I arrived in Boston in 1995 with a heart and a history for urban ministry. I soon discovered that there were many fewer Presbyterian congregations in New England than in my old New Jersey stomping grounds where I served congregations in Flemington, New Brunswick, and Trenton. As I cast about for pastoral opportunities in the city, I learned that one urban congregation was about to dissolve, and three others were on the edge of closure. The field did not sound particularly fertile or promising. Nonetheless, my interest was piqued when I was contacted by an elder (a lay leader) of one of those congregations, Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, located in a southwestern neighborhood of Boston.
Hooked by Warmth and Hope
What captured my interest was this elder’s enthusiasm for a congregation that was supposed to be moribund. Joe was a relative newcomer. He had been looking for a church in which to be married after a Roman Catholic parish declined to bless his union with a divorced non-Catholic. The newlyweds were so grateful for the willingness of the stated supply pastor1 to perform the ceremony that they returned to worship the next Sunday. Warmed by the small congregation’s welcome, the couple soon became members. As this spunky elder put it to me, “We won’t let them close the church. We just got here!”
I was interested enough to talk to the executive presbyter, plying him with questions about the congregation’s viability. Signs were abundant that the congregation was dying. A stated supply pastor had replaced the last installed pastor. She had served for five years before leaving for a counseling position. Along the way, several congregational meetings had raised the question of dissolving the church. After two years of Sunday supply preaching, the congregation’s worship attendance had dropped to 15 or 20 adults and three children who came with their grandmother. Most of the worshipers were senior adults.
This was a “one-hour-on-Sunday” congregation. With only three young-sters attending, no regular Christian education program was available for them. No adult classes were held. The church had no choir. Members had no regular after-worship fellowship time. Outreach programs were nonexistent. Vacant session (governing board) slots could not always be filled. Financial reserves would last only five or six more years, since they had in recent times been dipped into annually.
Not a very encouraging picture—but after serving as guest preacher on Easter Sunday to the remnant gathered there, I was hooked by the warmth of the members’ welcome and their hunger for hope. I happily signed on as stated supply with a contract for 15 hours a week.
A look at the church’s history revealed that since its founding in 1896, it had experienced a long succession of short-term pastorates (35, to be exact). Longtime members explained, with some pride, that the church had served as a launching pad for young ministers who moved on to larger parishes This congregation had never experienced a long “golden age.”
In recent years, the community’s demographics had changed. In what was historically a community of small manufacturing companies, businesses had closed or moved out. Many of the newest community residents were from the Caribbean, with Jamaicans and Haitians supplying the largest numbers. As demographics changed, the all-white congregation aged and finances dwindled.
The congregational story, thus far, is not entirely unfamiliar—years of gradual decline and a slow death. Yet that did not happen in Hyde Park. What made the difference?
A Century-old Parish without “Ghosts”
In a curious way, the historical absence of long-term pastors or a “golden age” relieved the congregation of the temptation to wax nostalgic on ghosts of the past. When it came time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hyde Park Church’s founding, it was hard to stir up interest. Certainly the oldest members had fond memories of a time when several women’s circles were thriving (and somewhat competitive). People recalled with pride how the men of the congregation had helped rebuild after the church’s earlier building burned to the ground. But this was not a church overburdened with “Remember when?”
Most significant, a handful of people believed that change was preferable to slow death or quick dissolution. Fortunately, few “turf issues” endured to create resistance to change. (Yes, some worshipers preferred the old red hymnal to the new blue hymnal.) I imagined it would take a year for me to earn the congregation’s trust before suggesting any major changes. However, I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do—right away!
Celebration, Sorrow, and Growth
The first official Sunday of our shared ministry was Pentecost 1995. I had forewarned the congregation that this would be a real celebration of the Spirit. Everyone had been urged to wear something red. Worshipers were greeted by a sanctuary filled with red balloons and red geraniums. The three children who came regularly had brought friends who helped decorate a birthday cake for the church. They also made kites, symbolizing the fresh winds of the Spirit. An amateur photographer invited all present to the front steps for a group photo. Several women planted the red geraniums as a finishing touch to a joyous day. Pentecost became our symbol of new life. Each year, the photo on the steps became more complicated as we tried to arrange our growing congregation.
Early on, a critical turning point ensued—the death of one of the four Jamaicans who had found their way to this tiny congregation. Ruel was a remarkable man, a towering figure in the life of the local Jamaican community. He served as the congregation’s clerk of session (governing board secretary) and never missed a Sunday until a brain tumor swiftly took his life. The congregation was stunned; the Jamaican people of Hyde Park and beyond were devastated.
The family requested a wake (visitation) in the church sanctuary on the night before Ruel’s funeral. Though this was not the custom of the congregation, governing board leaders showed no hesitation in agreeing. The church was filled to overflowing for both wake and funeral. On each occasion, members of the congregation fed the crowds with warmth and welcome and filling food. A Christian hospitality that reached out to strangers made an impression on those who came to these services. Some who had attended the funeral returned to worship with us the following Sunday. They began to bring their friends. We were becoming multicultural.
Two of our Jamaican members were instrumental in building a Sunday school. Gloria and Winston took it upon themselves to bring children to church, week after week. Suddenly there were enough youngsters for a Sunday school. Visitors with children began to return because the church had a class and a curriculum for kids. One multi-age class met during the first nine months of my ministry. But soon we needed teachers for preschoolers and elementary children and junior and senior high youth.
We decided to continue our Christian education program during the summer to avoid losing momentum. By the end of 1996, 30 children were on the church school rolls.
Because Sunday school ran concurrently with worship, it seemed important to involve children and youth in the early part of the service before dismissing them to class. We wanted our young ones to begin to learn the language of faith. The children’s message and prayer concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. The opening hymn was a child-friendly one. The words used in the prayer of confession were understandable to youngsters. Children took up the morning offering, and youth frequently participated in worship leadership. Often the children would return at the end of the service to share what they had learned that morning, whether it be art or a song or a service project in which we were invited to participate.
I am a narrative preacher. When appropriate, I do not hesitate to connect my personal story to the Story. In a diverse congregation such as Hyde Park’s, many worshipers came from storytelling cultures and thus felt as comfortable with hearing that style of proclamation as I was in preaching it.
As soon as I arrived, we established a regular fellowship time after worship. The steps down to the lower-level fellowship hall were too steep for some of the older folk we wanted to include. For that reason, we drank our coffee and ate our cookies in the narthex. Crowded and cozy, the arrangement made it hard for a visitor to slip out unnoticed and uninvited. For those seeking anonymity, this was not the place to be.
The blue 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal’s newer hymns from other cultures were gradually introduced while we continued to sing the more familiar ones as well. An occasional before-worship hymn sing allowed members to sing from the old “red book” of the 1950s. We became more “sensate” in worship, with rituals of the liturgical season. For example, during Lent, worship began with the silent draping of a rough wooden cross in ever-deepening shades of lavender and purple. The children eagerly took responsibility for this ritual with great respect and seriousness. On Easter morning the entire congregation moved in procession to the front of the sanctuary with flowers and a white cloth to proclaim the resurrection.
Almost immediately, we began a choir that we informally called “Add Water and Mix.” This meant that each Sunday we dared to call forward any who were willing to sing a simple anthem or hymn with no more than a few minutes of practice before worship. We were earnest but not much else. Then one Sunday early in 1997, Julie arrived. A Quaker, she was bringing her newly-arrived-in-town Presbyterian father to the only Presbyterian church for miles. Julie and her family never left. A public-school music director, she soon offered to help us out on Sundays. A real choir was born! We realized then how important a choir’s leadership is for meaningful worship.
During our 1995 celebration of Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, it dawned on us that few of our members had much connection with a Scots heritage. Our roots were Moravian and Baptist and Methodist and Catholic and Episcopal and Pentecostal. Our birthplaces were Jamaica and Nigeria and Cameroon and Barbados and Cape Verde, as well as the United States. No more than five of those in our midst were “cradle Presbyterians.” So our covered-dish supper after that heritage service reflected the many cultures from which we had sprung: Boston baked beans and apple pie were set alongside curried goat and meat pasties and fried plantains on the serving table.
As a new pastor, I invited some church leaders on a community walkabout. We discovered that the church’s location, denomination, and ministry were not well known to newcomers. We decided that it was time to reach out into the community. With the help of some suburban volunteers, we began an after-school tutoring program for children with learning disabilities. The Presbytery of Boston gave us a grant for supplies and snacks. A downtown congregation supplied us with books. A local public elementary school and two parochial schools sent us our first students. We were becoming visible. As a result, we received unsolicited grants; we were given computers for our program by people in the community and beyond.
At about the time I arrived in Boston, an interfaith group of clergy began to look at the possibility of congregations’ doing community organizing together. Over the next three years, through thousands of one-to-one conversations among laypeople and clergy of every race, culture, and creed, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization was born. Several leaders from Hyde Park joined me in laying the groundwork of that organization, soon called GBIO. We learned to reach far beyond our neighborhood boundaries to work for the common good, with major victories in the areas of affordable housing and public-education budgets.
One of the side benefits of our work with GBIO was the emergence of a new emphasis on leadership development within the congregation. GBIO recognized that congregations were often hesitant to get into community organizing for fear of losing badly needed leaders from the parish. Appreciating this concern, with guidance from a GBIO staff person, we launched a six-week leadership-training program to expand our leadership pool. The goal was to invite and involve a wider circle of congregation members in leadership roles by providing practice in leading, and offering communal support in the learning process. Integral to the process were weekly one-to-one conversations with other participants. In our case, the one-hour group training was held after church on Sunday for six weeks. Following a quick lunch of soup and bread, we used the same structure each week: words of welcome, a faith reflection, an overview of our leadership campaign and the numbers involved, our goals, a leadership learning presentation, one-to-one visit selection for the upcoming week, announcements, a closing prayer, and an evaluation of the meeting. This unchanging structure created a sense of familiarity and security for those trying out front-of-the-room leadership for the first time.
The participants represented half of the congregation; many were not then in positions of leadership. We were intergenerational, with some of our teens demonstrating great gifts as leaders. To our surprise and delight, we always had more than enough volunteers to lead each segment of the training. On many occasions we found ourselves applauding and cheering and marveling at one another’s talents.
Through the one-to-one conversations, each participant got to know others at a deeper level. Since many members worked six days a week, most one-to-one conversations were scheduled on Sunday mornings. From 8:00 a.m. until worship at 10:30, every room in the building was abuzz with talk as people paired off to share their stories over bagels and coffee. At the outset of the program, we created a display board picturing our church. Labeled arrows pointing toward the church indicated countries of origin. Each one-to-one conversation was represented by a small paper figure of a person. By the conclusion of our six-week training the display-board church was covered with 300 “paper people.”
Out of those meetings, fresh leadership did indeed emerge. New elders and deacons (congregational caregivers) were nominated from among those who took the training. An educational initiative with the local high school was planned. A desire to support families with children materialized as a “Baby Basics” program that offered disposable diapers and friendly consultations to working families not eligible for WIC2 assistance. The teenagers organized an interchurch basketball league. Perhaps the most important benefit was the discovery that though a congregation may see itself as warm and friendly, the members may not really know one another well. Out of all those conversations and shared growth, a new sense of connected community blossomed.
A Time for Change
Six years passed. The budget had balanced for two years in a row. African American members of a dissolved congregation added to our diversity. The size of the worshiping congregation had quadrupled, with 60 or more adults and children in the pews. (Many of those who faithfully attended and contributed financially were not members. We called them “congregation friends.” I have observed this same phenomenon in other urban congregations.) Session slots were filled, and deacons were active. Wednesdays were bustling and busy with tutoring, Baby Basics, choir rehearsal, and a Taizé service. Youth were involved in their own version of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. The congregation’s relationship with the presbytery had been strengthened through enthusiastic support of the church’s mission.
We were all becoming too comfortable with a pastoral presence that could not become permanent, according to church polity. In many ways what we had experienced was new-church development, although we never called it by that name. The church was approaching the ability to call a pastor as stewardship increased and congregational size became vigorously viable. Difficult as it was to make the decision, it was time for me, as stated supply, to move on. Soon afterward, the congregation took a deep breath, stepped out in faith, and invited a fine young pastor to serve among them. He and they are thriving.
Elements of Rebirth
Looking back on this remarkable experience with the congregation of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, I can identify several key factors that help a multicultural congregation to be born:
What I Learned
This experience and other urban pastorates have taught me these lessons:
NOTES1. In Presbyterian churches, a “stated supply pastor” is a minister appointed to serve in a congregation not seeking an installed pastor.
2. WIC is the abbreviation for the Women, Infants, and Children Program, administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.