Have faith: small but mighty

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Well, I drove to Aquinnah for church last Sunday. I turned up for the 10 a.m. service before it started and was warmly welcomed, as always, by the small but mighty congregation there. I wanted to check in with Pastor Sean McMahon to see how things were going. He has been leading Gay Head Community Baptist Church in Aquinnah since September 2020 and I was wondering how he was doing and how the community was doing.

The church building is simple and perfect for a gathering of believers. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve always said to myself, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name…” because there can be half a dozen worshipers in low season, a number that can go up to to thirty in the summer. Considering the size of the space, it’s a full house. As Sean said at the beginning of his ministry, he is more interested in quality than quantity.
“We focus on who is here and what we can offer them,” Sean said. “If nothing else, we are a community of prayer. Spiritual growth is what God seeks, so we come to pray and learn together.

The church has an informal atmosphere and yet a sacred character. You feel like you can speak freely about your own faith there, without judgment or weird feelings about it.
“Our church is traditional but very informal,” Sean said. “There’s not much separation between being up there and being here [in the pew] …here, it feels like you’re in a circle, it’s more like having a conversation, even if it’s a conversation that’s a monologue,” he added with a laugh.

Of course, one of the perks of going to Aquinnah Church is that Sean is a bona fide musician, often playing venues around the Island with his brother Griffin, who is the church’s music director. St. Andrew’s Episcopal. You can’t help but sound great during the musical parts of the service.

I think it’s safe to say that Sean and I share an interest in religion and spirituality; one of the first conversations we had a few years ago was about Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement. He has a love of the history of the Catholic faith like me, and a real curiosity around spiritual growth. He is perhaps the most ecumenical person I know.

We covered many topics as we sat on the benches after the service. “I started my music project as a ministry and it will always be based on my faith,” Sean told me about being a musician. “I want to document a journey of faith with my production. We learn in ‘The Confessions of Saint Augustine’ that no one is perfect all the time. I think there are Americans who need to see Christians who have their ups and downs. It seems that most think Christians are self-righteous. I am only now beginning to see how secular the world is.

The religious community at Sean’s church meets regularly and makes decisions together, he explained. One of them is what to do with the presbytery, which is unoccupied at the moment. A classmate of Sean’s is now a member of the Franciscans of Primitive Observance, a religious order that falls under the Archdiocese of Boston and is based in Roxbury. The order is so observant that they take poverty very seriously, only living in places they can fix. They don’t use cell phones and say on their website that if it were up to them they wouldn’t have a website at all.

Sean wrote to them asking if they would be interested in coming to the island, maybe working on the parsonage. This, of course, led me to have visions of how amazing it would be to welcome a group of Franciscan friars here on the island. Part of my spirituality is being interested in religious orders – the story of St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius, I could go on and on.

Sean just said it would be great if his successor could one day live in a parsonage, so the pastor could be part of the Aquinnah community. Even though he doesn’t live in Aquinnah, the church feels like home to Sean. He got comfortable with Reverend Leo Christian at the helm, so his ministry grew from there. It’s a small congregation, but one that Sean is happy to be with. “I know them and they know me,” he said.
So he will continue to write sermons on everything from love and trust to redemption and angels, which he finds very satisfying.

“As silly as it sounds, I love writing sermons,” Sean told me. “I underestimated how satisfying it would be. When I sit down to do it, it takes a few hours and I try to do it in one sitting. I write almost 100% on a scriptural prompt I read the lectionary and reflect for a while until a topic comes up, normally one scripture will stand out.His sermons are worth reading and you can find them on the church website at bit.ly/seansermon.

Sean will continue to play Sunday night Holy Rock ‘n Roll shows at The Ritz as soon as it reopens, and he and the band travel off-season, playing throughout the Northeast ahead of summer hits. One of the Sunday Service songs, “Dance to the Father’s Love”, was written by Sean: “And now I stand before you / With my hands and feet and my secrets laid bare / And this lonely head uncovered / have nothing but good shame to bear / for the shadows have all been swallowed up / and healed is the wound of death’s tear / for the blood of the Son cried from his cross / to the tune of the love of the Dad.
If you are looking for a small, faithfully engaged group, I would recommend making the trip to Aquinnah on your own.

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