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Ohio’s Grace Presbyterian Church answers Matthew 25 call

 

Church operates over 30 ministries

By Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Grace offers hats, gloves and scarves each winter to anyone who needs them. Courtesy of Grace Presbyterian Church

LOUISVILLE — For Grace Presbyterian Church in Martins Ferry, Ohio, answering the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s invitation to become a Matthew 25 church was such a natural fit, it didn’t hesitate.

On its website, Grace Presbyterian is described as “an open, welcoming church that is committed to loving everyone. A community church, we are dedicated to extending the hope and love, forgiveness and grace of Jesus to our neighbors near and far.”

Since the church opened its doors in 1851 and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, mission outside the church walls has been a gift that is freely given.

The Rev. William O. Webster Jr., who has been the church’s pastor for 32 years, said the city is very different today than it was three decades ago. The once-thriving city in the Rust Belt has lost over 50 percent of its population and the “rust has turned to dust,” he said. About 80% of the community’s children receive free or reduced lunch in the northern Appalachian community.

The church has changed, too. When Webster came to Martins Ferry, Grace Presbyterian was considered a “dead church,” and there was a recommendation to close it and merge with another congregation. Today it is a thriving church of 220, the second largest in its presbytery and home to more than 30 separate ministries, including Internet Church, a legal clinic, a clothing store, a youth center, a new church planting in western Pakistan, and a new worshiping community called Common Ground Community Church that offers a casual Sunday evening service in the Holy Grounds Church Cafe.  

“Our philosophy is that everyone is a minister,” Webster said. “See a need, have someone else agree with you that there is a need or a hurt, bring it to me or the session, and then we will go together to bring hope, offer healing.”

The Internet Church is the brainchild of elder David McFarlan. He and his wife, Kay, stream every worship celebration live over the internet. Multiple cameras, placed strategically throughout the sanctuary, enable worshipers to feel like they are actually in the sanctuary worshiping.  A chat room lets worshipers talk to one another and even submit prayer requests.   

The clothesline project (photo above) operates all winter until the first day of spring. An actual clothesline is hung between the two trees in the front of the church. Volunteers knit hats, gloves, mittens and scarves, and anyone who is cold is welcome to come by and get whatever they need. Donations of support for this ministry come from across the country.  

In January 2016, Grace Presbyterian planted a new church in western Pakistan. It began with 10 people, a translator and a hunger to know Jesus Christ, and today it has nearly 1,000 members who meet in home churches because they don’t yet have their own building. The Common Grounds Coffee Shop uses its profits to buy Bibles. A Bible, printed in Urdu, costs about $6, equal to two days of wages in western Pakistan.

The Daily Bread Center is a community food pantry for the residents of Martins Ferry. The pantry, open three times a week, offers food to people who are hungry. In the town of fewer than 7,000 residents, 600 people are fed each month. Founded by Webster and two other pastors, the food pantry has been an enormous aid to community residents. This is a cooperative ministry that is supported by all of the churches in the town, Webster said. 

This week, Grace Presbyterian is working to save East Ohio Regional Hospital, where Webster is a chaplain. It is scheduled to be closed on Oct. 7. The hospital is the community’s largest employer, and the next nearest hospital is more than 30 minutes away.

There is a prayer rally scheduled for Friday with state legislators and Martins Ferry Mayor Robert Krajnyak. The assembled will pray for a solution to the hospital’s financial crisis and try to provide hope for the employees and the community.

Next week, Grace will provide more than 2,000 pounds of clothing to underserved children in the area. The church has partnered with a laundry service in the next town that has volunteered to wash all of the clothing at no charge.

In 2000, Grace bought a three-story brick building and turned it into a youth center. About 70 children a day are served lunch in the summer, five days a week. Some of the children who come in on Mondays have had nothing to eat all weekend.

The youth center has outgrown its current facility, so the church purchased another building down the street, which is scheduled to open Oct. 1. One side will be the youth center and the other side will be a permanent clothing store.

Martins Ferry is not an affluent community. “As the Big Bopper song says, ‘I ain’t got no money, honey.’ We operate as a church on faith and not on the bank account. We come up for ideas for ministry and mission and we make it happen,” said Webster.

But fulfilling an urgent need is only one ministry the church provides. Webster and several members of his congregation also serve as members of an economic development group that is looking at ways to revitalize the city long-term. “It takes all of us working together to find solutions,” Webster said.

“We don’t take a risk, we take a challenge,” he added. “If we take a risk, we could lose something. If it’s a challenge, we just adapt and overcome, always changing and evolving to meet the needs of the community around us and to serve.”

Matthew 25 is an invitation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that calls on congregations to actively engage in the world around them. Congregations accepting the invitation agree to embrace one or more of three areas of focus in their communities:

 

  • Building congregational vitality
  • Dismantling structural racism
  • Eradicating systemic poverty

For more information, and to sign up to become a Matthew 25 church, visit pcusa.org/matthew25.


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