At the Bellevue Reformed Church in Schenectady, fellowship is a word with special significance, whether you're in or outside the building's four walls.
For senior pastor Richard Scheenstra, a Michigan native who's in his 16th year at the Broadway church, that means ministering to the entire neighborhood, not just his flock inside the sanctuary. To help him in that endeavor, he and his congregation came up with Jacob's Well, a small public eatery that since 2015 has shared a storefront space with the church's thrift store, located right on the street just north of the BRC building. It's limited hours and light menu are more than compensated for with a strong welcoming presence and the desire to make friends with whomever walks in the door.
"Several years ago I thought about how we could have more of a presence in the neighborhood outside our building," said Scheenstra, who has lived in Bellevue just a short walk from the church since moving to Schenectady 16 years ago. "I wanted to come up with a way we could better connect to our neighbors, and maybe help them connect with each other. When my wife and I moved here we intentionally moved into the neighborhood. Being a part of this community was one of our priorities."
Bobbie Young, the kitchen supervisor at Jacob's Well and a member at BRC for 15 years, says Scheenstra's vision is working.
"The community is coming together, and it is actually happening right here," said Young. "People walk in here and they like the atmosphere. It's very welcoming. You can get a coffee and a cookie, but you can also get some conversation."
There are also plenty of eggs and pancakes on the breakfast menu, and the lunch offering includes burgers, quesadillas and chile.There are no French fries, but plenty of canned soda and juice, and If you're lucky, you might drop in when Tim Sawicki is playing his guitar. But, without fail, no matter when you show up you will be greeted warmly by Young and the two paid interns usually working with her.
"We make sure we connect with every person that comes in through the door," said Young. "We welcome them, if they want conversation that's fine, and if they need a cup of coffee and can't pay for it, that's fine, too. And if they ask us, we'll even pray with them. If they don't want that, that's cool, too."
The BRC purchased the building back in 2013 and opened up a thrift store called Ruth's Place in December of that year. The other half of the ground floor is what became Jacob's Well, and up above on the second floor the building also has four apartments.
"I would walk past that building every day and think to myself, 'I wonder if I'm supposed to do some kind of ministry here?'" remembered Scheenstra. "When it became available I called the realtor just to find out if there was any interest in the building and they said there hadn't been. Then the realtor called back a week later and said a party had made an offer, and that if we were interested we had 24 hours to make our own offer."
Scheenstra called a meeting of the church leaders but wasn't expecting much to happen.
"A lot of people weren't even aware that I had been thinking about it," he said. "But we gathered that night, and started talking, and it went from 'this is not a good idea,' to 'let's just go for it.' We knew it had apartments and people were living there, so we knew there would be some money coming in while we figured out what kind of ministry we would use it for."
Jacob's Well isn't a financial bonanza for the BRC, but that was never Scheenstra's goal.
"Our prices are extremely reasonable, and that's one of the reasons why we're not making money," he said. "But that's OK. We do have stable families in our congregation, but we're an urban church and we do have people who are facing a lot of challenges, and Jacob's Well helps us help them deal with those challenges. We believe that it is our responsibility to help those people who are disadvantaged, and that includes people who are not members of the church."
Jacob's Well is currently open three days a week (4-7 p.m. Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.Thursday and 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday) According to Ray Faught, president of the Bellevue Preservation Association, Jacob's Well is a welcome addition to the community.
"I've been over there to put up flyers about our neighborhood association meetings, and I think it's been a great idea," said Faught. "There are people in Bellevue who actually need a place like Jacob's Well. It's a great place for community members to mingle."
The Bellevue Reformed Church was created in 1893 by the Rev. Jacob Enders just as the city's population began to increase dramatically due to the creation of the General Electric Company. The area had been part of the town of Rotterdam up until 1902 when it became the 10th ward in the city of Schenectady.
"Bellevue really comes into its own during the largest population increase in Schenectady's history," said city historian Chris Leonard. "It really developed between 1890 and 1920 when Eastern European and German immigrants began flowing into the city looking to work at GE."
"There are a number of people who have lived in the area for a long time," said Scheenstra, who said the church's current building went up in 1968. "So, it is an aging neighborhood, and there are a lot of rentals. The demographics of our congregation have changed significantly in that we used to get a lot of people who would drive in from the suburbs and go to our church. We have become a very urban congregation, and with that you get people who are facing challenges, and people that come and go. That's why Jacob's Well is so important to us. We want it to be a place where people who are hurting can come, and as Christians it's our obligation to help them."
The biblical Jacob's Well, which still exists along the Israeli-controlled West Bank in the city of Nablus, is referred to once in the New Testament as a site visited by Jesus (John 4:5-6).