ROTTERDAM –Messiah Lutheran Church continued its annual tradition of distributing ashes and pancakes on Tuesday. But this year, the congregation brought some new friends to kick off Lent in Rotterdam.
On Feb. 7, the congregation united with its neighbors at the former Trinity Reformed Church in an effort to keep Trinity operating. The effort has also made Trinity’s former space a perfect spot for a new community center as the two churches merge into an expanded Messiah Lutheran Church. In turn, Tuesday’s Ashes To Go event marked their first joint event following merger.
“[Trinity] was welcoming to LGBTQA folks, had a lot of 12-step ministries, but the size of the congregation was dwindling and couldn’t support itself at that point,” said Rev. Dustin G. Wright, of Messiah Lutheran. “And at Messiah, we’ve been growing a lot. We also have our own food pantry and have very similar mission priorities and initiatives.”
Wright said conversations around unifying began last January as he was looking into making Messiah more accessible, when he and then Trinity Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck met for something unrelated and realized they could both solve each other’s problems.
“It’s like, God may be working in a really interesting way here.” Wright said. “There might be a way to unify our two congregations in some manner and figure out how we can make our building accessible and welcoming for everyone. We were running out of space for our own service, programming, our own food pantry was quite small and tiny at that point.”
By the time this spring rolled around, the two congregations met with consultants through the New York State Council of Churches to figure out the best way to use both properties. The result: Services will still be held at Messiah, while the centrally located Trinity is set to become a “robust” community center.
“We’ve been working through that as a congregation,” Wright said. “And obviously, it’s been so much more complicated that we have mostly gotten to know each other virtually. But it’s been going really, really well. There’s all sorts of ideas about workforce housing, an expanded food pantry to everything from art studio space to yoga studio space. We’re just in the early stages of thinking about what that will look like. But we’re moving full steam ahead.”
And Tuesday marked the first event held by both the congregations. Held in Trinity’s parking lot, members of the newly unified churches passed out pancakes — and containers of ashes — to those who stopped by. Wright predicted that they cooked up around 200 pancakes this year, double last year’s servings.
“It’s always supposed to be a light-hearted event, starting this time of prayer and slowing down and listening to what God’s saying,” Wright said. “This was our last big event last year before COVID started, so it’s got a little more emotional resonance for our members and folks in our local community. This way people could go safely home, impose ashes on one another or themselves, following our virtual service tomorrow.”
As for the future of the now-unified congregations, Wright said they’re working on making Messiah more accessible and creating the community center near the Curry Road church, which is still in its early stages. In the coming months, Wright hopes to move forward on engaging with community stakeholders and local government to make sure the center is in the community’s best interest. Outside of the preexisting church space, Wright hopes the community hub would include three townhouses, a community garden, a community market/food bank and an additional lobby.
“In terms of a date to officially open the community center, things have certainly been slowed down due to COVID,” Wright said. “We’ll be hoping to reopen the space soon to existing 12 Step programs, etc. in the near future. But our internal team is just starting to come up with a final business plan for the community center. Our goal is to have that business plan done by late spring. I imagine we wouldn’t have a formal opening until very late 2021 or early 2022.”