‘An interesting odyssey’: How new church built a following in Milford during pandemic

MILFORD — There was never any doubt where Curran Bishop would start his church.

A Georgia native raised by Rhode Islanders, Bishop founded Christ Presbyterian Church in Milford in 2020. Against all reasonable expectations, the congregation has weathered a global pandemic and seven relocations and reached its first anniversary.

Members will commemorate the occasion with an abbreviated in-person service at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Rotary Pavilion at Fowler Field. Regular services are Sundays at 10:30 a.m. at the Milford Arts Council.

“It’s been an interesting odyssey,” Bishop said of the previous 12 months that has seen his 30-member congregation meet for services in backyards, parks and a gaming cafe, among other places.

Bishop and his family moved to Milford in 2018, and he began the process of becoming part of the community, he said.

“We knew we weren’t going to start meeting (as a church) for a while, so we wanted to build a church in the shape and form that would be accommodating to Milford,” he said. “I spent 2018 just getting to know people. I went to a lot of city meetings, because I’m kind of a nerd. But by 2019, we had enough people that we were regularly gathering for Bible study and backyard parties to keep building our community.”

By late 2019, Bishop was part of a group of about 20 people, and he began looking for a church home.

“When you’re meeting in people’s houses, that’s about as big as you can be,” he said.

By early 2020, Christ Presbyterian Church had arranged to hold Sunday services at Harborside Middle School and nearly 40 people came to celebrate the church’s official beginning in its new home.

A week later, they were homeless again.

“We knew that there was this pandemic coming and people were talking about a shutdown, so I had been waiting for that call,” Bishop said.

The church relocated to the Hawkwood Game Cafe, but a week later, the state limited gatherings to 10 people, and the group was on the move again.

For the duration of the initial coronavirus lockdown, church members met virtually with Bishop conducting a four-person service from a living room.

“One person ran the Zoom call, one person played keyboard, one singer and me preaching,” he said.

By May, the weather warmed up enough to allow outdoor services in a member’s backyard, and by July, the congregation had settled in at the Rotary Pavilion at Fowler Field. That was the church’s longest tenure in any location — 14 weeks.

“It was a great place to conduct services — there were people playing basketball a few hundred feet away,” Bishop said. “For a church that wants to be a part of the community, nothing’s better than being out in the community. And it only rained once in the 14 Sundays we were there.”

As the calendar flipped to October, the increasingly brisk fall breezes signaled another move, this time to the basement of the Disabled American Veterans Center for a month before settling in at the Milford Arts Council on Railroad Avenue.

“It was a natural fit — they couldn’t do their normal programs because of the pandemic, and we needed the space,” Bishop said.

Through all the moves, attendance held steady between 30 and 35 people each Sunday. Bishop said he takes pride in the small group’s age, racial and economic diversity.

“My wife and I were in our 30s when we came here in 2018, and the first couple that joined us were in their 70s,” he said.

And despite being a new church in town, Bishop said the other churches have been welcoming.

“A lot of churches like to see other churches in their community,” he said. “It’s like restaurants. You don’t want every restaurant in your town to have the same menu. But with a diversity of restaurants in an area, you become known for it, more people come in and everyone thrives.”

The same holds true for churches in New England, which polls show is among the least religious parts of the country with fewer than 1 in 5 people attending weekly services.

“If 15 percent of the people are churchgoers, I’m not looking to divide the 15 percent among one more church,” he said. “I want to draw people from the 85 and bring them into the 15.”