Two and half years ago, two pastors here were having a conversation of lament. The Rev. Judy Hay had served 150 members at Calvary St. Andrews Presbyterian Parish for more than 30 years. The Rev. John Wilkinson had been pastor at 1,380-member Third Presbyterian Church since 2001.
Their collective years of pastoral experience taught them that no church should go at it alone.
So here they were, putting a voice to the loss and fear of an uncertain future facing the 11 churches left in their urban core in Genesee Valley Presbytery. Two Presbyterian churches in Rochester had already been closed. Two others were tenuous at best, barely hanging on. Five were without pastors.
“It’s like we were putting a stake in the ground,” says Hay. “No other churches were going to be closed on our watch.”
As they listened to each other lament, Wilkinson remembers thinking, “If there is going to be a future in our urban core, it will be because young people are coming back, seeking out questions of meaning in the midst of loss, fear and uncertainty, just like we are doing now.”
Wilkinson and Hay began to imagine how they might positively impact their future in Rochester by reaching out to all of the Presbyterian churches in their urban core. They spent a good year getting to know each other. Pastors — those in place, interim and stated supply — all began hosting lunches once a month at each other’s churches.
“We began to get a vision of what each church community was like,” says Hay. “We began to recognize that for all of us to thrive we would have to move out of the survival model, away from isolation into partnership with each other.”
“No church regardless of size should go at alone,” says Wilkinson. “If we believe in the body of Christ we should connect ourselves to each other for the greater good.”
The churches began to work with the Rev. Phil Tom, associate for small church and community ministry serving rural and urban congregations for the General Assembly Mission Council. Tom listened to the pastors’ desires to join together so they could be present to the suffering occurring in their city.
“John Wilkinson was lamenting that when issues came up that affected Rochester the community at large knew the Catholic, the Methodist, and the African American Baptist voices,” says Tom. “But there wasn’t a clear unified prophetic voice about what it means to be Presbyterian in the city. I encouraged them to continue to build relationships with each other and with leaders in each of their congregations around their shared ministry values.”
By 2009, all 11 churches had pastoral leadership in place. They invited elders from each of their urban congregations into the larger conversation. At a training event more than 70 showed up.
These spiritual leaders began to speak about the things in Rochester that weighed heavy on their hearts — youth violence, drugs, alcohol abuse, extreme poverty, and prostitution. “It was like this ‘wow!’ moment,” remembers Hay. “All of the elders were ready to have the church and their spirituality be relevant by dealing with the issues of the moment, creating places of safety and finding ways to share hands-on ministry as Presbyterians committed to the city.”
As members of this larger group listened to each other, there was a moment of clarity. What had started as a prayer of lament between two pastors, through of the work of the Spirit, had become this.
“They were telling us they wanted to know how to speak to non-churched people about their belief that Christ was present in all of the suffering in their communities,” remembers Hay. “They wanted to turn themselves over to Christ in a more radical way so that they could participate together as one voice in meeting the needs of the city.”
“We could tell they no longer wanted their spirituality to have this artificial dichotomy between evangelism and social justice,” says Wilkinson. “They wanted both growth and outreach.”
The pastors pulled together lay leaders from their 11 urban congregations — which range in size from less than 50 to 1380 — to organize a kickoff event for Urban Presbyterians Together.
They decided to have a work day for Cameron Community Ministries, an ecumenical faith-based urban community center located in one of the poorest and highest crime areas in Rochester. At a nearby school more than 90 percent of the children qualify for free lunches.
Urban Presbyterians Together spent the day organizing the food pantry and clothing distribution house. They painted a drab office/meeting area, did repairs in the dining and children’s recreation areas and organized matching sets of hats, scarves and gloves for needy children.
“The staff at Cameron is very sparse, and is overwhelmed by demand for their services, yet they serve hundreds and hundreds of people.” says Linda Sullivan, who helped organized and plan the work day. “God was with us there that day. It was phenomenal experience to watch 70-year-olds, youth and everyone in between work together for the good of so many.”
Cindy Harper, executive director of Cameron Community Ministries, remembers seeing a “kind of satisfaction” at the end of the day that comes from knowing one can make a huge difference by focusing on small successes.
“They saw the struggles people face. They don’t have a car or the right clothes. Some haven’t eaten for a day,” says Harper. “But they also recognized they were now part of the meals that were in progress, what kids do after school, how people get clothing and supplies. It brought it into the light for them.”
Sullivan, who belongs to the 105-member Laurelton United Presbyterian Church, refers to the work day now as “a project full of hope. People in our smaller churches have wanted to help address the issues in Rochester, they just didn’t know how. There is such a sense of connectedness and positive energy now.”
Saara Totterman, one of 39 members at Dewey Avenue Presbyterian Church, also helped organize the Cameron work day. She feels a different spirit now in all of the urban congregations.
“People are more active, they’re not just doing things, for the sake of doing them,” she says.
“They are participating from a heart level. I think people in Rochester and in the Presbyterian churches here are learning how to walk with Jesus together.”
Totterman feels strongly about the problems in the city, especially among children. “Youth violence is so serious. People are finally waking up, becoming conscious, aware of what is happening. They are ready to walk the walk together to make a difference,” she says.
Unlike in rural areas, this urban cluster/cooperative model for ministry is rare. But Urban Presbyterians Together believes it could be viable for other urban areas in America that are struggling with how to be Presbyterian and care for their struggling cities.
“I would like to know more about what is happening around the country in our Presbyterian churches,” says Totterman. “We now have a sense of hope that maybe we can do something for people in the city. Often we go far way but forget the people right next to us.”
“My hope,” says Tom, “is to share the good news of what is happening in Rochester in ways that invite and engage more Presbyterian urban congregations to consider this ministry model.”
Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter