Arts-Driven Outreach

Date Posted: 
Monday, December 16, 2013

From modern jazz to horror movies, church reaches neighborhood through performance series

Sunnyside Reformed Church in Long Island City, New York, has become well-known in its community for inviting the neighborhood in to enjoy professional performances by local artists—free of charge.

The performances have run the gamut from a big band and a modern jazz fusion group that included Sunnyside's former organist to a flute player and several one-woman plays. Well-known composer and performer David Amram has performed at the church twice, and a local artist named Carol Sudhalter plays a concert each year.

For Halloween the past two years, they've projected an old silent horror movie that was accompanied live by the church's organist and his band.

Neil Margetson, Sunnyside’s pastor, says the idea to host performances at the church began very organically.

"In 2010, we were approached by a musician from a neighboring community, Astoria. Her name is Carol Sudhalter. She plays baritone sax, flute, and is a composer and bandleader. She had a grant from the Queens Foundation for the Arts to produce several shows and needed a venue.

"The first show we did started with a full dinner in the social hall, which is in the basement, then everyone went upstairs to the sanctuary, heard the first set, then went back down for dessert!"

Since that first concert, the program has taken off, and the neighborhood now looks forward to the concerts that are held on a growing number of Saturday nights. This year, Margetson says, the church is booked for a concert every month.

Although there’s no charge to attend the concerts, Sunnyside does accept a freewill offering to help offset the cost of the concert, including the cost of paying the artists who perform. "We want to support professional, local arts as well as provide entertainment that's wholesome, high quality, and locally based," says Margetson.

Rob MacKay, a consistory member at Sunnyside, says that the church connects with artists largely through word of mouth. Many artists who have performed at Sunnyside have been related to someone in the congregation or in the church's neighborhood. "Word spreads in the musician community, and it slowly grows and evolves."

To get the word out about each concert, Sunnyside takes out an ad in the local paper, spreads the word on social media, and hangs a banner in front of the church the week of the concert. They also rely on artists to do some of their own promotion, and on congregation members to invite their friends and neighbors.

"The idea is really to use our facility as a community facility," says MacKay. "We do see a lot of people that come in [for concerts] that do not come back later, but I have heard people speak very positively about the different concerts that we've had."

MacKay says attendance at the concerts is normally around 80, about twice the size of Sunnyside's weekly worship attendance.

"This has become a huge part of our ministry," says Margetson. "We have gotten to know the local artists and everyone now knows about Sunnyside Reformed Church. It's just a win-win for everyone.

"We know that other churches have performances, but we are not just renting space...we're engaged in outreach ministry and we’re getting better and better at engaging people in dialogue about church and what church means to each of us."

"I think people really enjoy playing there, and I know that the parishioners really love taking it in on a Saturday night," says MacKay. "The talent has been tremendous."

"We rarely make money on our shows, but at the end of the day, that really isn't the point," says Margetson. "It's about bringing us together in a positive way that makes it possible for everyone to feel comfortable and appreciated. When that happens...the Spirit is in the house!"

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