A West Seneca church kicked off a yearlong series of events Sunday to mark the 150th year since its founding by German immigrants.
The celebration comes as many churches across the country have closed amid aging congregations and declining enrollment, but the 800-member Ebenezer United Church of Christ shows no signs of slowing down.
The Main Street church and its adjoining parish hall were a whir of excitement Sunday, as parishioners young and old gathered both to cherish fading memories and to mark new strategies to connect it with the community.
Parishioner Adela Coates has seen the world change a lot in her 92 years. The one constant, though, has been the tiny Ebenezer church, which she joined in 1934.
“I always say, I was born into it,” Coates said. “I was baptized here, confirmed, married, and I’ll probably be buried from here.”
Harold Ulrich, 90, remembers when church services were spoken in German. The church began to form in the 1863, when a group of German immigrants met in their homes to worship and developed plans for building a church. They officially organized on Oct. 1 of that year.
There were trying times, when the church struggled to make ends meet financially. A group of women who attended the church, dubbed the “willing workers,” began a fundraising campaign to stabilize the church and raise money for donations to other causes. Those efforts were aided by the “Thursday crew,” a group of male parishioners who resolved to complete handyman work around the church to save it from hiring contractors.
Coates remembers the good old days, too, when 300 students packed into religion class each Sunday. Now, the number is closer to 100.
But like church leaders, Coates is heartened by the large eighth-grade religion class and the younger families who came to celebrate Sunday with their children.
In an effort to “equip people to share Christ’s love,” church leaders have put an emphasis on youth service trips throughout Western New York, across the state and as far away as Mexico.
They have also adopted an inclusive slogan, strung across the parish meeting hall, which reads, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re always welcome here.”
The trips give the youngsters a sense of self-worth and achievement while connecting them to the larger community, said the Rev. Gary Gossel.
They also allow the church to remain relevant in a changing society.
“Every church is facing a huge amount of change in our culture, in our society,” Gossel said, “[and many times] it spirals away from the church. But what I hope happens is we continue to make these connections, that people feel like they belong. [We want to] offer a sense of hope, a sense of love.”
The 150th anniversary celebration will run through next October and will include a soup fest on Nov. 18, children’s Advent Night on Dec. 1, a Living Nativity on Dec. 16, a “Taste of Ebenezer United Church of Christ” on Jan. 29, a healing service in April and a banquet and other festivities next October. For more information, call Gossel at 674-4566 or visit www.eucc.org