Reformed Church of Highland Park

Reformed Church of Highland Park



Reformed Church of Highland Park

Reformed Church of Highland Park

“A Mega-Ministry Church”
Reformed Church of Highland Park
Highland Park, NJ
By Deborah Jodrey

Reformed Church of Highland ParkAs I jumped onto The Reformed Church of Highland Park’s (RCHP) Good Friday Service on Facebook livestream, I was met with the sound of a piano playing the opening prelude music. Signs of the global pandemic were present, from the fact that this was a hybrid service with limited participation within the sanctuary, leaving the rest of us to watch from our computer screens to the reality that everyone was masked, socially distant, and singing was limited to just one performer per song singing off screen. Yet, on this Good Friday evening, with the reminder of darkness, death, and disease, there were also glimpses of hope, seven to be exact. As Pastor Seth, one of the co-pastors at RCHP, called for congregants to remember this dichotomy of Good Friday alongside the dichotomies present in our lives, he then invited us all to hear a word from God in the messages that were going to be shared from seven different congregants. Each person shared a brief reflection, vulnerably and powerfully tying together parts of their own lives with one of the last words of Jesus.

“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

A young white woman with a polka dotted mask stood up at one of the podiums and without hesitation gave a public confession of her ignorance and guilt in the face of systemic injustices and shared how “ignorance does not absolve guilt.” Then echoing Jesus’ prayer, but instead using first person pronouns, she proclaimed, “God forgive me, for I do not know what I am doing,” closing her confession with the acknowledgement that her ignorance does not excuse her from “the responsibility to keep pursuing justice.”

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

A young white woman with a black mask—I believe a teenager—boldly shared a word of hope, connecting Jesus’ words of hope to the thief dying beside him to the same hope that Jesus gives us today, even during a pandemic. She closed with an invitation for us all to be “bearers of hope to our neighbors as Jesus was to his.”

“Woman, here is your son…here is your mother.”

An older black woman in a black mask stepped up to the podium next. She shared how for her, these words of Jesus could be understood as “love one another, as you have loved me.” She powerfully shared how even amid this immense pain and suffering on the cross, Jesus’ “message of love was still on display.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

An older white woman popped up on the screen and shared openly about difficult things from her own life. She offered a reinterpretation of these words of Jesus in the midst of her own difficulties where she was able to instead utter, “My God, my God, you have never forsaken me. Be with me now.”

“I thirst.”

A young woman of color wearing a black mask opened by telling everyone that this is her favorite time of the year, but how last year, it didn’t feel that way. She shared how this time last year she was recovering from COVID-19 and forgot the significance of this week as she became overwhelmed with the grief and darkness of both COVID-19 and the constant reminders of the existence of white supremacy. She connected Jesus’ thirst on the cross to her own thirst over this past year and the quenching of it through this church community, friends and family, her mom, protests, and the people in her life that have reminded her that “God loves her and loves the world.”

“It is finished.”

The next reflection was given by two young white men, one of whom appeared to be a teenager. The older one started off with the raw acknowledgement of the difficult year it has been, and then the younger one chimed in with a word of hope of how God has been with us in the midst of all the challenges we have faced, concluding with a reminder that Jesus provides us with comfort during this time and the hope that “this too will be finished.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The reflection on the seventh and final word was given by a middle-aged black woman who broke down the raw and bleak realities of COVID-19 and how it brought fear, doubt, and hopelessness. During it all, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Where is God in all of this?” She shared how this verse—her favorite verse—brought her comfort, and in the same way Jesus uttered these words, she would whisper, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” For her, it was both God’s sustaining presence and this church community that gave her the strength to get through the day. She concluded by explaining how much this church community has been a bright light and how even from inside their homes, “they were still the church.”

RCHPI have never been to a Good Friday service where the seven last words of Christ were proclaimed by the congregation. From these vulnerable and powerful words of folks at RCHP themselves on that sacred Good Friday, I saw glimpses of who RCHP is—a church that acknowledges and fights against systems of injustice and bears a message of hope. I see folks from RCHP both relying on God’s love and putting love on display for the rest of world to see. Lastly, and maybe especially over this last year, I see folks at RCHP leaning on God’s sustaining presence while also being leaned on as a sustaining presence by those in their community. Do the words of these congregants ring true across the board at RCHP? Are these messages echoed by the leadership of the church? Is it possible that their sense of ecclesial imagination is made up of these reflections? In what ways is RCHP able to be this sustaining presence in their community and create opportunities for connection? Lastly, what do they mean by “community”—their congregation, the surrounding neighborhoods, or both?

With a 130-year-old building, RCHP is a dually aligned Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ congregation located in Central New Jersey. RCHP has grown from about 40 attendees to 300 regulars on a Sunday morning over the last 20 years, which is the same time that Stephanie and Seth Kaper-Dale, the current senior co-pastors, came to RCHP. I quickly learned in conversations with folks that this “300 regulars” figure doesn’t even come close to capturing the number of folks who come throughout the week, participating in or leading one of the many programs and ministries housed by RCHP. On some weeks, the number can be up to 3000. Patrick, a Ministry Associate at RCHP and a Black man in his 50s or 60s from Jamaica, perfectly summarized this image of thousands of folks flowing in and out of the building throughout the week when he shared in an interview how RCHP is not a megachurch in the traditional sense, but rather a church that “has mega ministries.” This “mega ministries” mentality seems to ring true even over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to me asking about how RCHP has faced challenges over the last year, Austin, a middle-aged white trans man, emphatically stated that despite some things looking different, RCHP “never slowed down,” and continued to be a place where anyone, member or not, could turn. Cassandra, a young Latinx woman in her 30s, reiterated Austin’s point, also sharing that “if anything, it felt like during this time, instead of withdrawing or shutting down, that it actually ramped up in certain capacities.”

Like most churches throughout the country, RCHP adapted and shifted to online services and then later shifted to providing two options of both outdoors and online. David, an older white man and focus group participant, shared how he was pretty sure that other than a farmer’s market that had to temporarily shut down, all of the other programs (that he was aware of) “became more intentionally driven.” Along with Sunday services, RCHP also offered a daily prayer service on Zoom, various lunch and coffee groups, a sewing circle, and a prayer shawl ministry in order to provide ways for folks to connect. The pandemic has not stopped RCHP from being able to respond to the needs of their community. Patrick went as far as to share one of the blessings that has come out of COVID-19: being able to reach more people with their online services and programming. Even with the limitations around worship and community engagement, RCHP has received many new members. Even during a pandemic, RCHP is seeing growth. Again, while RCHP’s approach to serving others has shifted because of COVID-19 safety policies, it is clear to me that they remain committed to serving and working for justice on behalf of refugee, immigrant, homeless populations, and folks transitioning from prison. Austin explained how some of these ministries aren’t “necessarily church ministry programs,” but are still opportunities for the congregation to “participate in social justice efforts.”

RCHP 2Through conversations with folks, I also noticed that music offers RCHP a way to remain hopeful and connected to each other. Many folks that I talked with were part of one of the choirs at RCHP, and while I learned that the shift to online choir proved to be a difficult task, RCHP has been committed to providing opportunities for folks to sing together. Amos, a young white man and the Associate Pastor for Worship and Faith formation, emphatically explained in an interview how important RCHP’s connection to music is and how he believes that RCHP will “sing our way through whatever happens next.” He went on to share how even in the pandemic, they have “never stopped making music.” I have had a chance to witness this connection to music through the outdoor Sunday worship service and the beautiful music I heard safely sung at the Good Friday service.

What is it about RCHP’s ecclesial imagination that has uniquely situated them to continue, even amid a pandemic, to seek justice, stay connected, and serve this community that they seem so deeply and authentically connected to? How is lay leadership involved in programming and keeping folks connected?

The two words that stick out to me that explain a sense of RCHP’s ecclesial imagination and their innate ability to keep folks cared for and connected are “intentionality” and “justice-seeking.” First, looking at RCHP’s intentionality both in the programs discussed above and in relationships, I was able to see this demonstrated even in a simple questioned asked in interviews and focus groups: “What drew you and keeps you at RCHP?” David, having grown up a pastor’s kid, found RCHP after church had “gone cold” for him for quite some time. He shared how after the first time he attended RCHP he “was hooked,” noticing something going on that was different than anything he had ever experienced in any other church. Cassandra shared how she had this “overwhelming sense of inclusion and purpose” and “warmth from the congregation itself.” Piney, a 23-year-old black man, shared how even as a kid he felt a real sense of love and understanding for people of “every background” when he first started attending RCHP. Austin told me that coming from a strong queer community in Atlanta, he was skeptical about his ability to find that type of place in New Jersey. However, RCHP ended up being “the queerest place” he found in NJ. Austin explained this not in the sense of everyone being queer, but in the sense that it is a place where queer people feel comfortable—a place where he and his whole family have been welcomed and celebrated.

This intentionality is also exhibited by the leadership of RCHP. Patrick shared how he was drawn to RCHP because of the intentionality of the pastors and the way in which Seth reached out and invited him to get a cup of coffee in order to really get to know him. I heard a similar sentiment about the presence, leadership, and hospitality of these co-pastors by another congregant, Nora, a young white woman, who shared a reason she stayed at RCHP is because of Stephanie and Seth and their commitment to really get to know the congregation.

Another way I see RCHP committed to intentionality is their stance on their programming. In an initial conversation with Amos, he shared how RCHP doesn’t just have a program for the sake of having lots of programs. Instead, RCHP only starts a program or ministry out of a direct and specific need that arises from the community. An example Amos provided was their youth ministry. He explained how they don’t have a youth program in order to have youth; they have youth in their community, so they have a youth program. This perspective on programming also leads RCHP to honor the death or end of certain programs, seeing it as a sign that there was no longer a need in that area and that there are new things and change happening instead. I would argue that the youth example is applicable here—other programs may have to die in order to create space for the voices and leadership of the youth. On this exact topic of providing intentional space for youth, when asked about the future of RCHP, Piney didn’t hesitate:

I think one thing for me that is so cool is how the youth have just progressively become more and more involved with the church, and like the leadership roles that the youth are taking. Like one of our main singers on a weekly basis is someone who I grew up with in youth group on a weekly basis. And I’ve known her since I was 13 years old. When I imagine the future for RCHP, I just imagined the youth continuing to gain more leadership roles, and it’s not because it’s on them, but it’s because they, and I guess, we, like myself included, we want to be able to be a part of the future of RCHP. And I just think . . . that’s really, really cool.

While justice is the second theme that is so prevalent in the core of who RCHP is, the way they seek justice also seems to be intricately tied to their intentionality. Despite being a part of the RCA denomination, which is not affirming, RCHP holds fast to their commitment to welcome the queer community into all levels of church leadership and participation, as Austin so beautifully testified. Beyond their extensive stances and statements clearly articulated on their website about immigration, the environment, LGBTQ+ folks, and antiracism, as Amos mentioned, RCHP also empowers their members to bring new ideas for programs and ministry opportunities. Patrick shared how the leadership at RCHP is so good at inviting folks to share their ideas and passions and supporting the ministry or program that grows out of that. He shared multiple examples off the top of his head, including a healing service that I witnessed one Sunday morning. Patrick shared how when a beloved member of the church, Franco, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, many folks from the church started meeting regularly with Franco and his wife to pray with them using oil and candles. Patrick shared how this brought a sense of comfort to Franco and all those who participated and how from this was born a monthly healing service which Patrick describes as a communal opportunity to pray together and something the community looks forward to. Patrick went on, sharing another example of how they had a person in the congregation who had aged out of foster care propose that the church start a housing ministry for foster care folks who age out. There was another person who was passionate about homeless veterans, and now from those passions and ideas, RCHP started a housing ministry called RCHP Affordable Housing Corporation. This ministry now provides affordable housing to veterans, women aging out of foster care, adults with disabilities, homeless youth, and others who are homeless.

Along with this housing ministry, RCHP is also so clearly committed to serving immigrant and undocumented communities. David told me how during the pandemic when most people were receiving stimulus checks, RCHP worked with undocumented folks to make sure that they were also receiving this vital financial aid during such a difficult time. In his interview, Amos shared another example of how a few years ago, the whole church rallied to provide support and safety to several church members who were being targeted by ICE. He shared how this “galvanizing of support” extended beyond their own church to other religious comminutes in the area, including Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. Amos explained, “I have seen some pretty amazing things happen when crisis happens.” He went on to share how he saw his community at RCHP, in the face of so many injustices, as being “built for this,” built to respond and live out their faith in these ways.

In all the conversation around the numerous programming and ministries housed at RCHP, I never once got the sense that there was any kind of divide between the “church community” and the “surrounding community.” Austin portrays this deep and authentic connection so well:

This place is just this chaotic, beautiful mess of wonderfulness with the church members, the staff, the volunteers, the community members that have nothing to do with the church, it all comes together and it’s just this explosion of like, love and acceptance that . . . it’s hard to put a name to. It’s just like such a good, good place. And it’s the little moments of the conversations and making people feel seen and cared for, and that they matter. And, you know, reminding them of their humanity. The church really serves as more than a church. It’s like almost a community center for the town. And we . . . have a lot of people stopping in whether they’re homeless or, with severe mental health issues. And nobody is discounted. Nobody is discredited. Nobody is seen as less than. The light of God’s face shines on everybody equally here every day. It’s absolutely amazing. I wish I could just like, plop you here, so you could experience it. It’s unlike anything I’d seen in my 50 years on this planet.

This concept of “being built for this” seems to ring true not just on Sundays, but every day of the week, and extends to everything that RCHP has navigated in the pandemic and the way they have continued to be intentional about keeping folks connected and seeking justice. I think Monica, an older white woman, demonstrated this idea of “being built for it” so beautifully in her metaphor of RCHP as a monarch butterfly—beautiful, but tough and resilient, able to take on anything. While I heard some fear from folks about a future someday without the Kaper-Dale’s at the helm, I heard from others that this butterfly metaphor demonstrates the belief that the church as a whole “is built for this.” Pre or post pandemic, RCHP will continue to intentionally fight systems of injustice and unapologetically love and serve others, and like those seven powerful reflections on Good Friday taught us, RCHP will continue to be bearers of hope.

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