It’s About Reaching Out to the Community
The Pawtucket Congregational Church
in Lowell is a Romanesque-style, beautiful, imposing brick building sitting on a main thoroughfare. The church’s roots are long and deep, but the surrounding area reflects a newer population of ethnic minorities from a wide variety of countries. The church was started in 1797 near the Pawtucket Falls, close to the spot where John Eliot preached to the Indians in 1647. Today, within a short walk, are brand new buildings that are part of the University of Massachusetts campus.
The rebuilt 1800s-era church building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, incurs large expenses for renovations and regular upkeep. The congregation, however, numbers less than forty, and looks sparse in a worship space meant for ten times that crowd. It’s one of those churches you hear about and wonder how long it can stay open: old big building with large maintenance and energy needs, with limited income from a small group.
About five years ago, the church went through a visioning process led at that time by Associate Conference Minister Ellie Richardson. As a result of their visioning, members concluded that they wanted to become a church that reached out and supported its community.
Their website outlines its mission and vision to be one that “shares God’s love in the community and beyond as we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” And according to Church Moderator Chip Hamblet they are supporting the community in a variety of different ways. If you take a look at the many community activities that are centered around this church, you would agree that they are a vibrant church and maybe they should be called ONA/SNS... Open and Affirming/Small and Serving.
In an effort to serve the local population, a thrift shop that offered lightly used clothing, household items, and toys was started by member Kay Russell (now deceased) and held at the church on Saturdays. When church members realized that there were several ‘soup kitchens’ in the area that offered meals during the week, but few on the weekend, the church started its Saturday free lunch program.
Then came other churches. First, a Chinese Bible church requested to rent church space for their Friday night services for UMass Lowell students. Then, an 80-member Brazilian church, who had been worshipping in business space down the street, approached Pawtucket and asked to rent the sanctuary for their service on Sunday nights; both times, the members said ‘yes.’ The Brazilian congregation was very fond of music in their service and offered to upgrade the sound system in the sanctuary, and, according to Hamblet, practically overnight their electronics went from 1960 to 2015. The large church building was now host to a third worship service.
The Lowell Philharmonic Orchestra holds concerts in the sanctuary, UMass Lowell music students perform in recitals and local colleges host onsite Spring Break alternative programs, focused on community service. But their partners were asking the same question as the congregation: “Shouldn’t we be handicapped accessible?” The congregation was able to obtain enough grant money to construct a new ground-level entrance and lift, making the church barrier-free, and additional community groups decided to utilize the available space. Many support groups hold their regular meetings at the church. And in the same kitchen that meals for the St. Paul’s Soup Kitchen at the Eliot Church are prepared, space is rented by private small businesses. Hamblet estimates that over 300 people come into the church each week. “We may be a congregation of only 30 members,” he says, “but we are active, vibrant, and vital to the community.”
And if you walk by the church during the weeks preceding Halloween, you will find its lawn exploding in shades of orange, colored by over 1200 pumpkins. Those pumpkins were unloaded in bucket brigade fashion by a team of 35 fraternity and sorority students fulfilling community service hours. Pizza to feed the hungry workers was donated by a local pizza parlor. The pumpkins themselves are part of a fundraising farming program that benefits the Navaho Nation of New Mexico
“Our pumpkin patch is not about selling pumpkins for fundraising,” said Hamblet. “Half of the people who buy the pumpkins walk into the patch from their homes. These are the people we are trying to reach. And it’s OK that we are known in the community as the ‘pumpkin church’ because that means we are being noticed.”
Hamblet reiterates the church’s mission as outlined on their website – to “actively build community partnerships, striving to make a difference in the world through service, support and education.” And he admits that they have been able to accomplish their mission because they have been blessed by the community itself.
At Pawtucket Congregational Church, there is an 1822 Paul Revere bell – still rung on Sundays – and some of the members are 8th
generation worshippers. However, it is the modern use of the building and the vision to serve current demographics that will help ensure that the Pawtucket church stays vibrant and vital for generations to come.
You can reach Chip Hamblet at the church office at 978-452-2144 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.