Vows to stay relevant and involved in the community
HOULTON, Maine — “This church is not going away; it’s not going to fade into the distance. We are going to continue as a church,” says Rev. Marc Fuller who is combating rumors, he says, that the First Congregational Church of Houlton, United Church of Christ is closing.
The dwindling membership and high upkeep are forcing the congregation and its pastor to reconsider their role in the community. Fuller estimates total membership at close to 60 people with about half attending. Most are middle aged; some are infirm or homebound.
Sunday morning service probably won’t mean the church pews are filled with people. “There are no jobs here so, people move away. It’s an older congregation, pretty much middle-aged including myself,” he smiles, “the median age is about 64.”
But, in all probability, a visitor will find a very warm welcome when entering the worship service — and that includes the family pet. Rue Geishecker, a member for 21 years, and her husband travel from Cary with their dog, on a leash. “We accept everyone. And, we can speak up. It’s like sitting at the family table,” she says. It’s an example of the open, welcoming style of the church.
Norma Goodale, a congregant for about 15 years, says “We don’t judge if you don’t come every Sunday. We’re happy to see you. The more you come, the more you will want to come.”
Ruth O’Hara of Houlton says she chose the church a few years ago as a neutral place when she got married. She continues her relationship with the church because “it’s a family of people who really care for each other.”
The worship service is to some degree interactive as congregants offer names for whom blessings and prayers are requested. It’s a comfortable and unconventional style that may be one of the things that may not change as the church searches for answers on its direction. And, everyone seems to keep an eye on the pianist’s toddler, Emily Webb, who freely roams up and down the aisles peering into unexplored nooks.
As pastor for two years, Fuller is now leading the church in the “process of re-inventing ourselves. I am not sure exactly what direction that is going to take. We are meeting once a week to brainstorm what we want to be and what we want to become.”
Fuller says some people, even a few within the congregation, are talking about letting the church die with dignity. His response: “Hogwash. We are not dying with dignity. We are looking at this as a new church start rather than as an old church ending. What we’re really talking about is what it means to be a church. It doesn’t mean that you maintain a building. I doesn’t mean this is the only place you can worship. What it does mean is that the congregation is the church. It’s the body of Christ. It’s not the building of Christ.”
“There’s going to be grief if we lose the building. There’s no doubt about it. there’s grief in any loss. But at the same time it frees us. We will no longer have an albatross on our backs,” says Fuller.
Church Moderator Lynn Tweedie agrees with Fuller that the members may end up worshiping in people’s homes. “We have to think of other ways of how we will meet. We will have to be real creative in the ways that we meet and still meet the goals that we have for ourselves,” says Tweedie. “We are a family and we say you are wanted. Everyone is welcome. Come and meet us; we are a family.”
After the church service last Sunday, the weekly coffee hour had an especially sumptuous buffet table thanks to an association meeting. The cold cuts, salads, fruit and desserts expanded the traditional fare from light refreshments to a more elaborate post-service brunch. Members, says Tweedie enjoy the socialization during the coffee hour before going home.
As the church continues on its journey of self exploration, it will, says Fuller, continue its ministries in the community to support the food pantry, the animal shelter, the imprisoned and those who need a place to meet. It will, according to Fuller continue with its seasonal fairs, a wishing well where members may drop spare change for a rotating list of worthy causes and helping “however they can” since “the church is not here. It’s getting out of the building.”