The summer of 2011 brought sunshine and warmth to residents of Hudson County. But for St. John’s church in Union City, summer cranked up the financial heat. The dwindling congregation and pressures of bill-paying threatened to shut down the Episcopal church built in 1901.
Fast-forward to Oct. 6, 2012, and a whole new tune (or, more literally, tunes) played on the corner of Palisade Avenue and 15th Street. Locals flocked to the venue that was dressed in yellow theatrical curtains and covered in colored lights, with the pulpit disguised as a 1920s cabaret-style stage.
Joseph Kolbow, the brains behind the new church-saving and local culture-reviving initiative called "Arts at St. John's," bounced around the church-turned-theatre dressed as Merril Garrick: host, performer, and activist extraordinaire.
"The progress we've made since we've begun the initiative has lent new meaning to 'Revival Cabaret,' " he said as he tweaked the sound system and made sure the wine was flowing for guests who'd spent an affordable $10 to be entertained and to ensure the continued existence of the beautiful performance space.
"Since May,” he added, “when we had essentially nothing, we now have eight wellness classes and a thrift shop to help keep this congregation going."
“We now have eight wellness classes and a thrift shop to help keep this congregation going." – Joseph Kolbow
As patrons settled in their pews, Kolbow and his partner Johnnie Niel took the mic and kicked off the evening with a splendid rendition of "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows," a lighthearted sentiment that Kolbow and company hope carries St. John's through into the far future.
Bring on the clowns (and the dough)
Over 30 people from the community had joined together April 12 in St. John’s sanctuary and formed a sort of think tank to figure out how best to promote the arts and save the church.
“We were actually laughing a bit at the meeting at how there were more people there that night than there were in the whole congregation,” Kolbow said. “It was fantastic. People were laughing, talking, having a good time; it was more like what church should be.”
Saturday evening may well have challenged people’s average ideas of “what church should be” as performers ate fire, danced provocatively (but tastefully) in see-through mesh costumes to guitar music, and performed self-authored skits that contained language that was, shall we say, not found in biblical sermons.
It was the second fundraising cabaret the group had held since Arts at St. John’s inception, and the atmosphere was duly reverent as the audience watched singers, dancers, magicians, comedians, and clowns fill the soaring space with art. And every penny went to save St. John’s.
“Many of our performers pretend they only function in New York City artistically,” Kolbow joked as he emceed the event, “But as you can see, there is a lot of talent right here in Hudson County.”
Catering to different communities
Before the show began, many supporters took a trip downstairs to the large, previously unused church basement to peruse the vast selection of discount items at their brand new thrift shop. Carr, an expert of sorts in just how to set up thrift shops in low-income communities, helped navigate shoppers through the space he set up in a mere month.
“I gladly came here from Harlem,” he explained. “I like helping to build up poor places to palaces dedicated to community outreach and support.”
Carr added that it is a unique position to be a part of a church in a largely Hispanic community that accepts homosexuality, particularly after the Newark Archbishop recently declared that those who are homosexual should give up religious pursuits and not receive their holy communion.
“There has been a marked drop in Hispanic attendance in Episcopal churches because they feel they need to choose between religion or the support of gay family members,” Carr said. “This church is a caring one. In my time here I hope to build Hispanic and gay outreach as well as secure a consistent revenue stream so we can finally clean up this beautiful space.”
All of the thrift shop’s proceeds go directly to St. John’s.
They have also developed a wellness program that offers Zumba, dance, mediation, yoga, and gymnastics classes on a weekly basis. For more information, email ASJWellness@gmail.com or call (201) 301-8340. St. John’s is located at 1516 Palisade Ave. in Union City.
You can visit the church’s webpage at stjohns-unioncity.dioceseofnewark.org/St._Johns_Website.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com