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Dayton’s College Hill Community Church engages in Black Lives Matter

BLM tribute crosses made and donated by friends of the church

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Passersby have expressed gratitude to College Hill Community Church in Dayton, Ohio, for its silent Black Lives Matter tribute cross display. (Photo by Kathy Lakes)

LOUISVILLE — It is impossible not to be emotionally moved by the rows of crosses displayed on three sides of College Hill Community Church in Dayton, Ohio. The 20 crosses on display honor Black lives lost in senseless killings, the majority at the hands of police officers sworn to provide protection.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Freddie Gray, Stephon Clark — and so many more. Each story is heartbreaking and the Rev. Dr. M. Merritt Worthen, the church’s senior pastor, said, “We will not forget.”

The congregation of about 130 members prays faithfully for all the families who have lost loved ones so tragically. They pray for the police officers who have done wrong and have been allowed to get away with the wrong they have done. They pray for police officers who are doing a good job and have done no wrong. They pray for justice.

Crosses surround the church in tribute to Black lives lost, many to police shootings and excessive use of force. (Photo by Kathy Lakes)

The crosses were made by Paul Papanek and Jerry Black Ford, friends of the church in Troy, Ohio, with the painting and names of Black lives lost carefully added by some of the church’s youth. The crosses were installed in mid-August as a continual reminder that each person can do something to make a difference in promoting social justice and dismantling structural racism.

In November 1970, the session moved that CHCC be closed. In the nearly 50 years since that motion failed by a four-vote margin among church members (54-58), the church has grown into a multicultural and multilingual family of faith. The congregation celebrated its 75th year in 2019. Worthen’s father, the Rev. Johnny Merritt, served as a minister at CHCC years ago, and her father’s best friend, the late Rev. Dr. Robert E. “Bob” Jones, was senior pastor of CHCC for nearly four decades until his retirement in 2014. The Rev. John Zuercher served as interim pastor until the fall of 2016, when the congregation unanimously called the Rev. Dr. Darryll Young, who was later joined by his wife, the Rev. Dr. Karen Young. Rev. Darryll Young served as senior pastor until January 2020, when he had to step down for medical reasons.

For several years Rev. Jones and the Rev. Kent Organ shared the pulpit as a fully integrated Black and white ministry partnership model with a vision to grow a multicultural church, which was a radical goal for the 1970s.

In 2006, the Rev. Francisco Pelaez Diaz, currently a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, laid the foundation for the CHCC Hispanic Ministry and led the ministry until 2012. Ruling Elder José Lamont Jones, Spanish teacher, youth leader, pianist and music director, coordinated the Hispanic Ministry from 2012–20. He has recently been appointed as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is assisting the Presbyterian Community of Kinshasa (CPK) education department, working on behalf of the church’s primary and secondary schools. José and his wife, Evelin, are already on task virtually from their home in the Dominican Republic until the pandemic travel ban is lifted. They are both learning language skills and getting acquainted with programs, context and culture of the CPK.

The church has spawned several PC(USA) mission co-workers and pastors over the years, José said.

José’s last day at CHCC, July 5, was Worthen’s first day behind the pulpit in an outdoor worship venue. “We were fortunate to be able to call her after years serving churches outside the bounds of the Miami Valley Presbytery and in community activism,” José said. “I pray that God will bless College Hill’s ministry in the community and Rev. Dr. Worthen as she leads the march toward future engagement and ministry to the Dayton community. I feel she is the just the person College Hill needs in times such as these.”

The Rev. Dr. M. Merritt Worthen prepares to lead outdoor worship at College Hill Community Church in Dayton. (Photo by Kathy Lakes)

Outdoor, bilingual, parking lot worship — with livestreaming on Facebook — has been well received. The Outdoor Worship Committee is set to coordinate outdoor services (with all safety precautions, including masks, gloves and social distancing) until the end of October. A season of prayer and fasting will start Aug. 31 to begin to consider what worship will look like after October. Individuals and families considered at-risk are encouraged to continue online worship, Worthen said. The church also offers Zoom Bible studies, Zoom Sunday school and a YouTube channel to archive sermons.

As a preacher’s kid, Worthen’s path to the pulpit may seem like “a long time coming,” she said. She grew up in the church but ran from church for many years before sensing God’s call on her life during college. She was in her 20s when she was baptized.

The Rev. Dr. M. Merritt Worthen (Contributed photo)

While pursuing her Master of Divinity from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Worthen served as associate pastor at Grace United Methodist Church and Trinity Presbyterian Church, both in Dayton. Upon graduation, she was ordained as an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She served in UMC congregations from 2010–2018, before taking a sabbatical to complete her doctorate at Union Institute and University. During her two-year sabbatical, Worthen prayed and asked the Lord what she should do next.

“God’s timing is absolutely amazing,” Worthen said, explaining that she received the call to the senior pastor role at CHCC the day before defending her dissertation in late June. Her first official day was July 1.

“Our steps are ordered by the Lord,” she said. “It’s like coming home.”

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