amount of time.”
“For the past several years we’ve been doing a pledge during Lent; instead of giving something up, we’ve taken on a practice,” she says of the tradition, now in its sixth year at First Presbyterian.
Lawrence Leupold and her husband, the Rev. Glenn Leupold, have been co-pastors at First Presbyterian for nearly nine years. She says the first year of the Lenten practice was based on prayer. Other practices were added over the years that included taking the Food Stamp Challenge, participating in advocacy at the state capital, volunteering with the local ecumenical FOCUS program, participating in an elementary school's author and illustrator day, and performing repair projects on neighborhood homes.
“This year, the difference, aside from the time, is we are preaching on baptism throughout Lent, asking, ‘What does it mean for us to live out our baptismal covenant, and what does that look like in the world?’” she says.
“We weren’t going to be able to start the Lent pledge at the beginning of Lent, so we decided to start March 8 and extend it through Pentecost. That’s when we decided to call it Lentecost.”
“[Lentecost] allows more options,” she continues. “When we were doing our pledges it was important there were a variety of options, so whether you’re a 90-year-old person or a 10-year-old person, there would be something for you to take on.”
Lawrence Leupold happily reports the congregation responded with the same enthusiasm as they had in the past, with half of the 140 people in worship making a pledge. Making a Lentecost pledge, she says, “helps folks understand that we’re not just making financial pledges, but pledges of our lives in actions and words.”
The 2015 Lentecost pledge card contained 13 options for members to consider, including Church World Service’s CROP Walk, making baby blankets for a local charity, and partnering in prayer and encouragement for those who adopted one of the other practices.
Another option was to help with hospitality during “First Friday” events, when the downtown church opens its doors to welcome people participating in the monthly city art walk. During the event, the church offers food and refreshments, while art is featured in the assembly hall and music resonates from the sanctuary.
Understanding the variety of responses to Lent, Lawrence Leupold points out that one of the 13 options is “Other ways I will live out my baptismal covenant during Lentecost.” She reports that no one decided to give up anything under this option; rather someone volunteered to regularly work in the church library.
And the idea is spreading. Lawrence Leupold says that one member shared the idea with her sister, who has presented it to her church. It’s also been a unique way of engaging new members and visitors.
“We’ve had visitors during this time, and they’ve looked at the brochure about Lentecost and said, ‘Wow, this is a church that does hands-on ministry.’ They think it’s not just words, but actions,” she says.
Lawrence Leupold defines First Presbyterian as a “theologically progressive, More Light church” founded in 1763. The downtown church attracts people from around the Albany area and many people from the growing neighborhood population. She says the congregation has focused on “addressing the widening gap between the rich and the poor” in recent years. She adds, “These practices of Lentecost reflect that focus.”
“I think people have put it together this year,” Lawrence Leupold says of the program’s success. “They’ve been able to see how what happens at baptism gets translated into a way of life. Baptism isn’t something that happens when they are five months old and sprinkled, but it puts a claim on us as God’s children. It helps us ask, ‘How are we going to respond to God’s grace by reaching out and responding to folks in our community?’”
Lawrence Leupold believes the Lentecost tradition will continue at First Presbyterian, but when asked what the theme for 2016 will be, she hedges and laughs, “It’ll probably take on different iterations—we’re Presbyterians, so we’re reformed and always reforming.”