Bethel Presbyterian and Reformed Church

Bethel Presbyterian and Reformed Church



Bethel Presbyterian and Reformed Church

Bethel Presbyterian and Reformed Church

“Presbyterian Pizza with Reformed Things”
Bethel Presbyterian and Reformed Church
Brooklyn, NY
By Ruth Amwe

bethel presbyterianOn a cold January day in 1991, Bernice Boakye opened her front door to welcome three friends: Adelaide Agyemang, Elizabeth Andoh, and Grace Ocansey. This visit seemed to be just another one of the many informal gatherings that had become a ritual practice for the women. Their discussion—which touched on a variety of subjects, including each other’s welfare, family life, work, and social issues (among others)—struck a chord that day. The four women expressed the need for a congregation that would serve the growing number of Ghanaian Presbyterians living in Brooklyn. At the time of their conversation, they were all members of The Presbyterian Church of Ghana in New York City, a congregation located in Harlem. Yet, the four friends were convinced that with the growing number of Ghanaian immigrants in Brooklyn, the area deserved the formation of a new congregation to complement the sole Ghanaian Presbyterian Church available in New York at that time. This idea was celebrated by the Ghanaian Christian population in Brooklyn, and once again, Bernice Boakye and her husband, Nana Boakye, opened their home for initial organizational meetings and worship services. In the ensuing months, the young congregation sought to organize around three main objectives: to nurture members and their children in the Christian faith; to keep alive the Presbyterian Church of Ghana’s worship traditions; and to attend to the welfare needs of members and other immigrants.

As the church developed its own identity, it entered consultations with representatives of the Presbytery of New York (PCUSA) and the Brooklyn Classis (RCA) to consider the possibility of joint affiliation. After months of organizational meetings and worship gatherings, Bethel Presbyterian Reformed Church was born. It held its first public worship service on August 18, 1991. This historic occasion took place on the premises of the Dutch Reformed Church of Flatbush, which had welcomed the congregation since March. There were approximately 80 adults in attendance, consisting mainly of Ghanaian Christian immigrants with a variety of denominational affiliations (including the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic.) All of them, however, “desired to worship in America with full Ghanaian cultural expression and identity.”

Bethel Pres 3Since its inception, Bethel Presbyterian Reformed Church (BPRC) has formed itself into a Christian Ghanaian immigrant congregation with triple-denominational affiliation: the Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG); the Presbyterian Church USA (PC(USA)); and the Reformed Church of America (RCA). This triple-affiliation has made the congregation unique among Ghanaian Presbyterian Churches, as well as among PC(USA) and RCA churches across North America. Although the liturgy and organizational structure reflect its PC(USA) and RCA affiliations, most onlookers would most likely notice its Africanness before anything else. Ghanaian languages fill the liturgical atmosphere with prayers, Scripture readings, sermons, and songs. Seasoned with an embodied worship style consisting of dance and other ritual practices, BPRC members proudly adorn themselves in African garb and serve Ghanaian delicacies at church functions. These unapologetically African and immigrant identity markers, observed during my online visits to church events and as I perused the church’s website, left a powerful impression.

An interview with Rev. Moses Biney, pastor at BPRC, made me aware that church membership also occasionally included various Americans and immigrants from other regions such as West Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean—all of whom add to the rich diversity at Bethel. According to Rev. Biney:

In our congregation, there is about 25% of those between the ages 0 and 18. We have about another 35% between the ages of 19 to about 40, I mean those who are the young adults, and then you have another 15% or so who are 65 plus. So, you have different generations—that’s what I’m trying to say. You have the generation that were born here and then you have the generations that came in, even though they’re young, they still migrated. And then you have those whom they call “1.5” who came in here while they were young. The other thing within the church is how we become multicultural. As far as I see, when we’re talking about multicultural, as soon as you have multi-generational groups, you have multicultural. Also, there are those who are typically from the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. And then within the church itself, we have about four language groups: we have those who speak Twi, those who speak Ga, there is Ewe, and those who speak Gonja language. So, it doesn’t matter that we all come from Ghana. We still have different generations, and [we] have different attitudes, different cultures.

In addition to its triple affiliation, an amalgam of liturgical expression, and an assertive cultural embodiment in languages, BPRC features a rich composite of generational differences, immigrant histories, denominational preferences, and language and cultural differences. As I pondered this diversity, I was compelled to ask: How can we identify the shape of BPRC’s ecclesial imagination amid such a vibrant mixing of cultural, denominational, and generational diversity? I believe that the shape of this congregation’s ecclesial imagination lies within and is dependent upon a thorough comprehension of the complex layers of its diversity. This diversity reckons with the rough edges and discomfort that might arise as differences collide. At the same time, it equally projects the enthusiastic synergy and warmth that radiates when similarities merge. BPRC’s ecclesial imagination provides a glimpse into what it means to experience God in both the familiar and in the unfamiliar, in the known and in the unknown, in the constant inconsistencies of lives and in the constant character of the triune God.

“Bethel,” as the congregation fondly calls itself, has come to mean more than a name. It reflects how they have come to see their identity as a congregation in relation to God, in relation to their physical location as an African immigrant congregation in the cosmopolitan city of New York City, and in relation to their journey as pilgrims on earth who are guided by the assurance of future resurrection. Bethel holds all these identities – Christian, Ghanaian, immigrant – together. During my first online visit to their Sunday service, I observed that the congregation has a unique manner of welcoming and greeting one another that is deeply embedded in this identity. The service leader, whether pastor or congregant, would say, “Bethel,” and everyone else would respond, “God is here with us always.” Their deeply rooted understanding of the constant presence of God allows them to see God amid diversity and to recognize that God cannot be domesticated by one tradition, context, or experience. Through individual and collective journeys, they have allowed God to travel with them. As they traverse continents, cultures, traditions, denominations, and social locations, they have, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, allowed themselves to live “before the wild, dangerous, unfettered and free character of the living God.”1 Bethel pushes us to claim God for ourselves but also to recognize that just as much as God is ours, God is not ours alone. Bethel compels us to reflect upon what it means for God to reach out to us in unwavering constancy through the divides of cultures, traditions, experiences, denominational affiliations, languages, and worship styles.

I spent the first few weeks of my research getting to know BPRC through the church’s website and events, as well as through my conversation with the administrator and music director at Bethel, Ekow Ortsin. Prior to joining Bethel, Ekow was trained as a teacher and worked professionally in Ghana. In 2005 he resigned from his position, leaving the substantial perks and security that came with it to accept his current position at Bethel. He believes that his action was motivated by a sense of God’s calling. He explains, “I don’t even look at [the work for the church] as employment; I look at it as a vocation. My being there is a vocation, not a profession . . . It’s not about getting a job and being paid at the end of the week. It’s about being obedient to go ahead and allow [God] to use you for whatever he wants to use you for.”

Ekow’s conviction and calling reflect the strong sense of servant leadership at BPRC. This leadership perspective sets them apart from other North American Ghanaian Presbyterian congregations. The pastor and lay leaders also serve in various capacities at the Conference of Ghanaian Presbyterian Churches in North America and other multi-church coalitions. Ekow’s story also reminded me of the biblical account of the wanderings of Abraham and Sarah. Through his journey, I was able to see that thriving may not only be evidenced by constancy, but also by inconsistencies, not only in successes, but also in failures and trials. As Ekow attested to moments of difficulty in his service at Bethel, I was able to appreciate the words I kept hearing from congregants, “God has been faithful,” as they recounted difficulties they have faced as individuals and as a congregation. Securing a full-time pastor, praying for a church building, enduring ill-health, dealing with immigration issues, and facing financial difficulties are all struggles they have endured. I was also able to appreciate the sense of satisfaction in the words with which these stories often ended: “God was always with us.” They have an unwavering assurance that God is with them as they sojourn, just as God was with Abraham and Sarah.

Bethel Pres 2At Bethel, individual stories of success and trial are collected within the story of the whole. Every Sunday, the church secretary reads out testimonies and thanksgiving from families and individuals, each sharing God’s faithfulness in their lives. Church members Margaret, Vera, Josephine, and Dixon explained to me that Bethel is like a family. Although the four of them carry various layers of diversity – age, date of immigration, place of birth – they found family in each other. As Vera put it, “It is my family. I love the place. I live in Long Island, and I work in Brooklyn. So, I come to Brooklyn five days a week and on the weekends because I just love it. I cannot see myself going anywhere else.”

As with any family, difficulties are bound to emerge—especially with such diversity. Navigating the inclusion of four different Ghanaian languages and English into one worship service, accommodating different liturgical preferences and cultural expressions, and cushioning the effect of multigenerational variation can all become recipes for tension. However, for a Black immigrant faith community, the concerns may not always be internal. BPRC is located in a neighborhood which Rev. Biney describes as having “been inhabited by all kinds of people except for Blacks . . . The closest to West Africans who are there are Egyptians.” He proceeded to recount:

I was here when a White lady came to the church one Sunday. We were having what we call our harvest. She just came in and said she had something to offer to the church. She brought an envelope that had a check in there for us. She says she just lives a couple of houses away and just came in to bring us a check of about $200 for us as her gift to us. So, I called her, and I was thanking her and she said . . . I’m so sorry for what happened to your church. I didn’t even know what had happened. Apparently, someone had gone to our parking lot and inscribed something close to “Get away from here” . . . and then added “Make America Great”. . . in our parking lot. So, this lady saw it and she was so furious. So, she went and told that man across the street and they went and cleaned off the writing. So that was very touching, also telling me that at least for what we’ve been trying to do, we have come to be accepted by some people in that neighborhood—a neighborhood where we are more or less strangers, a neighborhood where none of us live there. None of us look like the people who live there. And yet we have come to be accepted.

This incident makes it clear that BPRC is not immune to the controversies over immigration, racism, White supremacy, and other social ills in America. For Rev. Biney, it shows that the church’s focus and efforts towards missions are bearing good fruit. BPRC does not shy away from engaging social issues in America, such as police brutality, racism, or political upheaval. They actively reflect on these concerns from their own vantage point as a mission-minded, immigrant community of faith. The church is intentional about reaching out to the surrounding community in order to show forth the beauty and love of Christ. Through its annual back-to-school giveaway and summertime picnic celebration, the entire community is invited to have a taste of African culture in food, dance, and other cultural expressions. The church is intentional about moving beyond self-preservation to actualize its mission mandate. “Our understanding of mission is to also engage,” said Rev. Biney. In this way, Bethel constructs its sojourning identity as “active pilgrims” who are interested in making their surroundings better than when they entered them.

No event has posited such unprecedented challenges to religious institutions and the world at large as the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like any other congregation, Bethel was forced to operate using a fully online platform and to rethink effective ministry in view of these changes. In my conversation with congregants, they noted that the two biggest challenges have been the inability to gather as a family and enjoy each other’s company and the financial constraints that have emerged as a result. Some members lost their jobs or have been unable to take on much-needed hours of overtime. Yet in the midst of these difficulties, the church has been able to continue moving forward with its vision of church as a space where the holistic wellbeing of the members is paramount. The church delivered food baskets to each congregant and developed creative ways of generating funds for its upkeep, and I stepped in to provide technological assistance. The church even developed its own medical team consisting of congregants in relevant health-related fields. The team provided bi-weekly professional updates on the pandemic along with resources for testing, healthcare, vaccination, health insurance, and more. BPRC has also been working closely with its young people to figure out ways of remaining relevant both to second-generation Ghanaian Christians and the wider populace. Bethel was theologically prepared for a time such as this and was well positioned to respond to the difficult question of what it means to worship when unable to do so in the familiarity of a sanctuary. Ekow made it clear to me that quite a lot of their efforts were directed toward drawing attention to the significance of their anthem, to what the “here” means when they say, “God is here with us always.” BPRC was prepared to remain active as a worshipping community through its recurring ritual practice of communal response.

As I tried to make sense of the ecclesial imagination at Bethel, I remained curious about the practicality of its triple-denominational affiliation, of the challenge of fitting four languages into one worship service, and the question of how thriving can take place in the midst of a multigenerational congregation with a multiplicity of immigrant genealogies. I asked Rev. Biney and Ekow how exactly the triple-denominational affiliation works. Ekow explained:

The good thing about the RCA and the PC(USA) is that they all belong to the Reformed tradition because the doctrines and all the theology [are not] different. The Presbytery will not take over your identity. The Reformed tradition will not take over your identity. They only celebrate the diversity you bring to the family because then you actually represent the family of God that we’re talking about . . . So, when you belong to the two traditions, you get a broader perspective of things and then you get a bigger plate to look for support to build what you have, as long as they protect your identity. And so, you are free to develop your culture. And also, they learn because you . . .bring something to the bigger picture.

Rev. Biney gave the most fitting analogy to tie all these together when he urged me to think of Bethel as a “Presbyterian pizza . . . loaded with Reformed things.” I thought that this was the most creative way to describe the affiliation. However, I think that it also provides us with a glimpse into how BPRC is constructing its ecclesial imagination and thriving as a result of its inherent diversity. It brings us back to the notion of the wildness of God.

BPRC certainly doesn’t have the comfort of being mainline. By virtue of its presence in a country that is divided on the full acceptance of other races and of those who dwell on the borderlands of immigration, one may argue that Bethel has multiple forces working against it. Regardless, Vera, Dixon, Josephine and Margaret all agree that Bethel is not afraid to stand its ground. Bethel’s strong sense of community and adventurous spirit keeps it grounded in the truth of its insignia, “God is here with us always.”

It is difficult to pinpoint all the details of the conversation between Bernice Boakye, Adelaide Agyemang, Elizabeth Andoh, and Grace Ocansey when they first fashioned the idea of this congregation. It is clear, though, that they envisioned a community of faith that would allow them the liberty to enjoy full acceptance as first-generation Ghanaian Christian immigrant women alongside their second-generation immigrant children in the company of immigrants and Americans alike. They helped set the course for a congregation that not only emerged from diversity but continues to embrace diversity. BPRC’s ecclesial imagination offers a unique vantage point to witness thriving amidst a variety of cultures, contexts, experiences, and generations—allowing God’s self to be fully experienced and embraced, fully claimed and known in these diverse spaces.

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