Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren is a church dedicated to being and staying in the city. Despite the local assumption that the Allison Hill neighborhood is a place to be feared, the sisters and brothers of First Church are committed to their neighborhood. They are meeting community needs, while also working to build relationships across races and classes. In the words of their mission statement: “We’re called to be a Christ-centered, multicultural community in the inner city, sharing the love, peace, healing, and justice of Christ.”
Every Friday morning, people arrive at First Church for community Bible study. When I visited First Church last September, I joined the Bible study along with about 30 others from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Waverly Chadwick, who led the session, asked the group, “What good things and what bad things happened since last week?” As people shared their stories, she reminded us that there was “no one inferior, no one superior.”
After spending time in scripture, the Bible study closed with everyone standing in a circle, holding hands, and praying. Waverly instructed us to look around as we joined hands: “These are the people you’ll be in heaven with—black, white, tall, thin, good-looking, and funny-looking.” The group laughed. We closed by singing, “What a mighty God we serve.”
This scene sums up much of what I learned about First Church over three days while visiting ministries, conducting eight one-on-one interviews, leading two group interviews, and worshiping at two Sunday morning worship services.
When I asked my interviewees about the main strengths of First Church, the most common responses were “multicultural” and “accepting all people.” First Church is a place that welcomes all people regardless of their income level, history, ethnicity, culture, or mental health state. As associate pastor Josiah Ludwick said, “It’s a church for everybody.”
First Church’s welcome is a drawing point for many, including Dotti Seitz. Dotti and her husband, Steve, moved to the Harrisburg area over two years ago. Both the worship style and the ethnic diversity compelled Dotti to make First Church her home church. As a Native American, she had not felt comfortable when she visited another Church of the Brethren congregation that was predominantly white. But First Church—with its diverse worship style, theology, and ethnicity—welcomed her.
“I love it that the church welcomes people of every class, every color,” Dotti said. “That really touches me, because I think in this church, it’s not been easy for them to do that.”
Willing to change
Becoming a multicultural church has taken years of effort, and the work is ongoing. “It’s something that’s very important to us,” Josiah explained, “and we’ve learned how to be more intentional about making that happen.”
At First Church, Sunday worship includes traditional Brethren hymns and choir anthems along with African-American spirituals, Spanish-language music, gospel and praise songs. Two services allow worshipers to pick which flavors fit them more, increasing the relevance and accessibility of the church. Some members and attendees even go to both services.
First Church is becoming a church for everybody because it is willing to change. Although many members have been at the church for 50 years or more, First Church has been willing to change its culture and practices in an effort to expand its welcome to newer members. Pastor Belita Mitchell has led the congregation through many changes since her tenure began in 2003.
“They’re willing to change and be stretched,” she said of her congregation. “They’re willing to keep trying to increase the relevance and to increase the opportunity to serve the needs of the community.” This openness to change has come through prayer, intentional spiritual practices, and leadership by the pastoral team.
Aside from developing flexible and diverse worship practices, the congregation has also been working on local relationship building. Josiah explained that, instead of just doing things for people (meeting basic needs in the community), the church has begun emphasizing relationship building and doing things with people. First Church stresses getting to know people in the neighborhood, and combining friendship with service.
The Allison Hill neighborhood shapes the church’s identity and ministries. First Church is explicitly committed to the city. In the 1960s, many members moved out of the neighborhood and headed to the suburbs. The church was torn. They wondered if they should leave and begin a new congregation in the suburbs, or if they should stay in the city, even though most members would no longer be living there. The church voted to stay—although many members did leave to establish another church on the edge of the city.
Most people who chose to remain at First Church during that period are still there. Waneta Benson came in the 1960s to serve the city as a BVSer, starting children’s programs. It was the church’s commitment to service—articulated by then-pastor Wayne Zunkel—that prompted her and others to stay. She said, “I think the Church of the Brethren emphasis on service is part of the reason we’re here. We saw many needs in the community and realized that church needs to be here to spread God’s love and help people who are hurting.” Waneta’s generation remained committed to doing this ministry in the city, even after many members moved away.
Things that make for peace
Today, First Church is evolving and drawing new membership from the Allison Hill neighborhood, living out its mission to be a “Christ-centered, multicultural community in the inner city, sharing the love, peace, healing, and justice of Christ.” The church’s outreach ministries are organized under its nonprofit organization, Brethren Community Ministries (bcmPEACE)—led by executive director Ron Tilley.
The bcmPEACE ministry aims to “share the things that make for peace.” It does this through things like food distribution, computer classes, kids’ church, referrals, and safe, affordable housing rentals. Brethren Community Ministries extends Christ’s holistic peace by meeting basic needs, and also by working to end violence.
Two primary peace efforts are Agape- Satyagraha and Heeding God’s Call. Agape- Satyagraha is a conflict resolution education curriculum for youth, which meets weekly. Originating at First Church, Agape-Satyagraha is being further developed and distributed nationally via the Church of the Brethren’s On Earth Peace ministry.
Besides working with youth, bcmPEACE also donates staff time and serves as a fiscal agent for Heeding God’s Call. According to pastor Belita Mitchell, Heeding God’s Call is a movement “committed to bringing an end to the loss of life as a result of illegal handguns.” She serves as the local chapter chair, while Ron Tilley serves as the chapter organizer.
Although good things are happening in Allison Hill, several people I spoke with acknowledged that the neighborhood has a reputation for being unsafe, which makes it challenging to invite new people to the church. Nevertheless, some members argued that the neighborhood is safer than outsiders may assume. Yet because of this perception, most membership growth can be attributed to people intentionally seeking out an inner city church.
In addition to neighborhood safety perceptions, First Church also faces challenges due to its aging membership. There is an urgent need to close the “generation gap,” as pastor Belita calls it.
Finances are also an issue. The older generation provides a substantial proportion of the church’s offering. Although new people are coming to the church from the neighborhood, many are low-income. While the ministries of bcmPEACE are funded through outside grants, the pastoral team and building are currently sustained by member donations. In order to sustain a future church, more members and new funding streams are needed.
Everyone I spoke with expressed hopes for what they would like to see at First Church in the next five or 10 years. Dick Hunn, who passed away a few months after I spoke with him, was eager to see where the church’s youth would be. “The six people who went to [the Church of the Brethren’s] National Youth Conference are going to be something in about five or 10 years. They came back with a report, and they’re on fire.” Three of these youth expressed an eagerness for more ways to share with the broader congregation through word, music, and song.
“My hope is that we will continue to live into the mission,” pastor Belita said, “and that we will have a greater degree of intergenerational representation. I also hope that we will continue to be broadly diverse in terms of the ethnic groupings, cultural backgrounds, and economic and educational levels, so that we can have a sense of community where we learn from one another and uplift one another.”
Jennifer Hosler is bi-vocational minister at Washington City Church of the Brethren in Washington, DC. Jenn has a background in both biblical/theological studies and community psychology. Her ministry interests include growing urban churches and in building peace by bringing together people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. She served for over two years in northern Nigeria as a peace and reconciliation worker with the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service, and for almost two years as an interim coordinator of the Brethren Nutrition Program, Washington City Church of the Brethren’s lunch program for people in need. Jenn lives in northeast Washington, DC, with her husband Nathan, and enjoys gardening, bike riding through the city, and running.