Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church



Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church

“Pouring Themselves Out for the City of Trenton”
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Trenton, NJ
By Francisca Weirich-Freiberg

The Lord be with you
And also with you
La paz de Dios sea con-ti-go
Y tam-bien con-ti-go

Members from Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Jersey’s capital city understand themselves as “A House of Prayer and Praise for People of All Nations” that continually seeks “the Shalom of the City.” These phrases describe how the congregation sees itself as a body, committed to faith, loving unconditionally, and doing the work where they are with whomever needs it wherever they are. One member observed:

We “love thy neighbor” every time we joyfully show up and shout out for our members, our city, our nation, and our world. We attend local drive-by graduation celebrations and march for racial and social justice. We distribute food to local families and teach English in a village school in the Dominican Republic. We celebrate our God-given gifts and use them for the glory of God. We shine our light and encourage others to shine theirs, with love, commitment, patience, and forgiveness. For such a time as this…

Westminster members describe themselves as a congregation of people – many born and raised in Trenton – who see the mission field is in their backyard. They believe that those of us who did not move out of Trenton in recent decades have chosen to be on the frontline:

Some of us are excited about being on the cutting edge, some of us struggle with letting go of the old, most of us believe that our roots are planted at the corner of Greenwood and South Walter and should not be transplanted to the suburbs. We know that our future is dependent upon building membership, especially the youth membership. We know that we are not the same community that existed when most of us lived in the neighborhood and were not church “commuters” as we are today. We are aware that we can never be what “was” and that the church we hope to grow will be of a mixed complexion which reflects the “now” of our church neighborhood. We are God’s people, called to spread the “Good News” so that all people can find a personal relationship with the Lord and become a part of the fellowship of believers. We who remain in the city believe that ‘thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.’”

Members also describe the transformation that happens as one walks into the sanctuary at Westminster for worship, feeling the Spirit move through ebullient praise in a multiracial sea of faces. On their website, the brick of their urban facade is often barely visible on Easter Sunday as members and friends of various ages and races crowd the steps in front of the church, holding banners emphasizing their longevity, “120 Year Anniversary,” or beckoning the community in, “Early voting,” “Free meals,” or marching alongside them for children’s rights and urban renewal.

westminister churchDuring COVID-19, a recent Zoom session meeting turned reflective as members engaged in a lively discussion as to how much the congregation had lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic: partnerships, activities, and gathering time. A middle-aged woman who is Moderator for the Presbytery said “Hey, when I think of us, we are exactly who we were.” She talked about the congregation moving an entire family to a new house because they were struggling. She talked about congregants feeding families while simultaneously struggling to feed their own families. She spoke about how the congregation needed to focus on each other, those that took up space in their pews prior to COVID-19 and now connect via Zoom calls. She spoke about the congregation praying and welcoming people. She ended saying, very humorously, “We’re exactly who we were, we’re just quarantined.” This elder was able to pinpoint and shine a light on the grassroots, interpersonal work that kept this congregation going and able to do the wider-reaching social justice work to which they were committed. Online, I still sense an intimacy, a vulnerability, a “come as you are” core, and a resilient and improvising spirit, even in these smaller gatherings.

Westminster Presbyterian Church is a historic, urban church located in the East Trenton/Wilbur neighborhood of Trenton, New Jersey. The history of the current Westminster began in the 1980s, almost a century after it was founded, when congregants of the predominantly White church were faced with deciding on a course of action when it was becoming clear that no change meant the permanent closing of the church. Pastor or “Pastora Karen,” as her congregants call her, shared that,

[Westminster] decided they wanted to reach out to the community and begin to look more like their community, which was primarily Black. One of the main ways this transformation began was through a youth program, the Trenton Youth Connection program, with primarily Black, underserved youth in Trenton. These youth would participate in the congregation’s joys and concerns on Sunday, and it was through hearing their stories and challenges, and the reality of Trenton that many of the “old guard,” the White established congregants, were transformed and felt they wanted to adapt their ministry.

The sharing of stories induced transformation at Westminster, and it is stories that shape Westminster’s ongoing self-identity. During the era of the White flight and worship wars, Westminster made a radical decision to transform by turning outward, going into their community, the city of Trenton, and changing their complexion to better reflect their community. There is a radical beauty in this decision, a decision to reach out for the future, to reach out for the kingdom of God.

Over the course of the past 30 years as the congregation went through a major transformation due to White flight, Westminster has worked to better reflect the image of their community, particularly by matching their community’s complexion. They have continued to strive to be better at seeking justice and always looking to a future with more caring and love. Westminster boasts of more than 120 community partners, programs, and collaborations. During the pandemic alone, the church provides its facility to the YMCA and the local public schools as a Grab-and-Go food distribution center, where already more than 80,000 meals to children 18 and under have been distributed between March 2020-May 2021. With its partners, Westminster continues Seeking the Shalom of the City through a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).  They currently dedicate their church facility and resources in service to:

promoting racial reconciliation,
becoming an intercultural, multigenerational worshiping congregation,
improving the quality of education in public schools in Trenton,
working to dismantle mass incarceration,
ministering to reentry/returning citizens and their families,
providing 1K Churches microbusiness loans to reentry/returning citizens,
reaching out to young adults who feel disenfranchised by the traditional church yet called to live and serve in the city of Trenton,
assisting immigrants to acquire English proficiency to support the education of their children and to secure gainful employment,
becoming an open and affirming congregation for the LGBTQ-plus community,
and becoming the home of Trenton Music Makers Afterschool Program.

Westminster congregants share stories about how they are a church that exists in the tensions between vulnerability and resilience, precarity and joyful mission, and already, but not yet. In the midst of all of this, the pastor shared that, “Westminster prayerfully seeks to do God’s will even when others doubt. We believe we can accomplish God’s will when we step out in faith, trusting that God is faithful and will provide whatever is needed… My response [is] “this is God’s will, so God will provide.” There are three main qualities of Westminster that makes them find purpose, thriving, and joy in this existence: their deep, loyal love of Trenton, their working and serving attitude, and their call to action on issues of social, economic, and racial justice.

Consistently, when asked what drew congregants to Westminster, they spoke about the church’s commitment to the city of Trenton, a commitment encompassed in the phrase “seeking the shalom of the city.” When people spoke about this connection to the local community, they centered their discussion in grounded examples of the reality of the neighborhood and their investment: “Our church is in an urban neighborhood with many challenges that include poverty, homelessness, street crime, gun violence, gang rivalries, food insecurity, domestic violence, and unemployment. Our church neighborhood demographics have changed during the last several decades. We’re seeing a decline in White population, a stable African American population, and an increasing Latin@/x population.” The pastor is bilingual, and she speaks in English and Spanish interchangeably. Congregational leaders are connected in really vital and important ways to the political [system], the health system of Trenton, and the school system.

When speaking to what drew him to the church, a seminarian and father of two young children said, “one of the things that attracted us when we first came is this little segment of the service called ‘seeking the shalom of the city.’ For Westminster, ‘seeking the shalom in the city,’ specifically in Trenton, is often discussed with joyful enthusiasm [and] is a commitment that the pastor said means ‘serving the community as if they were part of our parish because they need to be served.’” As one church member said, compassionately, “I love the church… It’s the type of church that people will roll up their sleeves and do any type of work that is necessary. We’re not about titles. We love the people we serve with, and it’s just beautiful, the way that that love is demonstrated, and the Holy Spirit is working among the people in our church.”

Congregants were eager to share the Westminster ministries they were involved and invested in including youth programming, community gardening, intentional living, and musical offerings. At one of Westminster’s annual city-wide events, the pastor became ill, and the leaders and members had to come together to manage the event. As the person who shared this story said, “They just rocked it. They came together and you would never ever think that there was anything wrong. And I think that shows the leadership and it shows the sharing of the work of the kingdom because it could have been totally devastating, but it wasn’t. It flew beautifully.” It is important to note that, in this situation, she found “the sharing of the work of the ‘kin-dom’ in itself beautiful.”

At another event, a community carnival right before the beginning of the school year, university students were planning to bring games, supplies, and entertainment to the church but had to pull out at the last minute due to safety concerns about a shooting that happened just a few blocks away. As one long-term member describes it,

Pastor Karen had a huddle with Westminster’s leadership, and we decided to go ahead with a modified scaled down carnival by moving the event indoors into our downstairs Cook Hall. We put out a call for extra church members to help run the event. Karen was able to get a substantial number of police officers to provide security. The event was a great success. Extra help arrived. Neighborhood children had lots of fun at the carnival. The police were happy to help with security and enjoyed interacting with the youth. We were resilient and able to improvise on short notice to make the day a success. After the event, Westminster’s leadership met with university leadership and representatives from the city of Trenton to debrief the day’s events, which made us all stronger and wiser.

Many members already know how to see the Kingdom of God in Westminster, even while they understand that there is always work to be done. They improvise in the Spirit in order to respond to the needs and gifts that present themselves in their urban environment.

Of course, being so committed to loving and serving a struggling city does not come without its challenges. Pastora Karen admits that the church is not “self-sufficient financially,” meaning they rely on grants and donations to not just meet their own budget, but also to sustain their enormous array of community events, services, missions for folks in Trenton, and Westminster missionaries serving the Misión Tú Puedes in Najayo, Dominican Republic. Westminster operates almost like a non-profit, hosting community programs out of its building and taking in donations from other churches and organizations and dispensing them to the city of Trenton.

At a glance this may seem to undermine the perception that Westminster is thriving, but the more I spent time with them, I was reminded of the apparent folly of the woman with the alabaster jar who pours perfume over the head of Jesus. Some rebuke her, commenting on how the cost of such a lavish gift could have been used to feed the poor. In Mark 14:6-8, Jesus responds to the naysayers, “Let her alone: why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you will always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” Within the state of New Jersey, so many churches, institutions, and people have left the city of Trenton and its residents behind. They might argue that lavish gifts should be directed elsewhere, but Westminster does not hesitate to pour themselves out as a gift on the community of Trenton, as unto Jesus as an expression of love and devotion. Like Jesus, Trenton may appear to be a dying city, but Westminster considers its mission to pour out the love of Christ regardless of how Trenton may be able to invest or make good on such gifts, persisting in the radical practice of “seeking shalom in the city.” There’s both a work-a-day and a Kingdom mindset to Westminster’s ministry: they may find themselves pressed in by the brutal realities of urban life, but God’s love compels them to imagine beauty and possibility.

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