Grace Church: Community, Diversity, Creativity

Photo: Chi Modu

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Summer/Fall 2009 issue of NEW. You can download the entire issue here.

At times it may seem that Grace Church Van Vorst has two personalities — as a church and an art/performance space — but a creative, open-minded, loving spirit is the common thread running through its activities.

This welcoming, liberal inclusiveness coupled with a no-pressure approach to Christianity is Grace Church’s trademark. Rev. Nick Lannon, acting head of the church, explains that this congregation’s unique take on theology frees people from striving to be just like Jesus — an impossibly high bar — and lets them know that they’re imperfect but still loved from above. Here on earth, members of the church have a comfortable, informal rapport with the non-judgmental Lannon. He peppers his sermons with humorous but insightful pop-culture references and signs the church bulletin “Nick.” Most members address him as “Nick” and if they want to be formal, it’s “Rev. Nick.”

The atmosphere of acceptance, diversity and flexibility makes all the innovative arts programs possible and allows non-members — even non-Christians and atheists — to feel warmly welcomed and enjoy the church’s performances, art exhibits and other programs.

A Jersey City Arts Pioneer

Many in the community associate the church’s innovative cultural productions with Rev. Janet Broderick, who headed Grace Church for eight years before moving to another parish this spring. Broderick has a reputation as a funny, lively and theatrical preacher; that’s no surprise, since she was raised in a theatrical-artistic family (along with her brother, actor Matthew Broderick). Broderick’s influence did a lot to raise Grace Church’s profile as a cultural center during her tenure, and it was her creative ministry that attracted Lannon to the church.

But Grace Church was involved in the local arts long before anyone put the words “Jersey City” and “arts” together. It arguably helped put the city on the map as an artistic community.

Twenty years ago, Grace Church started its annual Cathedral Arts Festival, now the oldest and largest arts event in Hudson County. This two week long visual and performing arts extravaganza draws huge crowds from the surrounding areas and is a significant source of income for the church and local artists. The program varies from year to year, but it always kicks off with a champagne gala attended by politicians, artists, patrons, press and assorted glitterati. The festival is usually held in May, but this year it will be held in the fall to give the church more time to prepare a special 20th anniversary program.

An even older cultural icon is Grace Church itself, a beautiful brownstone Gothic building completed in 1853 and on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior was renovated around 1917 to look rather somber, but was restored to its original vibrant glory, with bright colors and floral designs, starting in the 1980s. Donald Gallagher, an artist and longtime member of the church, has contributed painstakingly detailed hand-painted symbolic decorations throughout the sanctuary, copying the original designs based on early photos and adding original touches here and there. Gallagher has worked on the project off and on since 1986. It looks finished but is still a work in progress; Gallagher plans to paint holly branches along the back of the church to symbolize winter and complete a seasonal theme running throughout the church.

It’s this beautifully painted sanctuary that doubles as Grace Church’s art gallery, performance space and banquet room. Besides the Cathedral Arts Festival, the church puts on free arts events for JC Fridays four times a year and always holds a large group exhibit for the annual Jersey City Artist Studio Tour.

Many of the other programs in the church have an artistic or cultural flavor, too. The Sunday Book Sale is essentially the biggest used bookstore in the city, and the price is right at $.50 for paperbacks and $1.00 for hardcovers. Volunteer bookseller Bob Braiderman and his assistants offer an astounding selection of donated books ranging from trashy novels and humor collections to classics and philosophical works.

Grace Church’s sister organization, the non-religious GVV Community Service, offers the creative Grace Seniors for Healthy Living program. This free weekday program includes activities such as line dancing, exercise, arts & crafts, quilting, yoga, and field trips, coupled with a hot lunch. The idea is to offer seniors a fun, stimulating social outlet that nurtures physical, emotional and spiritual health. Many activities are in the church gym, though the sanctuary is often used for yoga and exercise classes.

In a more traditional vein, GVV Community Service also serves hot meals to more than 100 homeless people every Saturday and Sunday through its Breakfast Plus! program. The church itself also has a toddler drop-off program. For a small fee, parents can take a break on weekday mornings and leave their children to play and learn in the church sanctuary with qualified volunteers.

Speaking of volunteers, Grace Church wouldn’t be able to offer such a large array of events and programs without the generous help of the huge number of people who donate their time. Some are dedicated regulars, some have volunteered occasionally or just once, but when Grace Church puts out the call, people respond.

“Don’t volunteer out of guilt” is the church’s philosophy, Lannon says, adding that he finds freedom from guilt helps encourage volunteerism more effectively. “We trust that when we say it doesn’t matter what you do — when everyone else is telling you what to do — that freedom engenders desire to do what’s right.”

As the congregation searches for a permanent rector to lead the church into a new era, one thing is clear: Grace Church will continue to live up to its motto — “Community, Diversity, Creativity” — for a long time to come.

a freelance writer specializing in health and community. She also owns World of Style Vintage, formerly a downtown Jersey City boutique and currently an online retail/consulting business for historic fashion.