I came across an article recently about First UMC of Pittsfield, Mass. It’s a downtown church founded in 1793 and housed in an 1874 building with a 1955 education wing. Obviously, it’s not a new church start; it has a long history.

Like many older churches in downtown areas, its membership numbers declined considerably over the course of years as people moved away from downtown to the suburbs. The General Electric plant closed in the early 1990’s, taking a number of engineers and their families away from the church to other cities.

But, the church never gave up on its downtown site. As the downtown population changed to a more under-resourced population, the church changed so it could meet the needs of the people.

Our goal is to live as disciples, doing what Jesus would do in these times, with humility, love and generous acceptance of all persons.

Rev. Ralph Howe
Rev. Ralph Howe

First hosts a weekly dinner that serves plated meals to 140 people; a breakfast, Monday through Friday and Sunday for 35-40 persons; summer lunches for around 130 kids, and several Saturday and Sunday lunches per month. It also has a food shelf and “closet” of toiletries, other non-food stamp household items, and clothing. There are choral and instrumental groups and weekly AA and NA groups. The church sponsors and supports groups of Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Grandparents raising Grandchildren, Books for Summer Learning, and Backpacks for School.  The church also is a site for youth involved in several programs for those with family or behavioral challenges.

The key factor in all these programs is that the church is committed to show the love of Christ to all, treating each as a person — not as an object — engaging in gentle conversation, humor, and care that arises from genuine love for the person. The church doesn’t see their offerings as charity. They see all they do as God-given opportunities to develop relationships and encourage new folks to become engaged in these programs. All the while, they gently and personally invite them to worship and other events.

The Rev. Ralph Howe has been at First since 2013. He credits the lay members of the church as the key disciples and witnesses of Christ.

We seek relationship and community belonging. We have welcomed members who first came through our meal program. We also have welcomed a family who came to know us thorough our outside community work in racial justice and community building.

“We do not judge folks, nor do we push religion,” he said. “We seek relationship and community belonging. We have welcomed members who first came through our meal program. We also have welcomed a family who came to know us thorough our outside community work in racial justice and community building.”

The church traditionally was made up of mostly middle-class white people, but in the past few years, more people of color and ethnicities have joined the ranks, bringing a welcome diversity, vibrance, and strength to the congregation.

The older congregation has found a renewed sense of purpose in living into this form of the Kingdom of God, and has found itself growing in spiritual depth as it reaches outward.

“Our goal is to live as disciples, doing what Jesus would do in these times, with humility, love and generous acceptance of all persons,” said, Rev. Howe. “The older congregation has found a renewed sense of purpose in living into this form of the Kingdom of God, and has found itself growing in spiritual depth as it reaches outward.”

Modeling and teaching discipleship is Rev. Howe’s passion with and for his people. Giving them opportunities to model Jesus helps them grow and develop into a congregation of believers who see church happening outsides its wall.