A benediction for a black pastor, a white congregation and an old German Church
On this Sunday at Price Hill UCC in Cincinnati, the bulletin carries the usual welcome, the weekly prayer list, the standard announcements about altar flowers, birthdays and anniversaries. It also carries something out of the ordinary: the date that the church will close.
The "Thought before Worship" printed in the bulletin—Faith is the inborn capacity to see God behind everything—hints at the church's demise. So does the fact that the Rev. Carole Wright comes into the sanctuary carrying, not a mere handful of tissues, but a towel big enough to mop up a fountain of tears. Pastor Carole, as her congregation calls her, is going to preach her last sermon after serving here for two years and two months. She is leaving to go to a congregation in Pennsylvania, and a few weeks later the church itself will close. Fresh out of seminary, this has been Carole Wright's first church. And, ironically, she has become its last minister.
The church sits at the corner of McPherson Avenue and Van Vey Street, elbow to elbow with the narrow Victorian frame houses around it and as convenient as a neighborhood deli. It was chartered in 1885 as the First German Protestant Church of Price Hill, and until WWI its record books were kept in two languages. Back then it was an island of German Protestants in a sea of German Catholics. It began as a small church and grew with the neighborhood. Forty or 50 years ago, back in the days when they had to put chairs in the aisles and open the balcony for extra seating, there would be 300 people crammed in for Easter or Christmas. Today there are about 50, and that's more than usual.
The pews are occupied largely by people who have worshiped here most of their lives, people like Robert Jung, born in Price Hill in 1922, and choir member Edna Howe, who started attending Sunday school here in 1931. Their children were baptized in this sanctuary, played basketball in the church gym and made the youth group the center of their social lives. But when those children became adults, they chose not to live in Price Hill. And when the neighborhood began to change in the 1970s, their parents left, too, moving on to Covedale or Western Hills or Delhi. By the time Pastor Carole came to minister here, Price Hill UCC was a church with a small, aging congregation of members who dutifully drove in from the suburbs to worship each week, a church of middle-class white folks in a neighborhood of poor black and Appalachian families.
There are dozens of Protestant and Catholic churches like this in our town—city churches with aging members and shrinking resources, churches growing old on beleaguered streets, struggling to keep their doors open and to serve their neighborhoods with integrity.
At Price Hill UCC, the congregation took a step far bolder than most of these clinging-to-life churches would venture. They hired Pastor Carole—an African-American woman born in the South, educated in the East, raised Baptist, retired from government work and trained in UCCrelated Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country. The hope was that she could reach new people in the neighborhood while still ministering to long-time parishioners, so that the church might have a vital, growing congregation once again.
Things didn't work out that way. The plunging stock market flattened the church's financial cushion, and the dwindling congregation couldn't help the new pastor make real inroads in the community. When she went to community action meetings or went door-to-door to meet the neighbors, she went alone.
Choose their own fate
Finally the congregation had to take a hard look at the question that had dogged them for years: Could they continue? Should they continue? If this had been a Catholic parish, the decision would have been handed down. But that's not the way it works in this denomination. The members of Price Hill UCC had to choose their own fate. The decision coincided with an opportunity—the sort of coincidence that the pastor calls a miracle. A nondenominational church was looking for a permanent home. It is a different kind of congregation, people who worship with guitars and drums and laying on of hands. Still, they are young people with energy, people of faith who have promised to continue the church's special missions—the food pantry, the tutoring, the AA meetings, the neighborhood computer lab.
"We all serve the same God," Pastor Carole reminded her congregation. And so Price Hill UCC members took a deep breath, looked around the sanctuary where their grandparents had sung "Stille Nacht," and voted to sell the 117-year-old church building and all its contents for $1 to this new faith community.
Members have expressed their gratitude to their pastor for helping them find a way to leave their church with grace and dignity. The largerthan- usual attendance at this morning's service is a testament to how they feel about her. And a purple sheet tucked into this Sunday's bulletin sings out her feelings for her flock. "Thank you, Price Hill United Church of Christ," it says. "May God Bless You Real Good!" It's a blessing she has taught them, the sort of jubilant proclamation that you don't usually expect to hear on a Sunday morning in a mainline Protestant congregation.
Grace and dignity strained
During Pastor Carole's tenure there were times when grace and dignity were strained, and that memory hangs in the air, too. In the spring of 2001, when she marched with other ministers in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood after the killing of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man, by a white policeman, her telephone rang off the hook. What's our pastor doing there?!!! And she was hurt that her flock would not hear her out on the merits of the boycott that followed. But on this, her last Sunday, she preaches what she practices. "We are family," she says as she takes the pulpit, "and because we are family, we don't have to agree on everything."
The theme of her sermon is God's love, and she leaves the pulpit behind and speaks from the aisles, a style of preaching that was new to this congregation when she first came here. On this morning she's wearing a chocolate-brown dress and a jacket shot through with silver threads—no robe, no stole. Her hair is cropped short, and she wears black-rimmed, lozenge-shaped eyeglasses. She is, it is probably safe to say, the hippestlooking 54-year-old woman ever to grace the sanctuary here. But her message is as fundamental as the wellthumbed hymnals in the pew racks.
A salve and an ointment
"God loves you," she says, "and you must know that he has plans for you. His plans are right and good, and one day we'll look back and see how beautiful this day was." She talks about God's love as a salve for those who might feel wounded or abandoned at the loss of this church, and as an ointment for those who need to have their wheels greased so that they can move on. But her theme is larger than that. Her sermon title is "Oh, How He Loves You and Me." It's the title of a hymn she taught the congregation when she first arrived, and it is a reminder that the love that Christians preach is supposed to include everyone—rich and poor, young and old, black and white.
"You gave me the opportunity to come here, to learn how to pastor," she says. "That was God working through you." She points out that the ladies sewing mission project will still be getting together, and when they do, she says, "I hope you'll tell a couple jokes about me while you're sewing. And remember that I love you."
The president of the congregation presents her with going-away gifts—framed pictures, a commemorative mug from the church's 1985 centennial and an engraved communion set, the kind a pastor would take with her to minister when she travels. She reads the inscription out loud: "Thy will be done."
And then, before the postlude, she gives her congregation her special benediction, the one that hints at her Baptist background and that echoes her Southern roots, a benediction that is sweet and funny and heart-felt.
"May God Bless YouÉ" she says, looking out over her congregation.
"Real Good!" they reply. It's loud, and there are smiles and laughter.
It is not the sort of benediction that their forebears ever received in this place of dark wood and hard pews. No one seems to mind that one bit. A line forms at the back of the church for good-byes, for hugs, for final words. It takes forever for the little congregation to leave.
This article is reprinted with permission from Cincinnati Magazine, where it appeared in the March issue. Linda Vaccariello is a staff writer for Cincinnati Magazine.