The following interview with our own Rev. Bryan Bywater of Church Army USA appeared in the latest issue of the ACNA’s magazine, The Apostle. It was also published on the ACNA website here. We are thankful for the ministry of Church Army USA and the province’s support for Fr. Bryan and his work in Connecticut.
Interview by Rachel Thebeau.
Fr. Bryan Bywater grew up in a nominally Christian home before crisis brought pain and darkness to his family. In his early adulthood, after several near-death experiences due to drugs and alcohol, Fr. Bywater had a “blinding light experience” with the Lord that brought him back to the faith and eventually led him to seminary. Now, Fr. Bywater leads one of the Anglican Church in North America’s most unique congregations.
Tell us a little bit of your background and testimony. How long have you been an Anglican and what has it meant to you?
I grew up in Connecticut in an Episcopal Church. Our faith didn’t go much past Sunday, holidays, a quick grace at meals, and the “now I lay me down to sleep” thing. That being said, there was a moment in church, when I was five or so I believe, that I was at the altar rail for communion. The priest laid his hands on my head and I felt a heat enter my body. I had no one to talk about it, but I knew something had happened. I told myself I would never wash my head again, like if I had shaken hands with a famous person!
Unfortunately, my family underwent a long period of crisis, and we abandoned what little connection we had with the church. These were dark, painful years. I was off to college and had several near-death experiences due to drugs and alcohol. I was once congratulated by an ER doctor for waking up as my blood-alcohol level was 0.34. God had his hand on me, and the day after that event a Gideon handed me a New Testament. I took it as a “sign” and kept it as a “good luck charm.” Fast forward (God’s story in my life is rich), and I found myself by the side of the Poudre River, up north of Fort Collins, Colorado, an atheist rock climber living in his car who had had enough. I prayed, “God, I don’t believe in you, and I hate your people, but I’ve had enough. If you are real, show me please.” That’s a prayer God likes to answer I found out because He did. I had a full-on blinding-light experience and the next day drove non-stop from Fort Collins to Connecticut in thirty-nine hours, losing my 5th gear in Kansas City, Missouri and most of my breaks somewhere in Ohio. I’ve never been the same and I’ve chased God ever since. That was 26 years ago.
I went back to Long Island for two years and lived with my old surfing buddy and his family, who were devout Christians. I learned the faith while working on copper and slate roofs with him and his dad. I was sharing the faith and seeing so many come to Christ!
I moved back to Connecticut and returned to an Episcopal Church. I read the back of the book and found the Articles of Religion. Not knowing what was meant by “historical documents,” I thought that the church took them as the outline of what they believed and did.
To keep it short, I spent years in youth ministry, off to seminary at Trinity (then) Episcopal School for Ministry, ordained a transitional deacon, hijacked by the Holy Spirit on a mission trip to Tabora, Tanzania, deposed by TEC, protested by the Anglican Church of Tanzania (ACNA had not yet been birthed). I served as an African missionary in America, pastoring a Kenyan Church that was one of the original “Connecticut six”. Whew! So…. I’ve been an Anglican from the cradle to Africa and back. What does it “mean” to me? Being part of the people who began a reformation, of being in a long line of saints who forsook their lives for Christ, and being part of the Church that spans the globe.
Tell me about your ministry and how you got to this place.
I’m currently an Anglican Church in North America priest serving in the Anglican Diocese in New England, as a Captain in Church Army, USA. I’ve been working as an evangelist from the moment I was saved, beginning as a volunteer with Young Life which led to me becoming an Area Director in Connecticut. I’ve served in a number of churches over the past 26 years as well as curate, rector, youth pastor, outreach pastor, all the while feeling my call to be outside on the street.
My work with the elderly began with an almost audible demand from the Lord while I was taking summer Greek at Trinity. I was walking past Elderberry Court on Merchant Street in Ambridge, Pennsylvania working through my massive stack of vocabulary when I heard/felt God say, “go in and visit.” I quipped back (not a good idea), “Lord, I’m busy learning Greek!”, to which He replied, “they are why you are studying Greek.”
I’ve planted three congregations in three separate facilities here, each with teams that join me from different denominations. We hold a full Rite II Eucharist with good old Gospel and healing prayer with laying on of hands. It gets pretty wild at times, so much joy and the Spirit is alive! We have seen a number of conversions and healings. My favorite is Rose who was a non-verbal 90-year-old Jewish lady who burst into tears during my Ash Wednesday service repeating, “I love Jesus!” over and over! We serve the staff, as most work weekends, and hold Gospel nights and Bible Studies as well. All told, we serve close to 100 monthly. These places are full of nothing but widows and orphans, right? They have God’s heart.
In addition to the nursing homes, I planted “The Street Church” in downtown Hartford on the front steps of City Hall. It’s pretty “Rite III.” My liturgics professor at Trinity told us one day, “do not be afraid to let the Holy Sprit hijack your service.” I am not. We meet every Saturday at noon, year round. This church grew out of the Mobile Underwear Shop I started after learning that the homeless just weren’t given any since it had to be new. Most folks donate clothes they don’t want anymore. God says give first fruits, so we do. That first year we clothed over 4,000 and that’s been pretty steady. We had around 12 folks with us that first year. Since then, God put it on my heart to plant a church outside, right there for the homeless. We are the only one around. Most churches want to invite homeless folks in, we invite the church folks out. It is such a powerful ministry! I baptize people in the public fountain. We have the most expensive font in the whole city! We are now called upon to work with the Hartford Police, the homeless outreach groups in the city, and I am asked to teach and preach in all of the evangelical churches in the area. We hear all the time, “those Anglicans know how to spread the Gospel!”
You could say I’ve had a burden to “replant what Anglican means” here in Connecticut. I’ve been called to teach on mission and evangelism throughout the state and beyond. Travel last year kept me pretty busy.
All told, I’m called to transform and build communities.
Describe your typical Saturday service on the Hartford City Hall steps. Would you say it differs from that of a “traditional” Anglican service? If so, how?
Huh, that’s a good question. Oddly enough, I think it’s more “Anglican” than most Anglican services in that it’s a blend of all three streams. You can’t get much more evangelical than a folding table, Higher Church than Eucharist, and charismatic than the Spirit falling on a heroin addict who repents and gets into an ambulance to head off to rehab on the spot!
We arrive in a rented U-haul with our mobile church. We always have homeless friends waiting and they jump in and help us set up, just like any other set up team for a church that rents space; we just happen to be outside on the front steps of City Hall. We’ll gather our team of visitors (volunteers) for that day and brief them on what we do and why. We draw from over a dozen area churches and some who drive an hour to be with us. The number varies from week to week as we draw from over 125 committed folks. We pray and then lay out our coffee/water/sweet tea and snacks, cover the sidewalk in chalk notes of love and Scripture, and flood the streets with worship music.
God led us to the spot because it’s not only a main thoroughfare for the homeless, but we are surrounded by folks headed to the city’s main art museum, the public library, and the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work. Our welcome team engages all the curious walking by, offering drinks and snacks.
At noon, we gather for worship on the steps. Charlie, one of our street friends, always brings “altar weeds” that he picks en route. I image the scene is what Jesus must have seen; homeless, addicts, prostitutes, working poor, church people, well-paid folks, all races, gathered to hear of God’s love.
We have a Rite III service where we pray, read all the lectionary, and then I’ll preach. I’m always surrounded by people in a circle, the “inside and outside” group. Some are smoking, some drunk, some high, some clean; it’s amazing. They all volunteer to read. I had a guy with an ankle bracelet on house arrest as a lectern one day. That’s “weirdly Anglican,” right?
After I preach (or another) we turn to the folks next to us and pray. Have you ever seen a homeless guy pray over a corner-office architect? Their faith is so rich and raw and beautiful. I’ll then gather everyone back in corporate prayer for our “family meal.” Carlos, my “deacon” who has been homeless for three years, stands next to me and serves as my chalice bearer.
The folding table is set with a shiny chalice, patten, and candle holders with electric candles. It brings beauty to the dark, loud place. We invite all baptized and believing folks to partake, offering that if today is the day Christ has laid claim to their lives, they are welcome. I’ve baptized almost a dozen folks on the spot. Every one is “emergency” because we never know what will happen to them. So we both step into the pubic fountain. All my pastor friends who join us can’t believe it when it happens. I remind them Wesley and Whitfield were open air preachers too!
After the service we serve lunch that has been brought by volunteers. One Baptist Church sends their chef and catering team. We all eat together.
During the meal our caseworker (we have four) helps folks navigate the system and the prayer team does their ministry. Then we break down the altar and distribute underwear/socks/bras or hygiene products.
I’ve served in many places and, to be honest, this is the most beautiful expression of the body I have come across. It’s not about me; its about who The Lord called together. It is a piece of heaven on earth.
What testimonies from your ministry stand out to you – whether of those ministered to or of volunteers or even of yourself?
Oh, there are so many, some good, some hard, all faithful. One friend, Angel, would show up drunk every week. Often, he would stumble towards me, filthy hands cupped and outstretched, wanting the Body of Christ. It hit me that his addiction is a disease, and since I could not say to a cancer patient, “Go and get well and then come back,” I had to be with my friend in his sickness. He would see me across the street and yell, “one more day, Father! One more day!” referring to being alive one more day. One day he was sick and we had to call 911. When the ambulance arrived, they refused to care for him until the police arrived because he was known as the violent drunk of the city. When the police arrived, he ran yelling “Father, why did you call the cops? I got a warrant!” He walked back, and the police were frisking him and cuffing him and they called me over. “Father, he wants to talk to you.” So my friend buried his head in my chest while they cuffed him and gave me his personals. I prayed over him and followed him into the “special place” at the hospital for the busted homeless, and tucked him in bed and sang songs over him. Just a few months ago I learned that he is clean and well and fat and healthy!
My favorite volunteer testimony came from a guy who has so many letters after his name that he needs longer cards. After serving with us for a month or so, he blows my phone up with excited texts: “I just stopped and talked and prayed over Casey. She was panhandling under the bridge again today! I bought her breakfast. She looks pretty good.” God did an amazing work in his life! Casey was no longer that old lady with a sign, but had a name and a story.
In the article in the Hartford Courant, you were quoted as saying that you “don’t fit inside a church in the traditional sense.” What about Anglicanism gives you the freedom to be in a traditional church without being traditional?
There is so much freedom in expression of worship in Anglicanism, isn’t there? I’ve been with believers in East Africa under trees, in Cathedrals, in mud huts. I’ve worshipped in the United States in fine buildings, in restaurants, and on the street. I believe being Anglican is first and foremost about proclamation of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Our founders were burning alive for the faith and gave their lives for the glory of God! When Archbishop Duncan gave us the Anglican 1000 charge, I was hooked! He tasked us to raise up worshipping communities every where, in every context.
What about being Anglican, specifically, led you to this kind of ministry? What do those you serve appreciate about the Anglican identity?
I sat under the teaching of Rev. Dr. Les Fairfield, and he ruined me forever for “traditional ministry” when he taught me of the Clapham Sect and of Whitfield preaching on the slag piles in the rain to “thousands of miners, white rivers being formed in the thick black covering their faces as their hearts where broken for the Gospel.” This is Anglicanism for me! Our founders stood on the corners of streets preaching the Word of God! As I mentioned before, we are rich in the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer is the engine of our faith.
Do you have any words of encouragement to those in the Anglican Church in North America, especially as it pertains to radical ministry?
Yes! A few months ago I was approached by folks from the Day Foundation. They had heard of my work and were doing a follow-up to the Barna report of the Spiritual Landscape of our nation. They had heard that there were small pockets of revival, burning embers across the nation and that we were one of them. They sat with me, and we shared stories of God’s workings. New England is on fire, as is our nation, in ways we did not expect – such is the case of God, right? Be faithful to what God has tasked you with. Just be faithful.