Reverend Winnie Varghese Revitalizes a Historic New York East Village Church by Taking Risks and Representing the Community

Reverend Winnie Varghese
Reverend Winnie Varghese

Reverend Winnie Varghese’s diverse Manhattan church is a stark affront to the old adage that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. The congregation has tripled since she arrived five years ago. What’s her message? Salvation is corporate, not individual. Evangelicals have got it wrong. The church is insecure. It’s time to stop either deifying or criminalizing the poor, and get on their side. 

Reverend Varghese’s office is more like an attic-treehouse, accessible only by a narrow spiral staircase. Inside, a waxed plastic bag printed with President Obama’s profile rests atop a pile of books and papers. Congregants call her, simply, Winnie; she has little of the slicked-back, camera-readiness of many charismatic preachers. “I’m not much of a believer in anything,” she tells me, eating a SunChip.

And yet Varghese is the head reverend at the storied St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery—New York City’s oldest site of continuous religious practice. Its steeple rises at the intersection of East 10th Street and Second Avenue in the East Village, declaring itself as a neighborhood meeting place. The church has a history of coziness with establishment figures and hellions alike. A vice president is buried in the graveyard and Patti Smith launched her career with a poetry reading in the backroom.

Despite its rich history, when Varghese came to the space in 2009 there were only thirty people showing up to Sunday morning services. She was (and remains) the only clergical staff member. In the past five years, she’s filled the sanctum’s metal chairs; worshippers often end up sitting on the risers. In Varghese’s estimation, St. Mark’s revitalized itself by “taking risks because we didn’t have anyone to lose.” One of these risks was being honest about who they were.

“St. Mark’s is a church that looks like the city,” she says. “Our folks don’t mind if someone who lives in a group home goes traipsing through the service with 25 keys around their neck. People come off the street, they come in from Wall Street wearing blazers, we have artists and writers and teachers. You don’t know when you’re talking to someone who they are and what they do.”

A Sunday congregation invariably attracts folks who are Latino, black, white, able-bodied, living with impairments, young, old, upper and working class.

Varghese, 41, was born in Dallas, Texas and soon after moved to her parents’ native Kerala, India. At age four, the family moved back to Texas for good, where she forgot Malayam and picked up perfect English. She remembers sitting down with her dad as a teenager and saying “I don’t know what it means to say I believe. I don’t think I believe.” He responded that he respected her and took her very seriously, but just the same the bishop would be coming from India next week to do her confirmation. A required college class called “Women in the Hebrew Scripture” changed her course. For the first time, Varghese saw the message of human dignity and hope in the Bible. She went on to study at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary, working as a chaplain at UCLA and Columbia University after graduation.  After seven years at Columbia, she applied to work as the head reverend at St. Mark’s, which was in a transitional period. It was the culmination of a dream she didn’t know she could have in 1993, when she started the ordination process.

At that time, “the bishop and the deployment officer in Los Angeles literally couldn’t imagine who would deal with me as a priest,” she says. “If I had just been a woman or just Indian or just gay, I could have found something. But it was complicated when it was altogether.” As the HIV/AIDs epidemic became increasingly developed and fatal, gay priests were beginning to come out across the country. And while Varghese had imagined her life in the church would necessarily be as an academic or lifelong chaplain, opportunities started opening up. After Priest Gene Robinson, an out gay man, was consecrated as a bishop in 2003, it took her a few years to understand that she could actually apply for a job like the opening at St. Mark’s. When she started there, what would have been an impossible job for her six years earlier was now considered not a good-enough job.

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Source: The Daily Beast / Women of the World | MELISSA BATCHELOR WARNKE

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