Pleasant surprise Ephrata church gives its building to nearby congregation
BY JOAN KERN, Correspondent
Nancy Weist was 7 years old when she began attending Bethany Evangelical Congregational Church in Martindale.
She went by herself.
"We moved into a house down the street, and I could walk (to the church)," says Weist, of Ephrata. "My parents started coming later."
That was 63 years ago, and Weist has attended Bethany ever since. Her 89-year-old mother, Arlene Wilhelm, also of Ephrata, is Bethany's oldest member.
Now Weist has to break her deeply ingrained habit.
With just 12 active members, the Bethany congregation will disband following a service at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, June 30.
But all is not lost. Instead of locking the doors and hanging a "For Sale" sign, Bethany will hand over the keys, free of charge, to Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church, just about 4 miles down the road, at 144 Pleasant Valley Road, Ephrata, which is bursting at the seams with about 220 members and needs to branch out.
The Rev. Kirk Wolfe, Bethany's last pastor, and the Rev. Darrell Musser, of Pleasant Valley, will speak at the "adoption" service at Bethany, 1047 Martindale Road, Ephrata. The Rev. Barry Zimmerman, Bethany's pastor from 2000 to 2007, and the Rev. Larry Weaver, Pleasant Valley bishop, also will speak. The Pleasant Valley Men's (a cappella) Quartet will perform.
About 55 Pleasant Valley members are expected to attend the service in the sanctuary, with seating for about 100 worshippers. About 80 Pleasant Valley members who live in or near Martindale will form the new congregation.
"It will be filled up before you get in. We can't even come to visit," Weist, teased Weaver.
"Oh yeah you can," Weaver retorted. "We'll keep a bench for you."
The new congregation, in the Mid-Atlantic Mennonite Conference, will begin worshipping in Martindale on Sunday, Sept. 1. A new name for the church has not been determined.
By sheer coincidence, Bethany was established in 1885 with 12 members. In 1903, the tall and narrow church was built on a hill at 576 Martindale Road, for about $1,600.
Today, the property includes a parsonage next door, a parking lot and a small cemetery at the rear on the downward slope of the hill with a breathtaking view of lush Lancaster County farmland.
At its height, Bethany had about 100 members, including numerous children. At one point, there was a trailer parked in the back for extra classrooms.
"For many years the church was active in the community, sponsoring events such as Easter egg hunts and sunrise services, annual Thanksgiving community meals, retreats and vacation Bible school. The church also engaged in a weekly prayer ministry, generous missionary and refugee support and a vibrant traveling music ministry," Weist wrote in a press release.
Now the youngest members, Leroy and Cindy Lewardowski, of Terre Hill, are in their 50s.
"There are on children, no youth and a lot of illness," Weist says.
Weist, her husband, Glenn, and fellow member Cindy Lewardowski have been caring for the property and paying the bills.
Glenn Weist, Bethany's treasurer, said the church is in good shape financially.
"We've given away about $18,000 and have $6,000 or $7,000 left over," he says.
Recipients include some widows in the congregation, missionaries, the Martindale Fire Company and Twin Pines, an ECC summer youth camp in Stroudsburg.
The transfer of the property began in the spring, when Nancy Weist talked to Weaver on the phone.
"When it was offered, I asked the price, and I almost fell through the floor when I heard they were giving it away," Weaver says. "We're humbled that they want to give it to us. God opened a door for us to come here."
Following the phone call, Weaver and six other men from Pleasant View visited Bethany.
"We're all big guys," he jokes. "We had to see if we fit in the pews."
At the service, Wolfe, a Lancaster city police officer, will preach on Psalm 133:1, "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"
"Even though they are Mennonite and we are Evangelical, we're still one in Christ," Wolfe says. "This is a good picture of people coming together in Christ, to use the resources Christ has given us."
Wolfe, of Lititz, served part time at Bethany from 2007 to 2009. Since then, the congregation has relied on guest preachers.
"I'm trying to help with the transition, because I had a good relationship with these folks, and they mean a lot to me," Wolfe says.
"This is a great thing that they are passing the torch."