Germantown Church of the Brethren: A Church In, Of, and For its Community
In 1723, the first Brethren church in America was founded by a small group of German religious refugees. For over two hundred years this congregation thrived. But by the 1950s, as many white members dispersed to the suburbs, the church sadly discontinued Sunday worship services. Then in 1989 a denominational officer met Richard Kyerematen, and together they agreed to give the church another chance.
A visionary, energetic native of the African nation of Ghana, Rev. Kyerematen's arrival at Germantown Church of the Brethren heralded a change in the church's relationship with the community. The church already had a legacy of providing social services, including a day care, a feeding ministry for homeless people, and a food and clothing bank. People in the community viewed the church as a place that cared about their needs. However, according to a long-standing church member, the previous pastor had "never invited people to come into the church."
Rev. Kyerematen invited everyone he met. He desired that the church provide its neighbors not only with services, but with a spiritual home. He preached the Gospel on the street, in housing projects, and at homeless shelters. Within about six months, the church had grown from 10-15 church members to almost 75 in attendance-about a third of these the fruit of an outreach encounter. "In spite of the traumatic changes that came over the course of the centuries," the church's brochure proudly states, "the Germantown Congregation has remained as firm as a rock. Today a community-oriented, interracial, inter-generational congregation is passing on the promise."
Rev. Kyerematen notes that residents have also tended to think of the church "as a white church, because when most black people moved into this neighborhood, they didn't feel welcomed here." Slowly the congregation is gaining a new image as a family that embraces all cultures and economic backgrounds. The church's answering machine greets callers, "Welcome to Germantown Church of the Brethren, where our family can be your family!" A church member affirms, "The outreach programs and the open doors, it's like a big welcome sign on the outside. And people get a lot of love when they come here."
The church serves as a bridge between a predominantly white, middle class, rural denomination, and a predominantly African American, struggling urban neighborhood. The style of worship and special events such as an annual "Celebration of Life" Gospel Concert affirm the community's African American heritage. The friendly partnership between the pastor and the church's Social Services Coordinator, who is white, visibly symbolizes the church's commitment to racial harmony.
The congregation's diverse fellowship includes single mothers and two-parent families, recovering substance abusers and social workers, homeowners and homeless people. The church has focused ministry attention on two populations in particular: people with addictions, and homeless persons. "When I came here," Rev. Kyerematen recalls, "the church was just going downtown and feeding people, which I call 'Sandwich Evangelism.' Our desire, singly, has been to take people into the life of the church." The church transports homeless shelter residents weekly to church services, teaches occasional Bible studies, and organizes other Church of the Brethren congregations in providing a meal and devotional at a shelter.
Carl* was one of the homeless shelter residents who accepted a ride to the church. He felt drawn to the congregation, but was sucked back into a life of addiction and homelessness. Many years later, after he had recommitted his life to Christ through a rehab program, he came looking for the church that had first shown him Christian love. Although he wondered if people would accept him, he sensed in his spirit that this was the place he was supposed to be. "They have to love me," he told himself; and when no one chased him away his confidence grew. He found a job, remarried his wife in the church's sanctuary, and bought a home and a car. Now he coordinates the homeless ministry. When he tells other homeless guests, "I've been there," he means it literally. His life embodies the church's message of hope.
Integrating people on the socio-economic margins into the life of the congregation is rewarding, as Carl's story illustrates, but also challenging. There are barriers to be overcome on both sides. Rev. Kyerematen describes one little girl from a homeless shelter who wanted to join the praise team. When they started to sing, she asked, "Is this the choir for the shelter people or is this the choir for the church?" Her plaintive question reminded him of how isolated people in distress can feel. The testimony sharing time, a regular feature of worship services, helps to build bridges. As church members share their struggles and praise God for having brought them through, newcomers to the church from the community see that their stories are not so different.
Germantown's efforts not just to serve but to identify with the community have signaled its intention to become a "neighborhood church". The leader of a community organizing nonprofit attests to the change in its reputation: "It's not just open on Sunday and people come in from outside the neighborhood. It's part of the community now."
Germantown Church of the Brethren's outdoor worship services, tent revivals, and door-to-door distribution of church flyers proclaim to the neighborhood, "We're here!" At the start of their youth ministry, they held an outreach crusade on a street crowded with kids. The crusade led to a Bible club in the home of one of the parents. After six weeks, they invited the kids to a Friday youth service at the church, and 70 youth came - far more than if they had not first gone to where the kids were.
Rev. Kyerematen continually encourages the congregation to look beyond the walls of the church. "I have a big problem when people go to church and say, 'I'm just in this church because it meets the needs of my family, because this church has these programs,'" he says. "What about the other children who don't have that opportunity?" The church is reminded of its mission to the community in sermons, prayer times, and announcements of volunteer opportunities. Information on various community programs, issues and resources are posted on a bulletin board near the church's entrance, alongside flyers for such church ministries as the summer camp, after-school program, youth activities, counseling ministry, and discipleship class.
Rev. Kyerematen invests significant time in community networking. He is well-known to local social service agencies, both for recruiting their participation in the church's ministries, and for offering his support. "When the community has a problem, [Germantown Church of the Brethren] backs the community and gets that problem solved," says a woman active with a local service organization. "We work together to get things done."
The church has been willing to get involved with community development projects without insisting on getting the credit. Rev. Kyerematen relates,
The buildings across the street had been in bad repair for almost 20 years, and nothing could be done. The church kept at it for the last 12 years, and we finally were able to network with Greater Germantown Housing Development Corporation. They turned those buildings around. ... The church doesn't own [the housing complex], but we see it as one of our strengths that we were the catalysts, that we were the ones that went out and found the owner and did the initial work, and provided the seed money.
One creative way that the church draws in neighborhood leaders, while promoting the congregation's awareness of the community, is its annual "Church/Community Award Sunday." The award honors persons from the community who have worked hard to make it a better place for its residents. In 1999, for example, the award went to two men who were involved in starting the community market. Rev. Kyerematen asks other churches and community groups to nominate the names of people for the award, then selects the recipients. The awardees usually bring their families, and often others from the nominating agencies will attend as well-giving the congregation an opportunity to build a relationship with people who might not otherwise attend church.
The church's mission statement, printed weekly in the bulletin, includes a call "to be a beacon of Light, Love, Hope, Peace, and Service in our homes, church, community, and world." The community service and revitalization projects give concrete expression to the church's mission. But the church's relationship with the community is more than the sum of its many activities. Rev. Kyerematen explains that the church is "a spiritual, living community. Our influence has also come through just being here, being one of the neighborhood institutions that people could rely on and trust." As the church has become invested-financially, relationally, and spiritually-in the holistic well-being of its neighbors, its very presence has become a beacon of God's Good News to the community.
*Not his real name.
[Adapted from Churches That Make a Difference, chapter 7].