Derry Street United Methodist Church may draw 80 to 100 worshippers to Sunday morning services on any given week – a far cry from its membership a few decades ago, when many Methodist churches counted hundreds or thousands of congregants.
But by Bill Jamison’s estimate, the church on 15th and Derry streets serves more people now than ever before.
Through its nonprofit Allison Hill Ministries, the church houses a free after-school program and summer enrichment camp for children, a food pantry, clothing closet, parenting and ESL classes and a community garden.
Founded in the 1860s in the heart of South Allison Hill, Derry Street UMC ministers to one of the poorest and most diverse pockets of Harrisburg. Its neighbors are black and brown; they’re immigrants, migrants and refugees speaking Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin; and the vast majority live in deep poverty.
Jamison and other leaders at Derry UMC aren’t sure where these patrons will go under a new plan from the Susquehanna United Methodist Conference, which announced this week it would close church buildings and consolidate its 10 congregations in Harrisburg.
The announcement came after the conference found that fewer than 400 people regularly attend services at any of the 10 congregations in the city, according to conference Communications Director Shawn Gilgore.
In a letter to congregants on Monday, the conference said that Methodist churches have watched their congregations age and shrink in size over the past decade. Combined with the costly upkeep of church buildings, paltry membership rates made it impossible to sustain properties and clergy for multiple congregations across the city.
Conference leaders are asking Harrisburg Methodists to attend the 29th Street Methodist Church in Paxtang, 14 blocks east of Derry Street UMC, while its leaders prepare to dispose of 10 church properties across the city. They expect all those churches, including Derry Street UMC, to close on April 21.
But members of the Derry Street UMC community aren’t sure they can relocate their programs without alienating patrons. They’ll hold a call to action meeting this Sunday, Dec. 15, at 10 a.m. in their church sanctuary.
Representatives from the Susquehanna Conference will be in attendance, Gilgore confirmed, as Derry Street parishioners make the case for keeping their ministries at 1508 Derry St.
“People around here are going to suffer”
The Susquehanna Conference began to develop its consolidation plan this summer, according to Gilgore. Though it was met with some apprehension when it was announced this week, he said that most of the response from the community has been positive.
“We definitely understand this is a bold step,” Gilgore said. “But we want people to know the ministry of the church in Harrisburg is not ending. We need to take a step back and say, ‘In 2019 and in the future, what can we do to best position ourselves in the city?’”
Eventually, the conference hopes to establish a single house of worship with five campuses in uptown, midtown and downtown Harrisburg, Allison Hill and Penbrook, Gilgore said.
These campuses could be located in mixed-use spaces with community partners, rather than traditional church buildings, he said.
Gilgore said that each congregation in Harrisburg has input on the consolidation. But Jamison, who’s worked from Derry Street UMC for 10 years as the leader of Allison Hill Ministries, said his church community was “dumbfounded” by the conference’s decree.
He also rejected the view, expressed in the Dec. 10 letter, that “churches in Harrisburg have neglected to maintain relationships with the neighborhoods we once served,” and insisted that it’s wrong to evaluate a church today based on its Sunday morning crowds.
In its transformation from a place of worship to a neighborhood social safety net, Derry Street UMC exemplifies the trends that churches have followed in recent decades as religious affiliation among Americans has plummeted. Many churches today offer a gamut of programs — such as soup kitchens, 12 Step meetings, parenting classes and day care — that extend far beyond Sunday mornings.
From the basement of Derry Street UMC, Jamison’s Allison Hill Ministries offers an after-school program that serves 32 children every day, as well as a free summer camp that enrolls 40 children a year. Students follow a curriculum designed by Jamison that includes such topics as oceanography, anthropology and Native American history, and take field trips to museums in New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
Most of the students are enrolled in Harrisburg’s Scott and Melrose elementary schools, which are both walking distance from the church.
More than 170 families patronize the church’s food pantry each month, Jamison said, and a typical Thursday finds 200 people lining up for fresh produce from its Pan Pantry program. People who need food or clothing can sort through donations to the church’s clothes closet. Just this morning, a woman speaking Spanish came to the church basement to retrieve a donated high chair.
“The word I got was, ‘If they are hungry, feed them. If they are naked, clothe them,’” Jamison said, evoking a well-known Bible verse from the book of Matthew. “But that means you have to be where the hungry are. You have to be where the naked will go. We’re here because this is where the need is.”
James Byrd, who stopped by Derry Street today to collect two donated bowling balls from its clothes and furniture closet, said that the church draws most of its patrons from within walking distance. He’s not sure they’ll maintain a relationship with the Methodist Church if they have to travel to 29th Street.
The church counts many seniors among its members, he said, and many of the people it serves cannot afford bus fare or cars. Others may be fearful of venturing to a new neighborhood.
“A lot of people around here are going to suffer,” Byrd said. “How are people going to get to a new location? What will we do for children using after-school programs? I know for a fact this church does a lot for this small community.”
While the Susquehanna Conference counts attendance at Sunday morning services, it doesn’t track enrollment in other church-based programs, Gilgore said.
He added that the Susquehanna Conference supports all existing church ministries and will provide logistical and financial assistance to those that must relocate. They’ve already found a new home for a Camp Curtin Methodist Church soup kitchen in the neighborhood’s YMCA, he said.
Gilgore also said that the conference plans to offer transportation to new church locations under the consolidation plan. Details of those arrangements will be under development throughout the spring.
As Jamison sees it, Derry Street UMC’s location isn’t just practical. He thinks its constancy buoys a population that’s all too familiar with upheaval and disruption.
“Old buildings are a pain, but one of our strengths is that we’ve been on this corner for 150 years. We’re a landmark,” Jamison said. “One of the nice things is that there’s some edifice, some tradition that we can hold on to and find stability – particularly in a migrant community.”
Since the Susquehanna Conference owns the Derry Street church property, its leaders have final say on its fate. Jamison called himself a realist, not a pessimist, and said he isn’t sure the campaign to save the Derry Street church will succeed.
“In my experience, when hierarchies make up their mind, they have the say,” Jamison said. “But we’ll see if I’m right or wrong.”