The Rev. Fred Hanna’s career switch from microbiologist to pastor of Delaware’s first black Presbyterian church was orchestrated for such a time as this
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
NEW CASTLE, Delaware — As a scientist and science lover since he was a child, Fred Hanna has always found the disconnect between science and religion to be odd, if not utterly horrifying. Once in his early 30s he was having a conversation about dinosaurs with a Christian who told him, “Dinosaurs aren’t real. They were made up. Science made them up.”
“Why would you say that?” Hanna asked.
“Because they aren’t in the Bible,” the person said.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this is why I stayed away from church all my life. You people, you don’t get it.’” There are lots of people like that, he said, people who can’t seem to connect the Creation story to some aspects of evolution.
“I’ve never had a problem connecting my ideas about science to my faith,” said Hanna. “For me, science and the universe prove God, they don’t disprove God.”
Early in his career, Hanna was an analytical microbiologist working at a pharmaceutical plant. As he moved into other positions, his core was always science.
“As a microbiologist, we’d break down an element into its smallest element, and then we’d try to split that open and understand it,” he said. “So I use that to connect to my way of studying the Scriptures. Scripture had to have some kind of meaning. It had to make sense. It had to follow a pattern. There had to be principles there that my faith was built on, so I would literally ‘mine’ the Scriptures. My love for and affinity for expositional preaching comes from there. It’s line upon line, precept upon precept. It’s very much a scientific discipline that I follow. Even in my study discipline. The whole process is methodical.”
As pastor of Community Presbyterian Church, in New Castle, Delaware, where he has served since 2013, the Rev. Frederick A Hanna Sr. has been leading his congregation in online daily devotions and virtual church worship on Sunday mornings for several weeks, since the state government limited the number of people who could gather publicly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think I have an advantage in that I didn’t grow up in the church,” Hanna said. “So, I’m not as attached to the building and these sacred articles as some people are. I’ve always thought that these walls can be a hindrance to God’s work; I might be in the minority as far as that’s concerned, but I don’t have any emotional attachment to being in this space that’s going to allow me to put people’s lives in danger.”
Community Presbyterian, the first African American congregation in New Castle Presbytery, was founded in 1955 by civil rights activist the late Rev. Maurice J. Moyer, who served as its pastor for 46 years. The new church building opened in 1998. It is connected to the original building and has a sanctuary that seats 250 people. On a typical Sunday average attendance is about 90.
Although nothing has been typical or average in these days of coronavirus, Hanna said.
“When I see some of those late Boomers getting on a Zoom call or suddenly having Facebook accounts and tuning in on a Sunday morning, then coming back and saying, ‘Pastor Fred, we appreciate that you’ve put these things in place. You made us do this Unglued Church project. You made us attend Sunday morning symposiums, where you talked about Matthew 25 and Vital Congregations … We get it now. We are so glad that you were pushing us in this direction because we were ready when a lot of churches weren’t.’ The support of our members has been amazing,” Hanna said.
“I don’t want to look or sound like a stereotypical pastor. I just want to be me, Pastor Fred, and just stand here in my street clothes with my Nikes on and preach the Gospel.” One of his favorite shirts includes some relatable hashtags: #Black, #Presbyterian, #iPhoneToting, #iPadPreaching, #YouDaPastor?
Although Community Presbyterian Church is proud of its heritage and rich traditions, it is striving to be a socially and culturally relevant church “talking to you in language you can understand and about things you can relate to,” Hanna said, adding that one of these days he is going to roll up his sleeves while preaching, which could be shocking to some because he has sleeve tattoos.
Looking back, Hanna said he noticed something happening in the church world the past couple years — especially the past year.
“The church has to figure out something other than the old machine, which was ‘butts in the pews, coins in the plate’ and that’s how we fund the ministry. That’s just not going to work anymore, going forward,” Hanna said. “We see that even more now with us being out of our buildings. A lot of churches were already cash-strapped and are even more cash-strapped now.”
Hanna has worked quite a bit in the past couple of years writing grants and trying to be creative in looking at the future of church and ministry.
“My dream,” he said, “is that we’d be able to take our church to a place where we do all the work of ministry through grants, and the plate money kind of takes care of payroll and that’s about it. That’s where I’d like to see us progress to.”
Having a virtual presence for Community Presbyterian Church has been important to Hanna in the seven years he has served as pastor. The shutdown of in-person gatherings has members connecting even more, he says, through Facebook Live, YouTube, Zoom, Instagram, Twitter, the church’s website and Givelify, and soon through a new application he is in the process of building.
Because the church already had an online presence and audience, the shift to virtual church was relatively seamless, Hanna said. “On a typical Sunday we might have somewhere between 100–300 views. Since we’ve gone to virtual church, our eye is more toward 500 views. It has been up to 800–1,000 views. And, with the nightly devotionals, I feel like we are reaching people if we get around 100 views, yet we’ve been pretty consistent with anywhere from 100 to 300 views.”
“It’s a blessing to be here at Community,” Hanna said. “I came to Delaware 15 years ago, ordained in the Assemblies of God, doing supervised ministry in a Baptist church.” He remembers driving past the church being surprised to see a black pastor’s name, the Rev. Dr. SanDawna Gaulman Ashley, on a Presbyterian church.
Now he wants others to know that you can be black and be a Presbyterian.
Hanna’s office is the space where he first met with Ashley a decade and a half ago to talk about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She invited him to preach at Community Presbyterian Church numerous times, which was the beginning of his relationship with CPC. When Ashley accepted a new call as the manager of Call Process Support and Teaching Elder Ministries in the Office of the General Assembly at the PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville, she encouraged Hanna, as she felt he would be a good fit for the congregation.
He decided to jump on the opportunity, yet Hanna quickly learned that although he was ordained in the Assemblies of God and American Baptist churches, had a seminary degree and met all the other criteria, he was not a Presbyterian and it would not be that easy.
“From the first time I met Rev. Hanna, his gifts and calling were easily recognized,” said Ashley, who is now executive presbyter in the Presbytery of Minnesota Valleys. “I thought to myself that he has the gifts of a public theologian. Fred brings to ministry intellect and street smarts; the combination of his gifts serves well the congregation, community and the PC(USA) He is someone people can relate to and one who can speak to the transformative power of the Gospel and the particular challenges of justice, ethnic pride and self-determination. Leadership succession planning is not necessarily the way we do ministry in the Presbyterian Church. However, there was a purpose in my meeting Rev. Hanna. I am thrilled that the outcome resulted in the PC(USA) gaining a minister with Fred’s gifts and graces for ministry.”
Hanna came to his role as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church through the Presbytery of Philadelphia and pastoring First African Presbyterian Church as a supply pastor for three years. As he began taking his ordination exams, passing them on the first round, he held up on taking the last three exams for about two years.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a Presbyterian,” he said.
A PC(USA) pastor-mentor in Philadelphia told him, “If you decide to take these final three exams, understand that you are not taking those exams to be the pastor of First African, you’re taking those exams because you appreciate PC(USA) and what it means to be a pastor in this denomination.”
“So, I took the exams,” Hanna said. “The day I got the results back, I went online to the pastoral search engine.” Community Presbyterian Church had just posted a job opening for a pastor.
“I often have that sense, when I walk in here, that God orchestrated it for me to be here,” Hanna said.
Hanna’s love for God, passed down by his grandmother and mother, helped him recognize his call to Christian ministry and his passions for reaching underserved communities, working to address structural poverty and listening — really listening — to the unheard voices in society.
“I don’t want the virtual church to be what we typically do on a Sunday morning, just now to an internet audience,” Hanna said. “I want it to help people see that ‘Yes, we’re black Presbyterians,’ and you know what, ‘We kinda get it.’ Like social justice advocacy, we get that; inclusivity, we get that. All these things that people are barking about and all these old traditions that really shackle your ability to be yourself and be part of God’s work — we get all of that. And, guess what, we’re like you. Our worship looks like you. It’s not all old guys in robes. We embrace women in ministry. All the things that are so important to so many young people that have turned away from the church. We’re doing all of that in a way that’s relatable.”
Hanna is looking forward to the future of virtual church. But he is also looking forward to the time when the church can come back together for in-person worship, ministry and mission.
“We’re having church, and that’s great,” Hanna said. “We’re being the church in terms of connecting with people and helping people to feel a sense of stability and that things will be OK, but there’s a whole other piece of being the church that we’re not doing right now. A piece which in many ways is more important than some of the stuff that we’re doing today.” What’s missing now, Hanna said, are things like mentoring programs for children, the Saturday feeding program, grief counseling, addiction counseling, marriage counseling [ministries] that typically happen in the building and are essential to being the church.
“At Community, we’re a family,” he said. “Community Presbyterian Church at its best is the best church I’ve ever been a part of. We’re a small, close-knit group, and when we love each other, it’s rich.”
“So, I look forward to getting back to that, but at the same time, I feel like we have to build this virtual context; and that might be almost like another church, so it will be our church here and then our virtual church. I don’t know if that happens on a Sunday or a Wednesday or whenever it is, but I think this has to be a permanent part of our ministry going forward.”
Rev. Frederick A Hanna Sr. is pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in New Castle, Delaware. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology and chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; a Master of Divinity degree from New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey; and a Doctor of Education in Social and Philosophical Foundations at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Prior to accepting the call to CPC, Hanna served as a supply pastor of First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He has been an adjunct professor at Rutgers University and a Fellow at the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Rutgers. He has presented his work on race and education and race and religion in national forums. Hanna and his wife, Dr. Monique R. Fountain-Hanna, have two daughters and a son. Fountain-Hanna is a pediatrician and works as a public health officer for the federal government.
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Categories: Congregational Vitality, Faith & Worship, Matthew 25
Tags: Black Presbyterians, chemistry, community presbyterian church, coronavirus, covid-19, grants, matthew 25, microbiology, Minnesota Valleys Presbytery, new castle presbytery, SanDawna Gaulman Ashley, science and faith, social distancing, technology, the Rev. Fred Hanna, virtual church, Vital Congregations
Ministries: Evangelism, Matthew 25 in the PC(USA): Join the Movement, Theology and Worship, Worship