If you happen to be wandering the historic downtown streets of Charleston, South Carolina, don't be alarmed if you hear someone holler, ”Hot oysters comin' through!” Instead, just follow the aroma of fresh seafood and chili to St. Michael's Church, and join the party.
Recently, St. Michael's has been inviting the community of Charleston to their Alpha Introduction Dinner – Oyster Roast style. The Oyster Roast is a seasonal “seafood boil” and a coastal tradition in South Carolina in which an abundance of oysters are steamed in large tin containers.
In the case of St. Michael's, this Oyster Roast takes place right on the lawn of their classic, southern style Rectory House. The lawn is aligned with long wooden tables tops, built to sit atop large tin cans. There are even holes cut out of the tops where guests can toss oyster shells which are later recycled back into the ocean to become home to another mollusk – a standard practice in South Carolina. Spread across the tables is plenty of hot sauce bottles and oyster crackers. And for those who don't eat oysters, there's a welcoming display of two different kinds of chili and all of the favorite toppings.
While everyone eats together, Rev. Al Zadig takes the mic on the wrap-around porch and casually shares the Alpha talk, Is There More to Life Than This?, which can be heard all the way out to the street by passersby.
St. Michael's consistently encourages their church members to invite a friend to the Alpha Intro Dinner – not too daunting of a task when they know the church strives to create a truly enjoyable and comfortable experience for their Alpha guests.
“The Intro Dinner can be awkward for people,” shares Nena Jackson, Director of Connections and Alpha at St. Michael's, “But the way we eat at the Oyster Roast removes the awkwardness in the most amazing way.”
Though St. Michael's has tried the traditional, round-table style of eating at Alpha, they've found that the recently popular “communal dining” style works extremely well in this situation. Nena explains, “Everyone is busy doing something other than eating their plate of food. They are actively trying to pry open oysters or help the person sitting next to them. It removes any awkwardness of different backgrounds and generations when we're all just shuckin' oysters together.”
"The way we eat at the Oyster Roast removes the awkwardness in the most amazing way."
In this unique setting, Nena has observed that people are much more likely to join a communal table even if they don't know anyone. “People just find a spot and grab it.” says Nena.
In addition to the interactive meal, St. Michael's team members, dressed in full fisherman waders, visit the tables, announcing, “Hot oysters comin' through!” while emptying bowls of steamed oysters all over the tables. With all of this happening, there's simply no awkward silence or strain for conversation. Nena shares that in the midst of such excitement, “It's really fascinating to watch the peace and comfortability that everyone experiences.”
“It's really fascinating to watch the peace and comfortability that everyone experiences.”
This year, St. Michael's revved up the fun by adding a photo booth to their Oyster Roast. Guests loved participating in having their photos taken, complete with giant props of sunglasses, hats and signs marking the occasion with #STMAlpha and #TryAlpha. A slide show of the photos ran on the outside of the booth throughout the evening, and everyone received a little card telling them where to find their pictures on the St. Michael's facebook and Instagram pages – a smart, easy way to draw people to the church's social media sites.
Drenched in history, St. Michael's is one of the oldest historical churches in the country and has withstood hurricanes, fires and even cannonballs! Hundreds of people tour the church weekly to see the pews where historical figures such as George Washington and Robert E. Lee actually sat and worshiped. Adding to its rich history, St. Michael's was also one of the first churches to start Alpha in the US.
It's clear that the southern charm is in full effect at St. Michael's as they embrace their unique environment as an opportunity to create a culture of invitation that reaches out to the locals and visitors of Charleston. So, the next time you're visiting Charleston in early spring, stop by to see the folks at St. Michael's – and be sure to pack your shuckin' knife.
Interested in running Alpha? Learn more here.