At Harlem’s Ephesus Church, Adventists Confront Changing Neighborhood
‘My Whole Life Matters’ campaign aimed at drawing new members (Posted June 19, 2013)
BY MARK A. KELLNER
, News Editor, reporting from New York City
four-week evangelistic effort at the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in New York City’s famed Harlem neighborhood is drawing crowds and interest from non-Adventists, and that couldn’t come at a better time, senior pastor Dedrick L. Blue said recently. While Ephesus is the second-largest Seventh-day Adventist congregation in New York City and, according to Blue, its most active, attracting new people is always welcome.
Evangelist – and General Conference vice president – Ella Smith Simmons began the ‘My Whole Life Matters’ outreach on the evening of June 7. A veteran educator and college administrator, Simmons is the first woman to serve as a general vice president of the world church and has held that position since 2005.
Addressing the Ephesus congregation at the Sabbath morning worship on the day Simmons’ campaign was to launch, Blue charged members with the task of outreach: “You are here because Jesus has done something for you. Now you need to go out and share it.”
For her part, Simmons told Ephesus members that the outreach series – running Saturday through Wednesday evenings – is designed to offer hope at a time when encouragement is needed: “Jesus can comfort us … whose hearts have been broken,” she said in the morning sermon. “Your conscience can be cleansed. There is only One who can take away our guilt.”
Simmons added, “Sin has a wage, but eternal life is free.”
The Ephesus church, which had a peak membership of 2,500 a few years back, now reports a membership of 1,300. While that places Ephesus among the top Seventh-day Adventist congregations in New York, as well as in the nation, the loss of nearly half its baptized members – to congregations in Brooklyn, the New York City suburbs and in migration to the southern United States – is concerning.
Blue, who has led the congregation for the past six years, attributes the declining membership in part to the out-migration of African-Americans from Harlem. At the same time, he said the area’s new residents who, while helping to enhance real estate values in the area are contributing to a “growing secularization” of the community.
“As the community gentrifies, our core [constituency] is shrinking,” Blue said. “The newer residents are more secular” in their outlook, he added. The church is helping to familiarize its new neighbors with the Ephesus congregation by providing space for community activities such as a meeting space for the local block association.
According to Tony Carnes, a senior writer for Christianity Today magazine who has made an indepth study of New York City’s religious life, that offer of space to its neighbors is needed in today’s Harlem.
“One of the great crises in Harlem and the rest of the city, with gentrification, the community space for the poor has disappeared,” Carnes, publisher of http://www.nycreligion.info/, said in a telephone interview. “The stickball clubs, baseball clubs and startup churches have no place to go.”
What that means for a church such as Ephesus, Carnes said, is that it can function as a common ground for secular and spiritual people to meet: “There’s some of that in between post-secular where the religious and the secular need to be on the same public square with the same rules, but translate for each other. If you’re going to invite a community board [to use your space], that’s not a bad way to go.”
Such offers aren’t the only thing Blue is pursuing to make Ephesus synonymous with being helpful in the community. Along with providing a meal for Sabbath congregants, the church operates a feeding program that attracts 60 to 70 people on Sunday, the day when other neighborhood soup kitchens are closed, he noted.
The church is also partnering with Weill Cornell Medical College, a noted medical school in the city, to sponsor an annual health fair for the community and to expand ministry to victims of HIV/AIDS, as well as clubs for bicyclists and walkers. Health concerns are acute in the area, the pastor said.
“A man in Harlem has a lower life expectancy than a man in Pakistan,” Blue said.
Spiritually, Ephesus maintains what Blue said is the “oldest continuous youth church” in the area, having started in 1955. It attracts 200 to 300 young people each Sabbath, and meets in a separate hall. The church streams its main services – and Simmons’ meetings – on the Internet as well, Blue said. He believes Ephesus is also the only church of any kind in the area to provide American Sign Language interpretation for its services.
Additional information on the congregation can be found online at http://www.ephesus.org.