They braved the elements on an afternoon when snow and ice cancelled hundreds of worship services and Christmas concerts. They came because one of the greatest strengths of our denomination is that each United Methodist church is part of a larger whole, and we can do far more together than we can alone. They came because, when we are at our best, United Methodists are intentional about worshipping, learning, sharing resources, and reaching out together as well as bearing each other’s burdens. But most of all, they came because Olivet United Methodist Church was an incubator church to very end. On December 12, I saw The United Methodist Church at its very best.
To celebrate Olivet UMC’s 120 years of vital ministry in Grand Rapids at the same time as we sadly recognized the discontinuance of this worshipping congregation was indeed bittersweet. I have yet to meet any congregation that wants to give up. Yet this was a time to remember and give thanks for the thousands of people who committed their lives to Jesus Christ through this congregation as well as many more people who were touched and transformed by the outreach of Olivet UMC over 12 decades.
It’s a curious juxtaposition, this season of Advent, which makes it all the more fitting to hold a service of discontinuance in the middle of December. Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year, yet it comes at the end of the calendar year. Our Advent scriptures anticipate the birth of the Christ child but also speak clearly about “last things.” For those of us in the northern hemisphere, Advent marks the time of the death of nature in winter and the promise of cold and snow, yet we also remember Jesus’ words that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Is what happens during Advent an end or a beginning? Were Mary and Joseph coming or going? In order to celebrate the new, do we have to let go of what is no longer needed? During this season of waiting, is God calling us to die to ourselves in order for something new to be born? But even more, is God calling us to work toward a new heaven and a new earth where we defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and redeem lives from oppression and violence, in the words of Psalm 72?
For 120 years Olivet United Methodist Church has been a channel of love and new birth, a veritable incubator. We usually think about incubators in 3 ways:
- It’s a device in which environmental conditions are controlled in order to grow cultures, hatch eggs artificially, or enable certain chemical or biological reactions to happen
- It’s a machine for keeping premature infants in an environment where temperature, humidity, and oxygen levels are controlled
- It’s a setting where the creation of new ideas or approaches is encouraged
From its very beginning in 1890, Olivet UMC created an environment of growth and looked to multiple itself through incubation. Just 20 years after its founding as a large city church, members of Olivet started a new congregation, Wyoming Park UMC, not too many miles away. Members of Olivet also drove out to the suburbs to help start Georgetown UMC in the 1970’s.
A particular gift of Olivet UMC was its hospitality to fledgling ethnic congregations, allowing them to give birth and grow before they would move out on their own. Hilliard Chapel AME Zion Church, Pa Wa Ting Ma Ged Win Native American UMC, and La Nueva Esperanza (Hispanic) UMC all started out of the Olivet building. Olivet members were especially proud that the Grand Rapids Vietnamese Church, the first chartered Vietnamese UMC in the world, began in the Olivet building.
But that’s not all. SECOM (South End Community Ministries), a faith-based social service agency in Grand Rapids serving 20,000 people a year, was started out of the Olivet Church in 1971. When Dick Youells served as pastor of Olivet UMC in the 1980’s, a community member remarked, “So you’re from the incubator church! You incubate congregations and let them go.”
When Dick began his ministry at Olivet in 1979, the district superintendent told him that Olivet UMC would close in 5 years and that it would be good for a Spanish speaking congregation to be in the building. Like so many other churches in our cities, Olivet was situated in a changing neighborhood and rose to the challenge of reaching out to the growing Hispanic-Latino community.
The doors of the church were opened for neighborhood youth to play basketball and hold dances in the gym. Weddings and Quinceañera celebrations were held in the church, with church members simply saying to their Hispanic neighbors, “Clean up after yourself and have a good time!” Gangs were common in the neighborhood, but the Olivet building was always treated with respect as a sanctuary, a safe place for all.
Even today the Olivet building hums with activity. The Grand Rapids Area Service Project, a home rehabilitation non-profit which attracts mission groups from around the country, is housed in the building. The 7th District Juvenile Court holds probation meetings and events 3 nights a week. There is community basketball 2 nights a week, a community garden, and a weekly Sewing and Growing group. So much ministry. So many lives changed. So much hope. Olivet gave its very life for others. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7
For its entire existence Olivet UMC was an incubator for cutting edge, justice-oriented outreach ministries. Over the last 40 years faithful members tried every way they knew how to be a missional church in urban Grand Rapids. Yet they were never able to overcome the barriers of language, culture, and aging resources in order to grow the congregation itself.
On October 2, realizing that almost all of its energy was now directed toward mere survival, the congregation invited the 20 United Methodist churches in the metropolitan area of Grand Rapids to a day of discernment. 35 United Methodist pastors and lay persons gathered in the sanctuary to support and encourage their brothers and sisters as well as brainstorm about how to fulfill this congregation’s greatest desire, which was to continue to incubate ministry in their neighborhood.
The United Methodist Church was again at its best. Out of this discernment process Olivet UMC invited La Nueva Esperanza UMC to move into its building from a nearby facility that they are no longer able to maintain. La Nueva Esperanza, “New Hope,” is returning home to its roots, bringing with it a passion for mission and evangelism and already connecting with the neighborhood. Indeed, Olivet will become an incubator once more because United Methodists have decided that it is important enough to have a presence in this area of Grand Rapids that we will commit the necessary human and financial resources.
There were no dry eyes at Olivet UMC on Dec. 12. A former pastor remarked, “There is more God in this place than any other place I have ever known.” What could be more holy than offering yourself as an incubator: to give up your life in order to nurture, birth, and welcome new life in Christ to communities that are desperate, hurting, and hoping?
The last moments in the life of this congregation will remain forever in our collective memory.
- Tommy Boutell, pastor of Olivet until last July, called out each of the 15 remaining members/incubators by name, thanking them for their courage, dedication, and faithfulness.
- As Tommy knelt in front of 2 little neighborhood girls, who often came alone to church and were loved deeply by the congregation, he asked them to always remember the love they received here. Then he reminded us, “This church was an incubator for Caucasian and ethnic churches, social service agencies, outreach ministries, the neighborhood, and little girls.”
- As the current co-pastor of Olivet UMC, Jane Crabtree, offered the gift of a communion chalice and plate to the pastor of La Nueva Esperanza, the egg cracked open and new life emerged.
At the very end, the 6 member choir of Olivet UMC sang one last time, “O Holy Night, the Stars are Brightly Shining.” It was the sweetest “O Holy Night” I have ever heard: the choir at its very best. There was enough God in that place at that moment to last a lifetime and into eternity. May the mystery of incarnation, the anticipation of incubation, and the joy of God cracking wide open the door of grace at the manger gladden your heart this Christmas season and forever.