Congregants Find Closeness, Intimacy in Non-Traditional Religious Settings

With most religious institutions, “house of the lord” refers to the spiritual character of the building. At Divine Mercy, Sunday worship is in an actual house – a converted garage to be exact.

Divine Mercy is one of at least half a dozen religious groups in Wilton Manors that meet in small buildings and facilities not originally designed to serve as places of worship. It’s a circumstance that congregants say leads to more of a feeling of family and familiarity with their fellow believers.

“Scripture tells us it’s not the building,” said Rev. Leslie Rutland-Tipton, senior pastor at Church of the Holy Spirit Song. Her congregation meets at The Pride Center and shares space with Congregation Etz Chaim, a Jewish synagogue.

“It feels more like family here. This is where we belong,” said Mike Smith, leigh elder at Church of the Holy Spirit Song. “We get to know each other in deeper ways,” said Tipton.

Bri Hills, a member of Divine Mercy, said she’s worshipped in larger churches but prefers a smaller setting. “I feel there’s more of a closeness. The love here is like nowhere else. I’ve been to all the big churches and none of them felt welcoming.”

Bishop John Joseph Reid started Divine Mercy after leaving another small congregation. “I sometimes think god keeps me small so people don’t get lost,” said Reid

One of the main reasons he started another independent congregation was to be accepting of others who had been kicked out of other Catholic churches – LGBT individuals, women who want to be priests, people who are pro-choice, and more.

That’s a common theme with many of the pro-LGBT religious groups here.

“The majority of our congregants [LGBT] have found themselves unwelcome at traditional churches. That’s what binds us together. We stress family and community,” said Bishop Terry Villaire of Holy Angels Catholic Community. That group meets in a storefront on Northeast 6 Avenue across from the former Kmart. He added that it’s much better for him as well. “You get to know and interact with people. It makes the clergy much more approachable.”

But while Wilton Manors’ religious organizations have bucked many of the traditions and behaviors of many of the larger institutions, some remain.

Just like coffee and donuts are served after mass in some traditional Catholic parish halls, Reid and Father Larry Turner invite congregants into their dining and living room for food and refreshments. “I find it a very relaxing and intimate experience. Just another aspect of this welcoming community. said Arthur Riordan, a member of Divine Mercy. “They take us into their house.”


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