“Look! A rainbow!” Gary and I were driving to a staff planning day when a stunning vertical rainbow appeared on the north side of the rising sun. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. As we drove on, we saw that the rainbow encompassed the south side of the sun as well – it embraced the sun. How appropriate. The rainbow, a sign of God’s grace and providence, was guiding our way to the former Berkley First United Methodist Church. This 85-year-old congregation closed its doors on December 31 after entrusting our congregation with its building and assets so that we could start a new worshiping community.
The first thing we did upon entering the holy space that was once a vibrant congregation was to take individual prayer walks. We were asked to explore every area of the facility and be open to how God was speaking to us. What we saw was a large, lovely, well-maintained facility in the heart of an up-and-coming Detroit suburb. Many things caught our eyes:
- A plaque in the parlor honoring the beginnings of this congregation in 1929 in an empty store building with 66 charter members and 105 children in Sunday school
- Large trash bags full of coats, a tribute to a “coat” ministry in the public schools
- Christmas decorations carefully labeled, the wise men in the large outdoor community nativity wrapped in heavy-duty trash bags
- The names of teenagers painted on the walls of the youth rooms, an air hockey game and pool table waiting patiently
- A renovated fellowship hall and kitchen, completely paid for by insurance after a major flood in the summer of 2014
- An area in the narthex called Pew Pals, where children could pick up packets of crayons and papers to enhance their worship experience
At the entrance to the sanctuary the sign was still there: “Faith built this church. Hope is our future. Love sustains it.” I couldn’t help but think of Steve Green’s poignant song, Find Us Faithful.
We’re pilgrims on the journey of the narrow road,
And those who’ve gone before us line the way.
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary,
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace.
The witness of this faithful congregation to God’s sustaining grace over many decades was palpable as we walked through the building. After regrouping, we debriefed:
- “It’s not what you’d expect a dying church to look like.”
- “The potential is overwhelming.”
- “It’s eerie. Everything is still here, just waiting for us.”
- “This congregation was clearly a place of love, light, and mission.”
- “The location is ripe for revitalization.”
- “The rainbow this morning was a sign of hope for the future of this location. The tragedy of the flood of last summer not only enabled a brand new fellowship hall and kitchen renovation, but it also prompted a major clean-up of the entire lower level in preparation for new ministry to become a possibility.”
The congregation shared a “Closing Letter” on the Berkley First website in November. “It is with mixed emotions that we are writing to you today. Berkley First United Methodist Church has a long history of mission work, community outreach, valued friendships and fellowship within our church and in the Berkley community. Like many churches today, we have seen a dramatic decline in attendance. We have prayed for God’s guidance, explored many avenues and tried several things in order to draw people into our church, but it has not been successful.
“Therefore, the decision has been made that Berkley First UMC will close on December 31, 2014, leaving our assets as a legacy for a new church start. There are people trained in new church start strategies who are young and excited about this process and have the energy, time, and commitment needed for such an ambitious endeavor. We pray that our legacy helps in creating a new church experience that will fulfill the needs of many of those who currently do not have a church home. ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ Matthew 28:19”
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful;
May the fire of our devotion light their way;
May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe;
And the lives we live inspire them to obey;
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful.
The courage of First UMC Berkley in offering up its life so that new ministry may emerge was not lost on us. By choosing to close before they had exhausted all of their assets, this faithful congregation has left footprints and assets that will inspire future generations of disciples to reach this community with the good news of Jesus Christ.
The first of Berkley’s Core Values as found on their website was, “Jesus Christ is the Foundation of our Church. Everything we believe and everything we do is based on the example and teachings of Jesus. Loving God, loving one another and becoming disciples for Christ are the reasons we exist.”
Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher Richard Rohr has written, “Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds. As Paul says ‘Love does not come to an end’ and ‘Love never fails.’” The core values of Berkley First UMC will live on as new ministry emerges.
Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
Let us run the race not only for the prize;
But as those who’ve gone before us let us leave to those behind us,
The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives.
As our staff sat in the parlor planning for the future, two key lay persons from Berkley were also present in the building, working to bring closure to the transition process. Nancy, who was at the very heart of this congregation, shared the excitement of the other Berkley members that ministry would continue in this location and said she can’t wait to see what God will do. Nancy also expressed the intentionality of the congregation in leaving a building that is in very good shape and assets to begin a new faith community. Art, the Trustees chair, was also very positive and committed to helping us learn the nuances of this “house of God.”
In their final website communication after the closing worship service on December 28, the congregation wrote, “Thank you to Birmingham First UMC for accepting our legacy gift and agreeing to start a ‘new church’ in the Berkley building in the future. We have faith that God will lead you on the path of success in reaching those in the community who need and are touched by the program that you will bring.
“May God bless each and every one of you who has been a part of the life of Berkley First United Methodist Church. It has been an honor to worship and serve together over the years. And finally, thank you, God, for the many blessings that you have given us through the shared ministries and memories of this church family. As we walk in faith and trust you to guide us as we search for a new church home, we believe and are comforted by knowing that you will be with us along the way. ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Matthew 28:20
After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone,
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind;
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find.
Last week we discovered countless clues through the legacy that Berkley has left behind. May those clues become a rainbow of hope as the faithfulness of Berkley First UMC becomes the light leading to new ministry. Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful.