By Rev. Greg Klimovitz
How can a congregation embody solidarity and non-anxious presence in the midst of increased cultural polarity and fear? For the faithful of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church (GPC), their answer has resided in a commitment to local interfaith engagement. A congregation whose membership hovers around 100, this Lower Merion church recently enhanced explorations of the diverse religious traditions in their community so to love their neighbor as themselves. “The spirit of understanding other traditions is part of the DNA of GPC,” remarked Rev. Todd Stavrakos, pastor of GPC since 2006, “By our intentional study of different traditions we are beginning to realize God is calling us to work in different ways and to run counter to how society seems to be more and more stratified- what many of us talk about as people living in silos.”
As the saints of Gladwyne have refused to silo their witness, they have strengthened collaborations with the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Philadelphia and developed significant relationships with local religious communities. These connections have led to a series of interfaith engagements where they not only host conversations with the likes of Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams, but also are welcomed into the sacred spaces of their neighbors at Hindu temples or Buddhist and Baha’i centers. Along the way, Rev. Margaret Somerville, associate pastor at Gladwyne, has asked the congregation, “Can we be bold enough to step outside of our space of wanting to welcome and invite and go out and engage and be in the space and share worship and practices with people of other traditions?” The affirmative response has led GPC disciples, including youth in confirmation, to learn alongside and share with their interfaith siblings and see the image of God reflected in those so often misunderstood and characterized. Participants in Advent and Lenten series have even pushed through initial apprehensions and enriched their love for their Christian faith and contemplative practices. “I think some people who begin to get involved in interfaith engagement as Christians are scared at first that they are not supposed to talk about Jesus. That has proven to be absolutely the opposite,” added Rev. Somerville. “People from other traditions are open as we are trying to be [open]. They want to hear about why we are following the way of Jesus Christ and who Jesus is as our Lord and Savior…They want to hear about why that is the truth for us. That’s a beautiful thing.”
In addition to the impact of interfaith engagement on GPC discipleship, beauty has been found in the mutual trust established with local religious communities that enhanced how GPC responds to tragedy and local concerns. This was evident after last year’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Two days before the tragedy, GPC engaged in a series of contemplative practices facilitated by Harold Messinger, Cantor of Beth Am Israel. Over the course of twenty minutes, they meditated and chanted the Hebrew word, chesed, or “loving-kindness.” This discipline and the presence of Messinger left such an imprint on participants that, when news broke about Tree of Life, they responded with the same loving-kindness towards their neighbor and headed to Beth Am Israel to sing and pray with their Jewish siblings. “If anybody asks me what I want to see as an outcome of our interfaith work, that is what I want to see. That we can be in solidarity with others in their times of need and their moments of need,” said Rev. Stavrakos. “And I know that they will be there in our moments of need as well. And that’s really what this is about.”
This embodiment of loving-kindness did not end there. Recently, GPC applied for and received a Great Ends Grant through the Presbytery for a summer initiative, Lower Merion Summer Café, which pulled together collective resources of the interfaith community as response to the pervasive food insecurity that plagues Lower Merion. Aware that over 900 children are on subsidized lunch programs, this venture provided daily food and nutrition to these families during the summer gap in assistance programs. This combined effort underscored that, while there may be differences among them, the interfaith community holds common beliefs that no child should be left hungry and the alleviation of local inequities requires combined efforts of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith centers. As Rev. Stavrakos added, “If the church is serious about actually addressing the needs of God’s children in our communities, the best avenue to do it is through interfaith work.”
As our congregations gathered and scattered throughout Greater Philadelphia continue to discern how God is calling them to love their neighbor as themselves, the witness of Gladwyne is an invitation to consider revitalized interfaith engagement. This work will not only enhance the discipleship and Christian formation of a congregation, but also become a renewed avenue for local collaborations as a church lives into the mission of God. As Rev. Stavrakos reminds us, “We cannot proclaim the gospel if we are remaining in silos. We have to be out and about and engaging.” Thanks be to God for how the faithful of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church have indeed been out and about, linking arms in solidarity with their interfaith neighbors.
Listen to the podcast here:
TMT Memorial Presbyterian Church Residency and 1001 New Worshipping Communities
by Rev. Greg Klimovitz
How can a congregation envision ministry of empathy alongside neighbors all-too-familiar with isolation and neglect? This has been the framing question for the Rev. Dr. Carroll Jenkins at Thomas M Thomas Memorial Presbyterian Church (TMT) in Chester. The last of five Presbyterian congregations in this three-mile urban center alongside the Delaware River, TMT has recently re-established their commitment to intentional community engagement as incarnations of the gospel. “We are really trying to identify people who have particular needs and out of those needs there is a spiritual thirst. As we can identify that, we can help them find the spiritual resources that will strengthen them and help them to go forward,” remarked Rev. Dr. Jenkins. “We [have begun] to talk about how we can improve the quality of life within the community.”
Once a primary hub for industry and business, Chester is no longer primarily known for its production, vibrancy, or vocational opportunity. Major corporations have closed, political interests have shifted to the suburbs, resources for the public school system have been slow to come by, and employment has been on a steady decline. All of this has contributed to a strong sense of abandonment felt by local residents. This is where TMT has discerned and renewed a call to subvert the narrative of despair and envision ministry of solidarity and support alongside the good people of their beloved city. “We were not sure what we were going to grab onto as an interest area,” added Rev. Dr. Jenkins. “[We knew] this was something we needed to think about- how do we bring people together without saying you got to come and worship in this place?”
The openness to new possibilities ultimately led TMT, in collaboration with the Presbytery of Philadelphia, to pilot a residency program through the 1001 New Worshipping Communities (NWC) movement of the PCUSA. Launched in July 2018, TMT welcomed Kearni Warren to facilitate a venture in contextual engagement with their neighborhood. A child of Chester and proven entrepreneur from a lineage of small business owners, educators, and Presbyterian ministers, Kearni has a natural ability for collaboration and vision casting. As Warren and Rev. Dr. Jenkins dreamed together and spoke with local residents, they sensed a call to facilitate the beginnings of a new ministry of empowerment alongside caregivers. This is something Kearni Warren knows much about, as she served as the primary caregiver for her mother, the late Rev. Bernice Warren, in her fight against cancer. “Caregivers for a long time have been a forgotten community [and] there have been stereotypes about caregivers,” said Warren. “Up until recently, the face of caregivers has changed. It is no longer that person whom we think is working at a nursing home or who may be uneducated and doesn’t possess a lot of skills. Today caregivers are professional people who have either quit their jobs to take care of mom or dad or grandmother or they are professional people who are trying to juggle their work while providing care for a family member.”
This budding initiative, known as the Caregiver Society, not only extends community to those who care for the terminally ill, but also those who nurture Alzheimer patients and adults with special needs, second-time-around grandparents raising grandchildren whose parents are incarcerated, individuals who walk alongside family and friends battling addiction, and more. As caregivers expend themselves for the sake of another, self-care and support networks are vital, “So for me to be able to provide a sense of community where we can all come together to express what we are going through so that we do not feel alone [and] to offer spiritual guidance, that is the core of what the Caregiver Society is about,” added Warren, whose residency was recently extended for a second-year. “[We are] forming a community where we can go to each other, count on each other for support, whichever way that may come.” This support ranges from vision board parties that foster clarity of vocation and personal ambition, conversations with experts in a variety of professional fields, and spiritual formation practices to center the mind and spirit wearied from the on-going self-offering to loved ones. One caregiver shared with Warren, “I have never been a part of something so big.”
In many ways, the identified demographic of caregivers has become a gateway to serve those in Chester most vulnerable to poverty, unemployment, grief, and loss. As the residency program of TMT has shifted their leadership’s emphasis from filling church pews alone, they have linked arms with those who humbly live into the gospel beyond their congregational walls as embodiments of the church of Jesus Christ. “The commitment of Christ is that you allow Christ’s Spirit in you,” commented Rev. Dr. Jenkins. “You have to allow the church to be in you, not something you are going to, but something that you are already a part of every day. It doesn’t make any difference where you are. You become Christ in the flesh.”
We give thanks for the way the faithful of TMT and the Caregiver Society are indeed Christ in the flesh alongside those who provide compassion and care to their most vulnerable neighbors. Their witness serves as a reminder that faithful ministry often occurs as we simply come alongside those in our communities who already model what love and generosity look like beyond our church buildings. May our eyes and ears be open to these messengers of hope, even as we strengthen their mind, bodies, and spirits for their good and faithful work. In so doing, we just may shift individual and cultural narratives away from despair and towards the bigness of God’s wide welcome and affirmation of belonging.
by Rev. Greg Klimovitz
How can a church engage the intergenerational landscape of their changing neighborhood? This is a common question asked by congregations throughout our Presbytery and around the country. For the faithful of Old Pine Presbyterian Church in Old City, the answers are not as complicated and glitzy as what many might imagine. A congregation that recently celebrated its 250th anniversary, maintains a cemetery with 285 Revolutionary War soldiers buried on its grounds, and shares property with the Presbyterian Historical Society, this historical faith community has also embraced a steady influx of young families and individuals and doubled membership in the last seven years. “For people who know our physical presence in the neighborhood, our history is one of the things that stands out,” commented Rev. Jason Ferris, pastor of Old Pine since 2012. “But as you get to know us a little better, hopefully you’ll see that we are a very authentic congregation that is trying to live the gospel in a way that is authentic to our experience and directed to people who live in this area.”
Rather than fall to the (false) assumption that more contemporary music, high-energy instrumentation, and the manufacturing of a particular spiritual experience will lure in a younger demographic, Old Pine has invested their energies in hospitality, education, community engagement, social impact, and traditional worship that merges thoughtful preaching with liturgical depth. “I think what is working at Old Pine is making the gospel relevant again. We don’t do anything too fancy,” Rev. Ferris added. “We really believe [the gospel] changes lives. We really believe it is totally relevant to contemporary life; that it gives us something that the secular world doesn’t. And that we haven’t outgrown our need for Jesus Christ and the life that he gives us.”
One of the ways Old Pine has affirmed this belief has been through the addition of Rev. Rebecca Blake, who also serves as the organizing pastor of the Beacon Church, to serve as Pastor for Christian Education. In addition to writing a localized curriculum to nurture spiritual formation and discipleship across generational lines, Rev. Blake has added pastoral support to ensure younger members who walk through the door of the church feel welcomed, affirmed, and empowered to use their gifts and passions for the cause of Christ. “When you have people who are doing what they are meant to do for the benefit of other people and God, that is when you start to see people responding,” Rev. Blake remarked. “Those are the things that bring people alive and invite those in the pew into their vocation and their sense of call. That, I think, is really profound.”
As Old Pine has continued to grow in both diversity and size, storytelling has played a pivotal role in its ministry. This has included creative and intentional engagement with technology. While the worship is traditional, media including film, photography, and digital media have played a pivotal role in its community formation. One example has been through the “Humans of Old Pine Project,” an adaptation of the popular Humans of New York digital photo series that went viral in 2010. Rev. Ferris, who has a professional background as a documentary filmmaker, initiated a series of portraits of both church members and the low-income seniors who are served at Old Pine’s weekly meal program. The result was a sacred collection of testimonies that deepened human connections across generational lines. “These guests are now a part of our lives in a new way because we know something about them. It is not just handing somebody a meal and never learning their name and never learning their story,” Rev. Ferris said. “These tools really can take us into new areas of church life. They just have to be used deliberately and you have to keep that goal in mind. We are using this tool because we want to tell a story and connect with someone in a deeper way. It is not just using it because it looks cool. That, to me, is not a healthy way of using media. You have to use it more authentically.” In essence, “Humans of Old Pine” reinforced the theological foundation that, in Jesus, all belong and each individual narrative is a part of the fuller mosaic called the body of Christ.
As Old Pine continues to enhance its witness alongside younger residents in Old City, the congregation offers a faithful reminder that what counts is incarnational connection across generational lines. While the things of worship and the methods of ministry matter, what ultimately attracts those in search of belonging is the intersection of the story of God with the diversity of human experiences and the opportunity to live out vocational interests for the common good. “We do not try to promote ourselves very much. We just try to be an authentic community and the word has gotten out,” Rev. Ferris added. “We are practicing a kind of community life that is really needed but is not as available as it used to be in the outside world.”
May the ministry of this historic congregation continue to be a beacon of hope to all our churches scattered throughout Greater Philadelphia. May it nudge our congregations from the city to the suburbs towards a similar authenticity and welcome that invites people of all generations to participate in expressions of the gospel near and far.
Last Wednesday, six seminarians from Princeton Theological Seminary serving in our Ministry and Leadership Incubator capped off the year with a moving worship service. “Imagination is the key to innovation,” Nii Abrahams proclaimed as a part of his sermon on Revelation 6. “Imagination is the ability to look beyond the reality of your circumstances and believe something better is possible. It is being able to envision an alternate reality and then having the courage to live as though that reality has already taken hold.” This is the mark of our discipleship as those who profess to follow Jesus. This is also the essence of the Ministry and Leadership Incubator as we cultivate (or incubate) the faithful and prophetic imagination necessary for the revitalization of congregational witness in church and community. Over the course of the last academic year, these six students have been paired up in three of our congregations. In addition to their engagement with the varied contexts surrounding their church, intentional and focused supervision by gifted pastors, and charge to explore new ministry possibilities, they also convened as a full cohort for six focused conversations facilitated by local practitioners and presbytery staff. Along the way, present and future church leaders wrestled with what it means to embody the gospel in our time and place, especially alongside those most vulnerable in our congregations and broader neighborhoods. This year, seminarians were able to plant the seeds for grief share initiatives, Friday night intergenerational fellowships, Bible studies, neighborhood service opportunities, and explorations of race, bias, and privilege related to the work and witness of the local church. We give thanks for the way these students invested into the life of our churches and modeled the best of what community can look like. Their ministry among us assures us once again that God’s Spirit continues to call and send people into this imaginative work for the sake of the world.
Cedar Park Presbyterian Church, Rev. Dr. Janel Dixon
Tyler Brinks grew up in Commerce Township, Michigan, and attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He graduated with a BA in Business with minors in Communications and American Ethnic Studies. A second-year student at Princeton, Tyler loves running, coffee, and listening to podcasts.
Mariana Thomas was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago and received her BA in Cross-Cultural Communication with a minor in History at Hope College. Currently a third-year student at Princeton, Mariana has been an active member of Princeton’s Association of Black Seminarians, including acting as Moderator in 2017-2018 and is an avid traveler.
New Spirit Presbyterian Church, Rev. Christopher Holland
Nii Addo Abrahams is a Missouri native with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Religious Studies. A former childcare director and summer camp staff manager, Nii is passionate about spiritual and leadership development for children, teens, and young adults. He is a second-year M.Div. student at Princeton.
Emmanuel Castillo was born in a small town south of Houston. After undergraduate studies at both Texas A & M and Southwestern Assemblies of God University, where he graduated with a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies, Emmanuel is now a second-year student at Princeton.
Forest Grove Presbyterian Church, Rev. Su Fall
Nate Brantingham has a background in entrepreneurship and ﬁnance with a passion for teaching and startups. He is a published poet and has degrees in software project management and psychology. He currently works remotely as a Chief Financial Data Analyst and has no idea what he wants to do when he “grows up.” Nate is a second-year M.Div. student at Princeton.
Will Myers, originally from the Midwest, graduated from Wartburg College in 2017 with a Bachelors in Peace and Justice Studies. He is in his ﬁrst summer at Princeton Theological Seminary where he is in the Master of Divinity program.
The Kingdom of God is like a bowling alley?
For the faithful of Crossroads Presbyterian Church, a congregation in Limerick whose worship attendance hovers around 70, this just may be the perfect parable. Since 2014, Crossroads has partnered with their local bowling alley to host an annual Thanksgiving Day Turkey Bowl open to the entire community. The event is completely free and includes unlimited bowling, arcade games, photo booths, giveaways, and a home cooked meal with all the trimmings made from scratch. “We wanted to host a Thanksgiving meal that was a little different than some of the others,” remarked Rev. Brenton Thompson, pastor of Crossroads. “There is hunger in our community. But at Thanksgiving, the hunger is not only physical. It is also a community day, a national holiday based around community and fellowship. So what about our members of the community who do not live by family or, for whatever reason, do not have a large social network or experience loss or something?”
This yearning to extend hospitality to those hungry for both food and fellowship is what initially drove David Pawson, elder of Crossroads and chair of the Community Care Committee, to dream alongside the manager of Limerick Lanes, Chris Buser. After over ten years of the church fielding a team in Limerick Lanes’ bowling league, Elder Balsoon and Buser discovered they both shared a passion to extend radical hospitality to their community struggling with increased food insecurity. Aware the alley was closed on Thanksgiving Day, they collectively imagined what it could look like to open the lanes and offer a holiday gathering to their neighbors for whom such an experience may elude them for a variety of reasons. “For many of the families who struggle, to take their family out for bowling and a meal is something that doesn’t happen,” commented Pawson. “I believe in making memories. I think that everyone who attends will never forget it.” The community has certainly not forgotten. Instead, Turkey Bowl has become a much-anticipated Limerick tradition that has welcomed over 3,500 people in five years, including 950 registered this past November. “The need is out there- it is widespread,” Pawson said. “Find people and they will come.”
While the event continues to increase in attendance, Turkey Bowl is about far more than impressive numbers. Instead, what makes Turkey Bowl unique is the way the gathering breaks down barriers, creates opportunities for conversations across lines of difference, and celebrates the dignity of all people who attend. Turkey Bowl is not marketed as a ministry to the hungry or an outreach to the poor, although many who experience such vulnerabilities attend; rather, Crossroads convenes this event as a way to bring all people together as an alley of hope. “We try our best to get a small glimpse of what the kingdom to come could look like,” added Rev. Thompson. “[Each year] a diverse group of people gather around to share a meal, share in fun, and attack our dessert table before they are supposed to…We are putting people on lanes together with no concept of how they voted in the last election, where they went to high school, did they go to college, do they own their own home, or are they in section 8 housing- they are just on a lane together.”
As Turkey Bowl has grown, so have their community partnerships and volunteer base. Local restaurants and grocery stores have provided both funding and ingredients for the extravagant meal, local women’s groups have knit over 200 quilts to give away to children, bus and van rental companies have provided free shuttle services around Limerick, and individuals have invested countless hours in food preparation, t-shirt designing, activity coordination, and more. First Presbyterian Church of Pottstown, located eight miles from Crossroads, has even made their industrial kitchen available each year as they prepare over 460 pounds of turkey, 240 pounds of homemade macaroni and cheese, 750 servings of coleslaw, and numerous desserts- all made from scratch. Along the way, the congregation has learned not only about the pressing realities facing their more vulnerable neighbors, but also how to risk responding with a playful dignity that refuses isolation and condescension of those with whom they likely shared a lane.
The witness of Crossroads serves as a faithful reminder of what the Spirit can do when God’s people dare to dream alongside members of their larger community. As they have rolled their visions down the lanes of possibility, they have discovered how even a small congregation can make a large impact as embodiments of the kingdom of God in their immediate neighborhood. “If it is something you are interested in or passionate about- try it,” Rev. Thompson said as a challenge both to his church and those scattered throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “Take the risk because the greater risk is doing nothing. The gospel is not helped by those who do nothing but by those who do something and take risks.” In the midst of endless needs and vulnerabilities throughout Greater Philadelphia, may each of our churches and related ministries risk asking what the kingdom of God might look like in the places we have been called and alongside our neighbors to whom we have been sent. Then, get to it. After all, if the kingdom of God can look like a bowling alley- anything is possible.
Listen to a podcast of this Covenant Connections:
What does cultural identity have to do with the faith formation of young people?
This is especially true for the youth and young adults of the United Ghanaian Community Church (UGCC) in Wyncote. Chartered in 2001 as the first African immigrant congregation in the PCUSA, their culture and heritage are inextricably linked to youth discipleship programs extending to members up to age 30. “Identity for us is extremely important because we believe that when you lose your culture [and] your language, then you have no identity anymore,” remarked founding pastor, Rev. Dr. Kobina Ofosu-Donkoh. “So our focus is [for our youth] to know Christ within the context of being Ghanaian.”
Aware of the pressure for each generation to assimilate to the dominant culture around them, UGCC fosters intentional conversations about life as immigrants in this country, coordinates worship experiences that incorporate Ghanaian traditions, and regularly studies the Scriptures in their native languages. UGCC also sends, with the support of a Great Ends Grant, over 65 young people to their national Ghanaian youth conference to celebrate their faith and shared cultural identity. Along the way, UGCC empowers youth and young adults to lean into what it means to be both distinctly Christian and uniquely Ghanaian in America. “We want them to grow up knowing that there is an extended family somewhere, that they belong,” added Rev. Dr. Ofosu-Donkoh. “If they do not know where they come from, they do not know where they are going either.”
As UGCC walks alongside the next generation in discovering both where they have come from and where they may be headed, they also convene the Young People’s Guild. A bridge ministry for those ages 18-30, the Guild hinges on capacity building among post-adolescent peers as they grow into a central value of church the Ghanaian way- belonging to an extended family as a religious and social support network that strives for the well-being of all people. In efforts to pass down their cultural emphasis of community, the Guild provides fellowship, mentoring, and a robust discipleship curriculum that underscores four areas of focus with corresponding questions: faith formation (whose am I?), identity discovery (who am I?), vocational discernment (why am I?), and leadership development (how am I?). “We tell our children that they are God’s,” added Rev. Dr. Ofosu-Donkoh. “They belong to the God of their parents, the God of their forefathers, the God of their grandparents.” This traditioning of the faith emphasizes a communal understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God, embrace the beauty of their Ghanaian heritage, discover their God-given gifts best able to serve others, and to grow as leaders who “engage in acts of service, justice, and peace in the world.” Since its conception in 2011, the Guild has empowered youth and young adults to become doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, accountants, pharmacists, and preachers, each from an understanding that in becoming such they contribute to the witness of the whole body of Christ and live into the gospel for the benefit of all people.
For younger members of UGCC, the crux of this cultural identity and faith formation program is the call to love and serve their neighbor. This has been especially important for a congregation that, although predominantly Ghanaian, consists of people from various West African tribes and ecumenical traditions they may not have encountered in proximity if they lived in Ghana. The Guild serves as a reminder to young people that their neighbor, while certainly their co-worker, university classmate, or the person who lives next door, comes to them just as much in the church member worshipping in the same pew. “[In Ghana] they may not have had the opportunity to come that close, but here we are,” affirmed Rev. Dr. Ofosu-Donkoh. “So we try to teach [our youth and young adults] that regardless of one’s [ethnic] background…[your] neighbor is the person next to you who may not necessarily be your blood relative, your tribesman, or kinsman.” The same holds true of those sharing a hymnal or seat on the bus to the next youth gathering who may not be Presbyterian, rather Methodist, Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal. As members of the Guild reflect on those four critical formation questions, the playing field is leveled. They remember their neighbor is contemplating the same questions with responses just as valued, each belonging to the God who followed their ancestors from Ghana to Wyncote.
One of the great challenges for the church is to embrace the abundant ways the image of God is reflected in diverse ethnicities, cultural traditions, and international heritages that make up the human family. As the Confession of Belhar affirms, “the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God” (10.3). The ministry of United Ghanaian Community Church embodies this confessional declaration and dares our congregations to incorporate in the faith formation of youth and younger adults the varied cultures and heritages of all people in our churches and neighborhoods. The witness of UGCC even invites us to ask bold questions of identity and belonging able to shape the vocational interests of the youngest among us. In the end, the next generation discovers not only where they have come from, but also where the Spirit may be leading them next- towards a unique expressions of neighborly love. This is the fruit of cultural identity as faith formation the Ghanaian Way. Thanks be to God.
Listen to the podcast of the United Ghanaian Community Church story:
Searching for Belonging: Ministry of the Korean Church Network
How can congregations nurture a sense of belonging when generational gaps are wide and cultural narratives are misunderstood? For the approximately 100 members of the five Korean Churches and worshipping communities throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia, they have collectively facilitated conversations that empower youth and adults to share stories, ask honest questions, and navigate what inclusion means in both their congregations and respective neighborhoods. A network whose membership includes first, one-point-five, and second generation Korean Americans, these interactions have been pivotal for community formation. “[Talking about] identity is very important,” remarked Rev. Byungil Kim. “We have different thinking, different generations, different languages, but we are the body of Christ.”
Aware of the uniqueness of their generational complexities, the network of churches and larger Presbytery even recently ordained and validated the pastoral ministry of Rev. Jeannie Lee to work as the Education and Evangelism Coordinator and convene these intergenerational dialogues. The first woman to serve in an ordained ministry alongside our Korean congregations, Rev. Lee’s gatherings have been sacred opportunities for parents, grandparents, and their children to share about personal experiences of immigrating as adults, assimilating as youth, and navigating what it means to be Korean, American, and distinctly Christian. In the end, all are included and find commonality as disciples of Jesus Christ. “Everyone of us is seeking that sense of belonging-ness and going beyond just our culture and language and all that,” remarked Rev. Lee. “And that creates a common ground for all of us to have important dialogues and difficult dialogues because we all understand that we are all children of God.”
As participants have willingly engaged these courageous conversations, many have done so for the first time and with a significant level of vulnerability. Korean Church members have humbly entered into uncharted waters, recognizing that for the gospel truly to speak into their time and place and among every generation, all must be given space to dream, to share, and to be heard as members of the body of Christ and participants in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom come. “How do we try to understand where [each of us] are coming from,” added Rev. Lee. “It is a paradigm shift for first generation parents, to show them that it is ok that they don’t have it all put together. In the Korean tradition, as parents, they feel like they have to have all the answers; they need to have everything neatly packaged. They are realizing, no, it is messy and it is complex. And for them to even have an avenue to talk about it and to voice it, that in itself matters tremendously.”
While there is indeed a high value on their unique Korean heritage, as many find the church as a safe haven from a world where they are constantly othered and isolated from the dominant culture, many are beginning to expand their perspective on what it means to be Presbyterian and a part of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Even more, they long to be known not primarily through the clarifier of “Korean,” but as thriving, vibrant, and active. “In the past we were busy guarding our walls, thinking they were protecting us. I think the Korean Churches are thinking, no, God has called us to be a part of the greater body,” commented Rev. Lee. “It is a new frontier for us, to be honest, because in the past we didn’t understand how we could engage. There was a fear of the unknown and feeling so wholly different that it was almost unnerving to try to engage with the [larger] body when we felt so different. But I think we are starting to recognize that, no, there is a need for engaging in the greater body of Christ through the Presbytery- to also show that we belong.”
This spirit of inclusion and connection has also dared these vital congregations to reach into their neighborhood with the good news of God’s love in Christ. “[We need] to change our mind and change our perspective, not in our church but to see the outside,” suggested Rev. Byungil Kim. “We need to go out to the street with Jesus Christ and share our story with [our neighbors].” In many ways, this pastoral word demonstrates the revitalized and holistic approach to ministry of which the Korean Churches have embraced. They have expanded their vocation across generational, denominational, and community lines in efforts to assure their witness is not isolated but generous and intersectional, reaching beyond what they know and into the mysteries presented by God’s gracious Spirit. As churches throughout our Presbytery continue to explore their sense of call to cross-generational ministry, may the work and witness of faithful Korean congregations in our midst nudge us to renewed risk and courage. May our love for God and neighbor proclaim that all belong and are valued members within the Body of Christ.
First generation refers to an individual who has immigrated from one country to another and been naturalized; second generation refers to the children of first-generation persons; one-point-five generation includes individuals who immigrated as children and assimilated into the new nation and related culture.
How does a local congregation cultivate a shared understanding of mission in an age inundated by polarizing news stories and socio-political realities? For the faithful of Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, they reclaimed discipleship as learning within the context of a gracious community. “[Mission] is about remaining in that student role and allowing myself to be taught what’s next by the Holy Spirit,” said Rev. Ashley Rossi, Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church. “I really feel like I am walking alongside the congregation more so than, at this point, necessarily being a leader. I am in this hot mess with them.”
As Carmel has leaned into the messiness of faith seeking understanding, they have facilitated discussions on immigration, invited speakers to address local gun violence, viewed documentaries on climate change and systemic racism, and hosted interfaith and ecumenical partners for dialogue and fellowship. Church members, including youth, have even recently pilgrimaged to other churches and ministries within the Presbytery of Philadelphia to listen to stories of innovation and social engagement relevant to their changing neighborhoods and relationships they have developed. A church whose membership is fairly traditional and all over the political spectrum, each connectional learning experience has helped their people view topics at hand not through the lens of partisanship but Jesus’ optic of neighborly love. “This is a part of mission,” added Rev. Rossi. “The more we can hear other people’s stories the better we can engage our own communities, even if they don’t look and act the same as ours.”
Over the last few years, Carmel’s revitalized discipleship has not only enhanced their learning, but also empowered their ability to live into a collective mission locally and beyond. This was especially evident in the aftermath of *Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico in 2017. As leadership began to plan their summer ventures for 2018, various church committees unanimously discerned a call to send a relief team of 12 to Puerto Rico in partnership with an ecumenical faith-based organization.
And they went.
Compelled to extend the love and compassion of Christ alongside people they recognized as distant neighbors, fellow citizens, sisters and brothers of the faith, the entire experience evolved into what Rev. Rossi called an “avenue to alternative perspectives.” As they served alongside local churches, they not only saw first-hand the vast devastation, but also took notice of how the faithful of Puerto Rico rose up in solidarity to carry the burdens of the whole community they considered their God-given responsibility. They were not concerned so much about various lines of division but focused on alleviating the suffering of their neighbors most in need. For members of Carmel Presbyterian Church, this embodiment of the gospel not only deepened their relationships with God and one another, but also renewed their discipleship as they returned home ready to serve in light of what they had just learned on the island. “This [mission trip] made me feel a closeness to God that I have not experienced in a long time,” said Elizabeth Angelo, member of Carmel. “Being surrounded by kind teammates and the wonderful people of Puerto Rico, coupled with our meaningful devotion time, my heart was full, and still is today.”
As Carmel continues to nurture their congregation’s missional identity beyond their summer service, they regularly risk conversations in efforts to reap authentic and embodied discipleship near and far. Whether through formative gatherings and “Free Prayer” at local coffee shops, Ashes on the Go at nearby train stations to begin Lent, or the planned viewing of 13th, a documentary on mass incarceration and the U.S. prison system, the faithful of Carmel listen, learn, and serve as humble disciples. They assure one another they need not to have it all figured out as they follow Christ, who is the One making all things new and right. “Church is not a temple to success. It is not some sort of shrine to how great we are at whatever,” remarked Rev. Rossi. “[Church] is a bunch of broken people trying to come together and make the world a better place and heal ourselves in the process. It doesn’t all have to be a raging success. It really doesn’t.”
Thanks be to God.
*In 2017, the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s Leadership Collegium and Trustees unanimously approved the sending of $25,000 to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for financial aid in Puerto Rico relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
By Rev. Greg Klimovitz
What does a congregation do when enrollment is too low to warrant the implementation of a previously-planned summer VBS?
For the Anchor Presbyterian Church in Wrightsville, they pivoted volunteer energies of committed middle school youth and launched an impromptu, week-long experiment in local mission. “I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to minister to the youth,” remarked Rev. Leah Miller, pastor of the Anchor Presbyterian Church. “Kids have the hope of Christ to share, just like adults do, so why not start that early. Why not give them opportunities to express and share that hope and God’s love from where they are now?”
What was known as the Week of Hope, 11 middle school youth immersed themselves in five days of service, learning, and spiritual formation alongside residents in their immediate neighborhoods and community ministries throughout Greater Philadelphia. Youth sorted toys and clothing donations at Hands in Service, constructed a free little lending library (www.freelittlelibrary.com) outside Anchor’s preschool entrance, and provided lawn and garden care for an elderly church member. Middle school youth also volunteered with the Philadelphia Diaper Bank, which directly benefits low-income neighbors who previously resorted to the reuse of diapers due to the high cost of a new parent’s basic necessity. Each of these ministry efforts was coordinated through connections within their congregation and affirmed mission does not have to involve travel to a distant land. As Rev. Miller affirmed, “We can do so much in our area. Our own neighbors need help.”
Potentially the most beautiful result of the Week of Hope, however, was the way the improvisational program engaged middle school youth for whom this was their first experience with church or youth ministry. A congregation with few youth on their church rolls, Anchor’s experiment tapped into the compassion of their young neighbors and affirmed they were included in the witness of the church and God’s unfolding story of redemption. “The Week of Hope really meant that I was really a part of the church,” commented Emma, a local seventh grader. “I was doing my part.”
This authentic message of agency in God’s mission quickly spread. Youth returned day after day with carloads of friends to join in local service and occasional holy mischief, like painting rocks with biblical words of hope and scattering them throughout their town, Tyler State Park, and along rivers on their end-of-week tubing adventure. In the midst of a world strained by despair and isolation, this playful practice assured that even the rocks would cry out messages of love and belonging to passerbys who stumbled upon these colorful icons. It also was a reminder that participation in the divine life and care of neighbor can be a joyous venture. “Week of Hope was a fun way to help others and get closer to God,” added eighth grader Lucian.
As the Anchor church combined play and participation in neighborly love, the congregation uncovered that they indeed had a youth ministry able to draw middle schoolers into a relationship with God. “People might look at our church and say, ‘you don’t have a youth program; you don’t have youth; what are you talking about?’” remarked Rev. Miller. “But if you look beyond the traditional sense of youth groups and ministry within your bounds, you know that you have a ministry that is to whoever is in your community. And they came out of nowhere. Friends. Neighbors. Parents were excited to have their kids involved in something like this.”
As congregations large and small continue to discern ministry possibilities alongside the next generation of change-makers, may the witness of Anchor dare us to look into our communities and remain open to the ideas and passions of our youngest neighbors. Even more, when traditional programs, like a well-planned VBS, no longer prove effective in our local witness, may the church be open and adaptive to how the Spirit can resurrect new ventures to live into the redemptive hope of the gospel. As Rev. Miller said, “Something that at first seemed disappointing- a failure in way- God redeemed it.” Thanks be to God.
Listen to the story here: