“Your Spiritual Autobiography: Emmanuel, the Next Chapter” Seminal Moments in Emmanuel’s Story

Pastor Kenneth Gill, 8/12/2018, Emmanuel

“Your Spiritual Autobiography: Emmanuel, the Next Chapter”

Seminal Moments in Emmanuel’s Story:

From: “Emmanuel the Autobiography of Emmanuel Baptist Church

on its 125th Anniversary”, Written in 1991

Choir or Quartet

In 1944 a young Japanese American woman had become a part of the Emmanuel Baptist Church. She had just been released from a Japanese internment camp and was living in the home of Marilyn and John Thomas. The young woman wanted to join the choir but this was wartime and the largest contributor to the church, an internationally known businessman, predicted that Emmanuel would become known as the “Jap church” if she became a choir member. Consequently, the next choir practice consisted of four people instead of twenty and the wealthy donor threatened to withdraw his pledge and leave the membership if the woman were allowed to join. There was an extended, agonized meeting of the Board of Trustees soon thereafter to come up with a policy and decision. Opinions were divided and tempers flared but finally they voted to allow the Japanese woman to join the choir. Consequently the disgruntled wealthy member left the church and withdrew his huge pledge. Time passed and within the next two years the church budget doubled.

The Klux Klan Calls

When the new minister came to town there were large signs as one entered the village which read: “This is a Christian community.” He thought that was nice until he realized the slogan meant, “No Jews wanted.” In fact, the real estate board had a regulation that if a realtor sold property to a Jew, the penalty was twice the commission on the sale. Aware of the racist messaging, the new Emmanuel minister preached a sermon saying, “It was easy to refer to Christ or Lord, or Son of God, but there seemed to be a block against evening thinking about Jesus as a Jew.” The word spread fast and the next night Emmanuel’s minister answered the doorbell at home to be confronted by representative of the KKK, threatening him and the church if he continued to talk of equality or fellowship amongst people in that way. As it turned out, the editor of the Ridgewood paper ended up printing the whole sermon in the local paper and the police were alerted. The KKK members cowered and disappeared and the congregation would eventually would go on not only to pride itself in a free pulpit but the freedom of all people of all kinds to enter into church fellowship.

Punishment or Redemption

There was the time when Emmanuel’s beloved Senior Minister announced the end of his long term marriage and his impending divorce. (Unlike now, forty years ago divorce, especially by a clergyperson was still stigmatized and often ended a minister’s ministry.) The pastor submitted his resignation to the congregation but the church leaders refused to accept it. Instead, they offered support and compassion and shared the pain in what was for that pastor a terrible moment in his life. Likewise, when a young , female associate minister at Emmanuel became pregnant “out of wedlock” there was a heated debate about what to do. Opinions were sharply divided, some people left the church but in the end redemption was the last word. The young woman continued to serve the church and to this day continues to have a flourishing ministry in a local church. (A footnote that in its almost 150 year history the church has never booted a minister out!) The story of a person’s life, or that of a church hinges on critical moments and choices. The future is open for Emmanuel and the next chapter is yet to be written.

Following are two possible accounts or scenarios of how that next chapter might be written: Emmanuel 2030, 40 years after the last account was written in 1991.

EMMANUEL 2030, SCENARIO #1– Emmanuel officially closed its doors today on the eve of its 140th anniversary. It joins several historic Ridgewood churches which have closed in the last year, one becoming a restaurant and the other used as a site for the long debated parking garage. The dwindling congregation of about ten participating members just could not sustain the church any longer. Dwindling finances and attendance had plagued the church for years but in the end, demographic and cultural changes and the general decline in participation in mainline Protestant churches made it impossible to continue. The Holmstead School closed in 2027, which eliminated its major financial subsidy. After work with several consultants and numerous attempts at church renewal with several ministers, the congregation was unable to attract and retain new, contributing members to it’s basically traditional program and structure. Both a Unitarian and Reformed congregation approached Emmanuel leadership about consolidating congregations but the members were unwilling to make the necessary changes to accommodate a merger. A vital Korean Christian congregation offered to share expenses but, again, the church was unwilling to move its Sunday morning worship from 10:30am. to 9:30a.m. and so the negotiations stopped. It’s not that the “Emmanualites”, as they like to call themselves, were unhappy with the handful of remaining congregants. They still enjoyed listening to the organ every Sunday, they still loved their coffee hour and what remained of the annual festival but with most members approaching 90 and above, there was little energy left to keep the church running. The upside is that the substantial remaining assets, including, the building have been turned over to a foundation which will fund significant not for profit and charitable work throughout northern New Jersey. Part of the proceeds will go to the ABCNJ, which itself is in financial straits due to the shrinking and closure of many of its own member churches. Unfortunately there has been a lot of arguing and acrimony amongst some of the remaining members over how to distribute the assets and most recently denominational authorities have needed to provide a conflict mediator to help sort things out. The sales agreement calls for the sanctuary to be preserved as a kind of historical landmark and wedding venue and the educational wing will be replaced with luxury condos. The new property owners have agreed to leave a large, attractive memorial plaque on the front of the remaining structure as a tribute to the rich legacy of mission and ministry of the Emmanuel Baptist Church.

EMMANUEL 2030, SCENARIO #2– The congregation of Emmanuel Church has just celebrated its 140th anniversary. In a special ceremony, the celebratory crowd planted it’s fourth tree on Hope Street in the shade of the flourishing first tree which was planted in 2016. The congregation has undergone substantial changes over the last 10 or 12 years and is barely recognizable compared to its traditional constituency. Worshipers come from many diverse faith backgrounds and ethnic groups. In a religiously and ethnically pluralistic community, Emmanuel has adapted by embracing the rituals and wisdom of many traditions along with the Bible and other sacred texts. The church has become known not only for thoughtful, compelling preaching but for the excellence and diversity of its music. On most Sundays the sanctuary is comfortably full with an additional service offered on special religious holidays and with a live stream audience that far out numbers those physically in the sanctuary. Asked about the reason for the growth in membership, the current church moderator said it wasn’t so much a particular program but the fact that Emmanuel had truly become known as a welcoming, inclusive, caring and open community where all people were received. As well, since it adapted its sanctuary for use as a theatre space, people come from throughout the tristate area to enjoy thought provoking, high quality plays and productions, a kind of off-Broadway of Bergen County which includes a significant program for low income children.

Like all of its sister churches, Emmanuel has faced its share of financial challenges but has have been able to create a unique, multi-staff ministry with several part time bi-vocational pastors and increased lay leadership. Five years ago, the church called its first openly gay associate minister and the abandoned church “dungeon” has been given new birth as a vital center for teenagers seeking counsel , support and friendship. The church offices are home to an interfaith community outreach program which provides volunteer opportunities and sponsors a county wide program promoting peace and justice and sustainability issues (The Wheeler Center). The Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities share together in ministry to youth and young adults, in the affordable housing initiative and in the Charter for Compassion. With the sale of several church properties in Ridgewood, congregations, interact and even worship together much more frequently and share as much as possible in community outreach. Emmanuel has a long history of connecting Biblical faith and social action, but in recent years, the congregation has taken a huge leap in its outreach program. The property at 324 Ridgewood Ave is currently being used as a highly structured “halfway house” program for men recently incarcerated (The Clark Initiative) and Emmanuel just celebrated the third anniversary of the four condominiums built on church property used as affordable senior housing. Two of the units are now occupied by senior church members. Over the years Emmanuel has become known as a community center and clearinghouse related to the pressing social issues and crises that have emerged in Ridgewood and Bergen County. When a local mosque was defaced last week, over 300 gathered at the church as a show of support. Since 2020, the church has sponsored 8 refugee families (The Shaver Fund), as well as having provided sanctuary to 3 undocumented families during the massive 2019 U.S deportation program. In recent years we have lost a number of our beloved older members but their memory and legacy lives on. One longtime member left the church a considerable endowment, the proceeds of which are exclusively dedicated to outreach beyond the doors of the church. Pastor Gill retired some years ago, but the strategic planning project which began before and during his tenure continues. Some items have dropped off the list but new opportunities have emerged. Congregational members and others still regularly enter the Meditation Chapel to light candles, pray. The members of Emmanuel have come to deeply understand and appreciate that their life and work together needs to be rooted in the spiritual life, the “mind of Christ” , which has sustained their unity in the midst of many disagreements and has seen them through their many challenges over the years. At the end of a recent planning session one thoughtful congregant suggested we change the tagline from: “Emmanuel: God With Us” to “Emmanuel: God (is still) With us”….Indeed She is!

In Summary: These two scenarios are neither inevitable nor predestined. The fact is that we don’t know what the future holds, or exactly how the next chapter will be written, but we do know that we can and should have a hand in writing it. We don’t have to wait until to 2030 to write down and describe what has happened in retrospect; instead we can and should be a part of writing the next chapter. Just like the story of our own lives, we have the privilege and responsibility to “work out our salvation with a sense of awe and wonder.” As Antonio Machado has said, “My (fellow) travelers, there is no path; we make the path by traveling.”