Well, I drove up to Aquinnah for church last Sunday. I made it to the 10 am service before it got underway and was greeted warmly, 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’s been leading the Community Baptist Church of Gay Head in Aquinnah since September 2020 and I wondered how he was fairing and how the community was doing.
The church building is simple and perfect for a gathering of believers. Whenever I’ve visited I always think to myself, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name…” because there may be around a half-dozen worshippers in the off-season, a number that can rise to around 30 in summer. Considering the size of the space, that’s a full house. As Sean said in the beginning of his pastorate, he’s interested in quality more than he is quantity.
“We focus on who is here and what we can offer them,” Sean said. “If nothing else, we’re a prayer community. Growth in spirit is what God is looking for, so we come to pray and learn together.”
The church has an informal feel and yet a sacredness to it. You get the feeling that you can talk about your own faith freely there, without judgment or feeling weird 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 feels more like a conversation, albeit a conversation that is a monologue,” he added with a laugh.
Of course one of the benefits of going to the Aquinnah church is that Sean is a bonafide musician, often playing at Island venues with his brother Griffin, who is director of music at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. You can’t help but sound good during the musical parts of the service.
I think I can say that Sean and I share an interest in religion and spirituality; one of the first conversations we had some years ago now was about Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement. He has a love of the history of the Catholic faith as I do, and a real curiosity surrounding spiritual growth. He might be the most ecumenical person I know.
We caught up about a lot of topics as we sat in the pews after the service. “I launched 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 output. We learn in ‘The Confessions of St. Augustine’ that no one is perfect all the time. I think there are some Americans who need to see Christians who have ups and downs. It seems like most think Christians are self-righteous. I’m only now starting to see how secular the world is.”
The faith community at Sean’s church meets regularly and makes decisions together, he explained. One that has come up is what to do with the parsonage, 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 that they can fix up. They don’t use cellphones and say on their website that if it were up to them, they wouldn’t have a website at all.
Sean has written to them to ask if they’d be interested in coming to the Island, to perhaps work on the parsonage. This, of course, led to me having visions of how amazing it would be to welcome a group of Franciscan friars here on the Island. Part of my spirituality is geeking out about religious orders — the history of St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius, I could go on and on.
Sean just said it would be great if his successor could have a parsonage to live in someday, so that the pastor could be a part of the Aquinnah community. Even though he doesn’t live in Aquinnah, the church feels like home to Sean. He became comfortable attending with the Rev. 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’ll keep writing sermons on everything from love to trust to redemption to angels, something he finds very satisfying.
“Silly as it sounds, I love writing sermons,” Sean told me. “I underestimated how satisfying that 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 percent on scriptural prompt. I read the lectionary and think for a while until a topic comes, normally a scripture will stand out.” His sermons are worth reading and you can find them on the church’s website at bit.ly/seansermon.
Sean will keep playing the Sunday night Holy Rock ‘n Roll shows at the Ritz as soon as it opens again, and he and the band are traveling in the off-season, playing throughout the Northeast before summer hits. One of the songs at the Sunday service, “Dance to the Father’s Love,” was written by Sean: “And now I stand before you / with my hands, feet, and secrets laid bare / and this lonesome head uncovered / has none but good shame to wear / for the shadows have all been swallowed / and healed is the wound of Death’s tear / for the blood of the Son has cried out from His cross / to the tune of the Father’s love.”
If you’re looking for a small faithfully committed group, I’d say make the drive to Aquinnah for yourself.
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