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One church, three locations

New Jersey church worships, reaches out in three cities

March 4, 2011

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Are they three in one or one in three? That’s the question when it comes to Elmwood Presbyterian Church in East Orange, West Orange and Newark, N.J. 

“We are one church in three locations,” said Karen Jackson, clerk of session.

The church’s main campus, Elmwood United Presbyterian Church, is in East Orange. West Orange is home to a satellite campus, and Newark hosts Elmwood Central.

The original campus was founded in 1961 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In 2001 — its 40th year — the church founded Elmwood West as an outreach.

“We started in one of our member’s house basement because we wanted to reach out to the West Orange community,” Jackson said. “There was not a culturally diverse Presbyterian presence in the West Orange community, and the West Orange community was changing. There were more African, Caribbean and Hispanic people migrating to that community and there was no church presence that met their needs.”

As the group grew, it moved into a school and then into the West Orange Presbyterian Center, a worship site shared with the United Presbyterian Church of West Orange. 

In 2007, Elmwood Central became the church’s the third campus. It was the product of a merger between Elmwood and Central Presbyterian Church of Newark, with an idea toward rebuilding a ministry presence in the city.

“The Newark community is a growing area where the church is located so they are trying to reach those families there,” Jackson said.

Since the merger, Sunday attendance in Newark has increased from an average of 35 per week to around 120.

Although the church is in three different cities, all locations are governed by one session, have one pastor — the Rev. Robert N. Burkins Sr. — and function under one budget. Staff members work for all three campuses rather than a specific one and members worship at any campus they choose. 

All three locations hold worship services on Sunday, with Burkins primarily preaching at Elmwood East and Central while services at Elmwood West are generally led by his assistant, Hodari Williams. 

Elmwood has more than 1,000 members, and while it is a predominantly African-American congregation, the church encourages diversity — one key to the growth that has enabled Elmwood to reach into surrounding communities.

Outreach is a central theme at Elmwood United Presbyterian Church. The mission of the church is to “Extend our Reach — Across the Sanctuary, Across the Street, and Across the Sea.” This mission is put into practice every day at this one church in three locations.

Elmwood operates a clothing ministry and large soup pantry that gives out food twice a month, usually serving about 50 families with food baskets.

The church also runs the Harambee Community Development Initiative in East Orange. Founded in 1985, the center houses community ministries such as a recording studio, wellness center and family academy.

But having three campuses does create some challenges.

“In essence, you definitely do have three different congregations when you think about it,” Jackson said. “Because of the locations, you are drawing different people with different needs and different ages.

“The West Orange campus is definitely a younger congregation with younger children so that’s a different need,” she said. “The East Orange campus is a multigenerational campus so you have to meet those needs because you have probably three or four generations worshipping together and then the Newark campus is a campus where you have some folks who have been in the church for awhile and then people who are new to church.” 

While Elmwood finds it easy to conduct outreach and mission, the real challenge is worshipping with members from a variety of backgrounds.

“The challenge right now is the pastor trying to make sure worship is meaningful at all three campuses,” Jackson said. “Your outreach ministry is going to be tailored to the needs of the community so that’s not as challenging as trying to deliver the Word and meet the spiritual needs of your congregations.”

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as secretary for First Presbyterian Church.

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