PORTLAND – They gatheredat High and Congress streets Sunday morning, 22 adults and seven children.

They carried bread and a banner. They pushed a woman in a wheelchair. The children carried percussion instruments.

A few blocks behind them, on Thomas Street in the West End, stood their former place of worship, the Williston-West United Church of Christ.

A block ahead, toward the north, a similar group gathered at High and Deering. Perhaps one kid in that group. Plenty of older folks. They held a banner, too, the other’s mirror image of half a house and half a cross.

“Like Moses, we stand at the edge of a new land of promise and possibility,” the Rev. Robert Witham, a retired minister serving for the past year as spiritual leader of Williston-West, called out over the noise of nearby automobile traffic.

Each group marched forward. They met on the sidewalk in front of Immanuel Baptist Church, across busy High Street from the Eastland Park Hotel.

The Rev. Deborah Davis-Johnson continued the litany: “Welcome! All are welcome in this place.”

Moments later, singing “Halle, halle, hallelujah!” and shaking and banging those instruments, they climbed the steps, entered the sanctuary, broke bread together and became something new: the Williston-Immanuel United Church.

“It’s a very exciting time,” Witham said. “We’ve really found each other.”

Fifteen months ago, the members of Williston-West UCC looked around and took stock of their situation. Their church in the West End was both beautiful and old, built more than a century ago with a parish house designed by John Calvin Stevens. Upkeep was costly. Membership was dwindling. Something had to be done.

So they started looking for a mate.

“We met with pastors and congregants from other churches,” said Roxanna Brophy, the Moderator, or lay leader, of Williston-West. “We met with other (United Church of Christ) churches and with (Unitarian Universalist) churches. But when we met with these folks, and especially with Deborah (Davis-Johnson), it just clicked immediately. Their philosophies and their theologies and their beliefs were so in tune with ours that it just made sense from the beginning to try to work together.”

Brophy grew up attending a Baptist church in Livermore Falls. Now a resident of South Portland, she understood how some Williston-West folks might be wary of joining a Baptist congregation. UCC theology is more liberal, she said, with a major emphasis on social justice.

“And oftentimes when you hear the word ‘Baptist,’ you don’t think social justice,” she said. “You know, you just don’t. And these folks are very, very socially minded.”

Davis-Johnson said Immanuel distributes food and diapers each day the church is open, that helping neighbors in need is part of its core mission. Among the 152 Baptist churches in Maine, she said, only Immanuel is a member of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, which embraces the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.

“Their understanding of Baptists was much more conservative,” Davis-Johnson said. “So it would be a little scary for them to join a church that was not as open.”

Last spring began the congregational equivalent of dating. Service at our place this week, at your place next week. When Williston-West’s pastor resigned, Davis-Johnson assumed a lead role for both churches.

Gibson Fay-Leblanc, on the merger committee from Williston-West, said some members questioned what it means to be Baptist.

“But we got through that pretty quick,” he said, holding one of his two young sons before the litany began. “There’s a few different traditions but the principles are the same.”

Indeed, one of the most interesting areas of Immanuel to explore for the children of Williston-West was the baptistry, a tiled tank large enough for full immersion, located behind the chancel. Williston-Immanuel now includes an ornate wooden baptismal font, for sprinkling water on the head of the person being baptized.

“There is a major theological difference,” Witham said. “Baptists don’t baptize infants and we do. But that will be blended. Both forms will be done, whatever people want.”

Differences in music and Christian education also had to be worked out. On Sunday, each pew contained a black New Century hymnal (from Williston-West) and a blue United Methodist hymnal (from Immanuel). The organist from Immanuel played along with the pianist from Williston-West. Two choirs became one.

Among Sunday’s musical selections: “Let Us Break Bread Together” and “In Christ There Is No East or West.”

Teachers from Williston-West led Sunday school because there weren’t many children at Immanuel, which did offer a thriving adult Christian education program.

“We have as many kids as adults,” Brophy said. “They’re an older congregation. We just meshed that way.”

Davis-Johnson described the merged congregation as completing a generational circle. She sees elementary-school children becoming friends with retirees.

“And there aren’t many institutions in our society where that happens,” she said. “My big mantra is that the church is a place where people of all ages and stages of life can be friends and come together to explore faith and do something positive for our community.”

Bylaws still need to be addressed. The new church is affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches. The name became official last week.

The Williston-West church likely will be put up for sale in the next year.

“Any last words for Williston-West?” called out Peg Cyr in the moments before the ceremony began.

A shout came out from the crowd.

“We did it!”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]

 


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