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Blending cultures into one church

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): Haitian    The church adapts    Challenges ahead   .

Wednesday, May 7
Blending cultures into one church

By Elizabeth Clarke, Palm Beach Post Religion Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2003

LAKE PARK -- They're crowded into the front pews of the church: nearly 40 Haitian boys and girls wearing miniature maroon choir robes complete with puffy sleeves and white collars.

They're neighborhood kids, bursting to perform.

It's an important day, this Sunday in March. Today, St. John's Lutheran Church installs a Haitian minister, the Rev. Daniel Bartley, as assistant pastor.

St. John's is nearly full -- with white and black faces, old and new members, Lutheran leaders and neighbors.

Toward the end of the two-hour service, Bartley grins, raises his arms and then bends his head to accept his new embroidered stole. With that, he takes over the service, which has slipped easily among English, French and Creole. Only one of Bartley's four languages, Spanish, has not been spoken today.

"What happened was very special," Bartley, 46, said later. "It was like the new Jerusalem, where you have almost all nationalities. We truly have a multicultural church, and I believe this is what the Lord had in mind when he built his church."

Bartley's installation begins a new chapter in the life of an old church.

"It's a formal blessing," says the Rev. Gary Leopard, pastor, "a formalization of what we've been talking about for eight years... trying to blend congregations."

When Leopard arrived in 1990, St. John's Lutheran was a dying church. The neighborhood that had built it in the late '50s had changed -- from white and middle-class to mostly Haitian. It was down to 90 members, most of them seniors, who had long ago moved out of the community but who stayed loyal to St. John's. Money for a full-time pastor would last only a year.

Today the church boasts 200 members -- one-third black -- with an average age of 55. Most live within 5 miles of the church and keep it bustling every day. Its Strive Toward Excellence after-school program provides free after-school care -- and that rousing choir -- for 60 neighborhood Haitian children, kindergarten through fifth grade.

Longtime church member Scott Connelly, 51, lived three blocks away from St. John's in the late 1950s. He now lives about 3 miles away in Palm Beach Gardens.

His family, like many who attended the church, had moved to Lake Park from the Northeast for a job with Pratt & Whitney, the then-growing jet-engine and rocket-making company. A Lutheran minister named Arthur Snyder moved from Philadelphia to start the church.

The church adapts

Connelly remembers a deeply segregated town -- black people weren't seen east of the railroad tracks in those days, he says, and separate water fountains were common -- but also a happy church bustling with activity. He participated in Sunday school, acolytes, youth league and Boy Scouts there.

In the mid-'70s, the pastor retired. Many founding families moved west to bigger, newer homes. By 2000, according to U.S. Census data, 28 percent of the neighborhood's residents were foreign-born, well above the Palm Beach County number of 17.4 percent.

After pastor Leopard examined the church's long-ignored financial books, he warned his members that he soon would need to become a part-time pastor, or they would have to think about moving. They balked.

Members wanted their church to survive, but they weren't sure how to do it.

They started by putting their finances in order and fixing up their buildings.

A few years later, in 1994, Leopard gained a clearer understanding of how important it is for a church to adapt. While visiting Guyana, he spent a day traveling with a pastor who served several churches that could be reached only by boat. At one stop, as Leopard walked up a hill to the church, a little black girl with big brown eyes asked him whether he had come to be her pastor.

"My heart just sunk," he says, almost disappointed in himself. "I didn't need to go to South America to hear God was calling me to serve the people of my community back home. I came back a changed man. That ignited a fire."

His congregants noticed first -- in his heartfelt sermons urging them always to love and accept all of God's people.

Leopard's fervor spread to many members but not to all. For several years, Connelly says, members talked about embracing their Haitian, Jamaican and black neighbors, but their actions often didn't support their words.

"When I came, they didn't like children, no matter what color they were," Leopard says. "Some have left. One or two walked in here and said, 'Pastor, it's too black for me.' "

Leopard worked to respect those people and didn't try to talk them into staying. He realizes that many who remained were -- and perhaps still are -- ambivalent about the church's new mission.

But the after-school program, which a high school student started in 1998, sparked a change.

Deacon Lynn Stanavitch gave up a career as a stockbroker to run it in 1999 and got it to full enrollment of 45 within two weeks. With support from the Children's Services Council and other groups, its capacity has increased to 60, with 52 waiting for an opening.

"The main reason we're still here is the after-school program," Connelly says. "Lake Park Elementary (across the street) is our anchor. As long as they're there, we'll be there."

It has changed many things at the church. First Communion classes are bigger than expected, and members often experience new food or music during and after services. Older members also volunteer at the after-school program, helping the children learn to read.

"I think it's helped us see that children are children," Stanavitch says.

Kids sometimes bring their parents to church. And some kids who attend different churches find ways to participate at St. John's, by singing in the choir or attending celebrations.

Leopard says he had 12 new members in 2000, 16 in 2001 and 18 last year. At first they were primarily Haitian, but that's changing.

Edie McConville, a Lake Park resident of 12 years, and her husband, both white, joined the church within the past year after searching for a place they felt comfortable. She now runs the Sunday school program.

"It's a fun place to be, and I think it's wonderful that it reflects the neighborhood in which I live," she says. "There are very few churches in Palm Beach County that I've been to that do that."

Challenges ahead

The next few years won't be easy for this church, however. Leopard and Bartley will lead the congregation together, but language differences make it difficult to share worship time. Yet everyone is hopeful and eager to work hard at those things, leaders say.

And that work is being watched throughout the Lutheran Church, says the Rev. Ronald Ryckman, mission director for the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He admires the congregation for deciding against "white flight."

"We're not called to be a white club.... St. John's has made a statement by calling a co-pastor," Ryckman says. "They are one church. It's not two groups within one church.

"The vision of this congregation is a model," he says, "a model to look around you and see the people around you and serve them."

Database editor Christine Stapleton also contributed to this story.

elizabeth_clarke@pbpost.com

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