Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains in the city of Roanoke, Virginia, two Church of the Brethren congregations are providing space for each other to grow. First Church of the Brethren is both separate from and linked with Renacer-Roanoke (Iglesia Cristiana Renacer), a Church of the Brethren fellowship within the Renacer Hispanic Ministry movement. The two churches share a building and also a common vision to see the gospel of Jesus proclaimed in their city. I visited both congregations in March and learned how their stories are distinct yet intertwined.
As I thought about how to tell their unique story, the metaphor of “providing space” seemed fitting. Each church is providing space for the other, one relationally and the other physically. For First Church, the relationship with Menacer-Roanoke has provided space to be in a crosscultural relationship and to continue its journey toward openness to others and racial reconciliation. For Renacer- Roanoke, the partnership has provided the physical space to worship and grow, to live out a vision for planting a Hispanic Church of the Brethren congregation.
Cultivating openness to others
First Church of the Brethren has not always met in its current building on Carroll Ave., in northwest Roanoke. In the late 1940s, the congregation’s members became dissatisfied with the original building’s location on Loudoun Ave. The neighborhood’s racial makeup changed and an influx of African-Americans made the predominantly white church feel uncomfortable. It was an era of Jim Crow laws and legal racial segregation. The building was sold and a new church was erected in 1948.
The congregation, however, could not escape the demographic changes—nor its need to confront racism. Over the next few decades, demographic changes took place in its new neighborhood, again switching from white to African-American. The building of a new civic center as a part of “urban renewal” created displacement for many African-Americans, who relocated to northwest Roanoke near the church.
First Church was one of the first congregations in the denomination to host a vacation Bible school (VBS) as a mission to its community. In the middle of the past century, the racial divide loomed during its annual VBS preparation. A few members loudly dissented when a decision was made to canvass the neighborhood, inviting all neighborhood children regardless of color. Despite the dissent, the church held firm to its decision to include all children made by God. Referring to the history, First Church pastor Dava Hensley said that “it’s never been easy” for the congregation, but that the congregation has continuously sought to take steps toward racial reconciliation ever since the 1960s.
First Church didn’t stop at inviting and welcoming neighborhood African-American children. It began to partner with neighborhood churches, which were predominantly African- American, and has been operating a neighborhood VBS in partnership with two churches for several years. A third church will likely join the partnership this summer.
One of these churches, Williams Memorial Baptist Church, has a unique relationship with First Church. Beginning as a yearly pulpit exchange, the relationship continued into a pulpit and choir exchange. This has since extended to a yearly visit involving the entire congregation. The two churches, one mostly black and one mostly white, take turns each year, leaving one church building empty and joining the other congregation in its building for worship, alternating which church leads with its choir or its preacher. Though differences in style and culture exist, the two churches are committed to relationship and partnership, testifying to how the gospel can transform discrimination into reconciliation.
These cross-cultural relationships existed for some time before First Church was approached by the Virlina District to house a Hispanic ministry. Although the initial phase of the ministry was not successful, the district found new leadership to continue the efforts.
A vision for new churches
While serving as pastor at Maranatha Church of the Brethren in Lancaster, Pa., Daniel D’Oleo began to get a vision for a church-planting movement. Recognizing that many Hispanic congregations have a tendency to be pastor-centric, he wanted to build “a different type of church” and “to plant a Latino church in which leadership is not so dependent on just one person.” D’Oleo envisioned a cooperative network of Latino churches that trained leaders and shared similar values and resources. Out of this vision, and with the support of other Hispanic leaders in the Church of the Brethren (like Fausto Carrasco, Rubén DeOleo, Gilbert Romero, Joel Peña, and others), the Renacer Hispanic Ministry movement was born. Its first congregation, Renacer Leola (Pa.), was planted in 2008.
After his ministry in Lancaster came to an end, D’Oleo and his wife Oris decided to move with their three children to Virginia. He interviewed with the Virlina District and was commissioned as a Renacer Hispanic Ministry church planter at the 2009 Virlina District Conference. Since then, the Renacer-Roanoke congregation has worked to preach the name of Christ to the Latino community in Roanoke. (A third Renacer congregation also meets in Floyd, Va.)
Renacer-Roanoke shares the building with First Church of the Brethren, with their main worship services held on Sunday afternoons. The hospitality of sharing space has allowed the new church plant to exist and build up a core group of leaders. Like many church plants, numbers have fluctuated but, as D’Oleo described, the past five years have brought a core group that is “very committed and very involved, with so many gifts and spiritual talents.”
United yet distinct
First Church and Renacer-Roanoke are united—by the name of Jesus first and foremost, by the building that they share, and by the relationships that have been built between brothers and sisters in Christ. The two churches have partnered for youth events, fellowship meals, and love feast communion services. Both D’Oleo and Hensley have preached in each other’s worship services. Youth from both churches went to the Church of the Brethren’s 2015 National Youth Conference together.
For Renacer-Roanoke, the relationship with First Church has provided a physical space at a generous price and given support and encouragement for its ministries and youth. For First Church, the partnership has provided them with relational space. It has allowed them to continue on a path toward openness to others who are different from them—different in ethnicity, culture, and language. First Church is mostly made up of native English speakers of European descent—basically, white Americans. The membership of Renacer-Roanoke is mostly Hispanic, and most people speak Spanish as their first language. Many members are immigrants to the United States who come from many different countries, including the Dominican Republic, Chile, Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico, and even the Roanoke Valley in Virginia. Though the congregation is bilingual, their worship services are held in Spanish, with English translation available. The two congregations have twice held Spanish-language classes for First Church members, providing them with a chance to learn basic greetings in Spanish, and decrease linguistic barriers (though most Renacer-Roanoke members are fluent in English).
While the congregations are united, they are distinct with their own ministries, challenges, and strengths. Both churches face challenges of growth, though this plays out in unique ways for each church. Renacer-Roanoke has worked to build a church from scratch and cultivate new leadership for shared ministry. First Church has aged, and is discerning how to become a welcoming place for young adults and young families with children.
Both churches have numerous assets. First Church members describe their church as open-minded, friendly, inviting, and open to new ideas. Their strengths are that they are a group of committed folks who “get things done.” Many cited their pastor, Hensley, as one of the church’s main strengths. Renacer-Roanoke members describe the congregation as a blessing, dynamic, and a loving church that is filled with the Holy Spirit. The church’s love and welcoming spirit were highlighted as strengths, as were their faith and commitment.
The relationship between Renacer-Roanoke and First Church has been a blessing to both congregations. In February, the members of Renacer-Roanoke decided to host an appreciation dinner for their sisters and brothers at First Church. During my interviews, everyone I spoke with from First Church cited the relationship with Renacer-Roanoke as a “blessing” and positive growing experience.
While Renacer-Roanoke may one day find its own building, the two churches recognize that they are united in ways that extend beyond a shared location. They realize that they are sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ.
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.