York churches celebrate merger 50 years later

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First Presbyterian Church Sunday October 18, 2015. Faith and First Presbyterian Churches merged 50 years ago this Christmas Eve, First Presbyterian October 18, 2015. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record/Sunday News)

Fifty years ago this December, Faith Presbyterian and First Presbyterian churches in York merged.

It was one of a few such religious mergings of its kind in the country, with a white and black church coming together, congregation member Virginia Hunter said. She was born and raised in the Faith Presbyterian Church.

John Noble, Hunter’s great-grandfather, was one of the founders of Faith Presbyterian in the 1890s. In the 1960s, the congregation was predominately African-American with less than 100 members. Their building was small and in need of some repairs, but the church wasn’t in a very good financial situation. They weren’t able to support a full-time minister.

“We had to merge,” Hunter said. “There was no question about it. It was merge or disband, because we couldn’t support ourselves.”

Douglas Parks was a pastor that came to Faith Presbyterian and later had the opportunity to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“That whole experience (marching with King) though energized me. Returning to York, I worked on the merger with renewed faith and fervor,” read a letter Parks wrote to Faith Presbyterian.

King encouraged him to try merging with another congregation, Hunter said.

His job was to not only pastor the congregation, but to also look around at other Presbyterian churches in the area and see if he could find one that would merge. First Presbyterian was the one.

“York was segregated (in the 60s),” Hunter said. “There were places blacks could go and places blacks were not welcome to go.”

At a time of rioting and segregation, Hunter said the merger really was a brave step for both churches.

First Presbyterian Church, on East Market Street, had about 1,000 members, they had a stable budget and were able to employ at least two full-time ministers. They were mostly Caucasian.

Bringing both churches together wasn’t always easy, Hunter said. There were some long, heated meetings. Some members of both congregations couldn’t accept the changes and chose to leave, but most stayed. Faith Presbyterian Church’s building near the corner of Duke and Philadelphia streets was later torn down. It’s now an empty lot.

“We are a living testimony of the reconciliation and healing that is available through Christ,” said the Rev. Allison Beaulieu, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of York. Beaulieu was actually one of Hunter’s Sunday school students when she was growing up in the church.

The first joint worship service was held on Christmas in 1965, and both congregations were made stronger by the merger, Beaulieu said.

“The merger has made us more intentional about exploring what it means to be a multi-cultural church and having all voices heard,” she said. The congregation is also more sensitive to those who have been injured by racial discrimination and more determined in their work for racial reconciliation.

“The Faith members were well-accepted,” Hunter said. All members kept their place in the church. For example, if you were a choir member at Faith, you were a choir member at First.

“Personally, I was so well-accepted at First that I wasn’t about to leave,” Hunter said.

First Presbyterian’s congregation is now more multicultural as a whole, though the national Presbyterian organization has been working toward more diverse churches as well.

“We are a congregation that believes what holds us together is and will always be stronger than what tries to tear us apart,” Beaulieu said.

Celebrate

To celebrate 50 years since the union of the churches, there will be two gala events.

To prepare, there will be adult educational sessions: first, a history of First Presbyterian, the second a history of Faith Presbyterian.

There also will be a panel discussion on the “climate” at the time of the merger and then a session will explore the question, “where do we go from here?”

A luncheon will be hosted at noon on Dec. 13 in the Christine Thomas Hall of First Presbyterian Church in York.

Warren Cooper will perform in concert at 7 p.m. on Dec. 20 in the church’s sanctuary as part of the Abendmusik program.

For more information on these events, visit www.fpcyork.org.

See it on YDR here.

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