“Welcome to St. Lydia’s. We are a dinner church that gathers each week to cook and share a sacred meal, and you are very welcome here.”
The candles glow, a shruti box hums, and congregants—Lydians, as they’re called—look to Pastor Emily Scott, who offers warm benediction (and bread) toward the start of each worship.
“The church was formed from hunger I was detecting when I first moved to New York,” Scott remembers. “I found that I was meeting a lot of people who had spiritual interests but hadn’t found a church community, and sometimes they’d say they had tried going to a church but found it was too formal. I started thinking: what would a church for the people I’ve been meeting look like?”
St. Lydia’s blossomed out of this curiosity. The congregation has been worshiping since 2009, first in homes and then at the Brooklyn Zen Center, but St. Lydia’s finally got a location of its own about two years ago in Gowanus—a shared workspace complete with tables, candles, and, of course, a full kitchen.
“The idea of a dinner church became apparent almost immediately,” she said. “The practice of a shared meal is what communion looked like in the early church, which then evolved into this ritual with the bread and the cup.”
You could say, then, that St. Lydia’s is both modernizing customs while also embracing Christianity’s most fundamental traditions. “The dinner church would also be so relevant to New York City where people are hungry for intimacy and connection, and that’s what happens around the table,” Scott said.
Perhaps because of this tasty approach, the congregation, though relatively new, has thrived during a period in which population dynamics have dramatically shifted.
“As gentrification unfolds, residents are leaving the neighborhoods where they’ve grown up and where they’ve been connected to churches,” Scott said. “I think that churches are one of the places where the diversity of Brooklyn remains because as institutions they can have more power than individuals to hang on to their spaces. But that’s not to say they aren’t under threat. Gentrification’s made its mark on the religious landscape in Brooklyn and that’s something very important for new church communities to be aware of, that we’re part of a much longer story.”
The church also welcomes a diverse congregation in terms of Lydians’ Christian backgrounds, sexual orientations, and ages. In 2015, CNN reported that more than a third of millennials say they are unaffiliated with a faith, a figure up 10 percentage points from 2007’s survey. Yet St. Lydia’s boasts a devout group of young congregants, perhaps a benefit of the borough’s millennial influx. Still it’s more than just gentrification that is changing Brooklyn’s faith scene, especially at St. Lydia’s—it’s also politics.
The Atlantic recently noted a “Trump bump” among parishes, finding church attendance surged after November’s election results, particularly among liberal Protestants. Though an Evangelical Lutheran church, St. Lydia’s experienced similar results.
“I definitely noticed a greater attendance and intensity just after the election,” Scott said. “We saw some new faces. People are looking for ways to connect; I think we might see people who have not engaged in a faith community reengaging.”
Weekly sermons since have espoused inclusivity and rejection of hateful normalization. “I think the progressive church has an opportunity and an obligation to step into a much bolder role in this Trump era,” Scott said.
“My sense is that theology is a huge part of how we wound up in this place,” she added, citing abortion politics and how many churches either actively supported or were in no way critical of Trump’s policies. “I just think it’s hugely problematic that we could see someone who so clearly is not respectful toward women or their bodies, who thinks it’s permissible to discriminate against people based on their religion or their race and, as Christians, not name that as problematic.”
To combat Trump’s controversial promises some fear he will realize, Scott and St. Lydia’s mapped out a three-point plan for solidarity: resisting normalization, establishing connections across boundaries, and protecting the vulnerable, which includes building relationships with Muslim communities and collaborating with Faith in New York, an interfaith, multicultural federation of over 70 congregations. These efforts will take Lydians to Washington for the impending inauguration, where some will bus down to protest on January 21.
“The first step for me has been naming the fact that our religious practice is already based in setting a table where everyone is welcome. Everything we read in the Bible is about welcoming and seeing God in the stranger and in the person who is ‘the other’ or unfamiliar to us,” Scott said. “It’s how our faith is rooted.”
This mantra has been the north star behind St. Lydia’s weekly worships—that, and the church’s namesake.
“St. Lydia was one of the people who welcomed the apostles after they’d been in prison. She converts to Christianity with her entire household and then becomes the center of Christian life in Philippi, which means she was probably an early church pastor,” Scott said. “She hosted these early Christian meals at her home. She’s remembered for being like a saint of hospitality, a little kitchen goddess, but when you open that up and look behind it, she’s a very powerful figure.”
St. Lydia’s, the church, isn’t so different—with Scott, parishioners share a meal, conversation, and faith.
“But it’s all about the revolution happening at the kitchen table,” she said.
Featured and first photo by Andrew Rowat. Other photos by Emily Scott.