In Montclair, N.J., vital UCC churches 'cooperate rather than compete'

In Montclair, N.J., vital UCC churches 'cooperate rather than compete'

June 30, 2007
Written by Daniel Hazard

John Thomas' twin finds faith renewed at reinvigorated church

Dick Thomas and his wife, Anne Garty, did not have a spiritual community for most of their adult life. When they found one, they jumped in with both feet.

Less than two years ago, they joined First Congregational Church UCC in Montclair, N. J., and already Dick, 56, is moderator and Anne, 55, is a church officer.

Recently Dick took a day off from work to build stage sets for a play the church is putting on. And Anne is sewing, repairing and ironing costumes.

Their minister, the Rev. Scott Howell, is thrilled.

"I would love to clone them," Howell said. "They are a wonderful example of the new energy that is coming into the church." But perhaps no one is happier than the Rev. John Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president. Dick Thomas and John Thomas are identical twins.

"It is very exciting to see Dick and Anne caught up in the renewal there," John said, "to see them catch fire with enthusiasm."
And they have.

'Jesus left the building'

But recently, on April 29, you wouldn't have found Dick or Anne in church, nor anyone else. The church entrance was locked with a huge red and black banner declaring: "Jesus has left the building and we followed."

Anne and Dick, along with the other 75 or 80 Sunday worshipers, were out in the community volunteering. "This is not an alternative to worship, but worship in action," Howell said.

Whenever a fifth Sunday falls in a single month, they set that day aside to participate in hands-on service.

Parishioners sign up from a list of volunteer options the week before and put their intention in the offering plate. At the end of worship people process out, lock the door, sing the final hymn and unfurl the banner.

Even visitors are active in the program, Howell said. "They love the concept of doing hands-on service."

Anne chops carrots for God's Love We Deliver, an organization that provides 3,000 meals daily to people who are sick or shut-in. Dick helps with services at nearby senior housing, where he provides transportation to one of the clients.

"You get a real sense that church is a lot more than an hour on Sunday sitting in a pew," Dick said.

Howell believes the fifth-Sunday worship delivers a powerful message. "Imagine if all UCC churches in the area — or around the U.S. — did this. Imagine the influx of service. It's living out our values."

Alive with renewal

For First Congregational UCC, 2000 was a watershed year. They had about 35 people worshiping in a "massive plant" facility. Should they close their doors?

People said no. "There's an ember here. Keep it going. Fan it and it might ignite," Howell said.

And it did. Howell came in 2003. The church decided their future was to provide an alternative Christian message, to create a welcoming church for those who might not already have a church.

Utilizing resources from the UCC's "God is Still Speaking" campaign, weekly worship has grown from 35 to an average of 80 to 100. From just three or four children in the church school, there are now about 20.

Howell provides "gifted Sunday leadership," John Thomas said. "There is a lot of creativity in the church. They are clearly having fun."
Howell credits his hometown church, First Congregational UCC in Memphis, Tenn., for his inspiration. He was ordained there and served as an associate under the dynamic leadership of the Rev. Cheryl Cornish, senior minister.

Working with Cornish was "an incredible teaching experience," said Howell, who also worked for a few years at the UCC's national offices in Cleveland between his time in Memphis and Montclair.

'We could contribute'

A spark ignited for Dick and Anne on Easter a few years ago. They were visiting Anne's sister and attended church at St. John's UCC in Lansdale, Pa. Anne said Dick really enjoyed it. It reminded him of how much he had liked church as a youth, growing up at First Congregational UCC in Stamford, Conn.

They went to church the next Sunday in Montclair and joined a few months later. "We didn't church shop," Anne said.

The downtown church is similar to the one Dick grew up in. Dick and Anne knew the congregation was struggling to survive and that appealed to them. "Their leadership was needed," John said.

And Dick was impressed with all that was happening at the church. "This was a good match," he said. "We could contribute there."

Anne grew up Catholic, but had left the church in recent years over theological differences. "That's probably why we didn't do anything sooner," she said. "… And it was the right time in our lives…We wanted to be a little more involved in our community."

UCC-rich Montclair

Montclair is a community rich with vital, thriving churches like Union Congregational UCC in Montclair and Glen Ridge Congregational UCC just down the road.

Union UCC supports a strong outreach program. "We're trying to put our money where our lives are," said the Rev. Stephanie Weiner, senior minister.

High school students are flying to Peru on a mission trip, while the confirmation class just returned from a service weekend in Washington, D.C. Adults, who have already traveled for service in New Orleans, are already busy planning another mission trip. The church nursery school established a relationship with a nursery school in New Orleans and held a 1/2-K run around the church property. "They get it," Weiner said of the children. "They know what they are doing."

At Glen Ridge UCC, the Rev. David Stinson, senior minister, talks about how people need a menu of ways to develop faith.

The church's four children's choirs, for example, are a vital part of the congregation's outreach. The church supports a strong education programs for all ages, and church school attendance has almost tripled in 15 years, he said.

Stinson offers a rich program for new members, including classes and mentors. He started two groups for men of varying ages. "I was stunned with how much the men got out of the group… They tell me over and over there is no where else to talk about marriage, children, what we believe or don't believe."

The UCC churches in the area "cooperate rather than compete," Weiner said. "The better one does, the better the other does. I feel good about the collegial relationship."

Thomas Twins

Dick and John Thomas's mother, Margaret Thomas, 92, is a 79-year member of the First Congregational UCC in Stamford, Conn. "Both boys did church from the day they were born," Margaret said.

Both were active in the youth group: John was president, Dick was treasurer, she said.

Their youth leader, the Rev. Raymond Shoup, now retired, said, "I pretty well knew from the beginning I was dealing with a special set of boys." Shoup served the church as its youth leader and later as its senior minister from 1962-70.

After high school, Dick and John chose different colleges. "They were often in the same class together [in high school] and had had enough of that," Margaret said.

Said Dick, "You get tired of telling people who you are. People would refer to 'the twin,' not to John or Dick."

Dick went to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, while John attended Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. That first college semester apart was hard. "I was very glad to see John at Thanksgiving," Dick said.

Dick followed his father into chemistry. After Bates, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Illinois. Meanwhile, John went to Yale Divinity School and became a minister.

As boys, "they were so much alike," Margaret said. "They still are as grown men. People see one and think it's the other."

Last fall, when Dick and Anne were on vacation in Camden, Maine, someone yelled from across the street, "Hey John!" It was the Rev. Don Overlock, retired Penn Northeast Conference Minister.

Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. Dick, a chemist with Ciba, a specialty chemical company, travels often. "Occasionally my colleagues run into John at airports and think it's me," Dick said.

"And we both married librarians," Dick said. "But that was pure chance."

While Dick was not going to church, John was pretty much hands off, Dick said. "But he's happy I'm going again."

Said John, "It's fun to be sharing leadership issues in the church with Dick, to have a shared vision."

Joanne Griffith Domingue, a freelance journalist and United Church News contributor, is a member of First Congregational UCC in San Jose, Calif. 

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