With only about 28 congregants, this house of worship experienced the financial and building deterioration associated with such a small membership. The beautiful church, with enormous stained glass windows, a pipe organ and expansive space, had an uncertain future. Then Pastor Mack Granderson arrived.
At a time when church attendance nationwide has diminished, this congregation of 28 has grown to 90. It holds two Sunday services, one in English and one in Spanish.
When asked how Derry Street turned its future around, Granderson put it like this: “Do the opposite of what churches have done in the last 70 or 80 years.”
For the most part, churches have remained insular, content to meet the needs of those attending, he said.
“Churches found that they finally needed to recognize that their communities have changed, and they needed to open their doors,” he said.
The church has a long history of working with the Allison Hill Community Ministry, which operates out of the church building. But, recently, Derry Street Church has made a mission of the organization, formalizing the relationship and encouraging church member participation in its work. This allows for more collaboration between the ministry and the church in running a clothing closet, two food ministries that feed 1,400 people a month and a tutoring program, among other initiatives.
Benefactors of the Derry Street Church collaboration, Michael Baublitz, his wife and 3-year-old son, moved to the area after experiencing homelessness. He said that, without the church’s food help, he and his family would be “struggling even harder.”
In addition to these programs, the church building serves as a meeting place for Narcotics Anonymous groups, headquarters for an online Christian radio station, The Voice 17104, and a meal preparation area for Meals on Wheels.
Granderson wants to use as much of this building to serve the community as possible.
“I actually feel that we are committing a sin if we have space within our church and it is not being used for the community good,” he said. “All of this does not belong to us. It is a gift from God almighty, and he is expecting us to use it and to use it well.”
Though Derry Street Church has grown in numbers and mission, Granderson doesn’t take credit for the changes there. The credit, he said, goes to the congregation.
“You have never met a congregation like these people,” he said. “This congregation is extraordinary.”
In the spirit of changing with the community, the church recently began hosting English as a Second Language classes. After coordinating with local small businesses and foundations for funding, Derry Street was able to begin offering the classes, coordinated by HACC.
The community college donated a semester of classes and Derry Street Church, along with individuals and businesses, provided financial support. Granderson expressed gratitude for the philanthropic community’s investment in the people of Allison Hill.
He feels that classes like this are requisite for a way out of poverty.
“We recognize that a number of people within our community were not bilingual, in terms of Spanish to English, and that could hold them back from employment and therefore quality housing,” he said.
The yearlong program expects to graduate 75 students this year.
To further its community outreach, in April, the church will begin a new multicultural, contemporary and interactive worship service called New Breed.
Within a room that holds 15-foot textured, clear, stained-glass pocket doors, Granderson explains where a screen will go and how the sound system and band will be placed for the new service. This room once served as a sanctuary overflow, at a time when 1,000 folks worshipped on any given Sunday. Granderson doesn’t pine for the old days of overflowing pews, however. He plants his thoughts and plans squarely in moving forward.
To help him do so, he enthusiastically embraces technology, even as a 67-year-old digital immigrant. In March, the church will install devices that will allow it to translate services into many languages. This will open the doors even wider to include French-speaking, African-born community members.
Derry Street is not the church of its past, with brimming pews. Perhaps it’s something even richer. A cathedral of sorts, providing leadership to recognize and meet societal needs. A church can gauge its effectiveness by the asking the question, “Would the church be missed if it disappeared?”
“If, for whatever reason, this church did not exist anymore, there would be a lot of hurt in this community,” Granderson said.
Derry Street United Methodist Church is located at 1508 Derry St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-233-6441 or visit the Facebook page.