What began as a calling for the Rev. Emily Heath to simultaneously serve two small UCC churches in the Deerfield Valley of Vermont has turned into a stirring story of ecumenical rebirth and redemption.
As pastor of both West Dover Congregational and Wilmington Congregational churches since May 2010, Heath and the Wilmington church's members faced a difficult decision last summer.
"I was called with the understanding that Wilmington might be closing soon," said Heath of the 250-year-old church. "Part of my call was to help them figure out what the best option was."
A meeting of the congregation was scheduled to discuss options. But before it could be held, Hurricane Irene came along and made the decision for them.
"The flooding from Hurricane Irene sharpened our thinking and made us more aware of our need to do mission and keep a strong UCC presence in the Deerfield Valley," said Heath. "Everything seemed to be pointing to what we needed to do."
After several months of helping local flood victims, Heath and the UCC churches put into motion a three-pronged plan: Close Wilmington; welcome its members to become part of the West Dover church; and "sell" the Wilmington building to St. Mary's Episcopal Church, whose building was lost in the floodwaters.
On June 27, the transaction transferring the building was completed. The selling price was $1, said Heath.
"We occasionally do joint services with them," she said of the Episcopal church. "They are our friends and neighbors. They are the only other mainline church here in the Valley, so it's a good partnership. The fact that we can help them out was sort of the icing on the cake here."
Heath lifted up the contributions of Paul Myers, former moderator of the Wilmington church, for coordinating the integration of the two UCC congregations, as well as facilitating the building transfer by arranging legal meetings and serving as primary communications conduit.
"He was the one who had such a clear head about all of this and was able to keep us moving forward," said Heath. "He was the voice of, 'This is what we need to do.' He got everyone on board."
West Dover members have made room on their committees for those coming in from Wilmington, said Heath. "And we have the Wilmington sanctuary cross in the sanctuary, so West Dover has a physical reminder of its legacy."
News of the building transaction is playing well within the community, said Heath.
"People are saying that this is really an incredible story of churches working together, and I think we've had a few more folks coming in the doors because of it," said Heath.
"I think the West Dover church is going to grow a whole lot more. It's just really a good time here for the UCC. We're becoming more visible, more missional, and really claiming UCC identity."