More than 60 years before the U.S. Constitution proclaimed an intent ”to secure the blessings of liberty,” immigrants founded their church.
More than 60 years before the U.S. Constitution proclaimed an intent ”to secure the blessings of liberty” for the nation’s citizens, a group of immigrants founded a church in Germantown that would become a testament to the acceptance they longed for.
The families had fled Germany in the early 1700s in search of religious freedom. By 1723, they had established the Germantown Church of the Brethren, the denomination's first in the U.S.
This month, three centuries later, the congregation near the corner of Germantown Avenue and Sharpnack Street, is celebrating its 300th anniversary.
A “sense of community has guided the Church since its inception” in Northwest Philadelphia, a neighborhood “itself known over the years for its bold initiatives for intentional integration,” said the Rev. Richard Kyerematen, the church’s pastor.
Members and friends gathered on Sunday, Oct. 8, to celebrate the anniversary with a special event featuring an array of musical performances, an award ceremony and a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Jeff Bach, director emeritus of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. It was the culmination of a year-long series of gatherings to celebrate the church’s milestone.
“Awards were given to more than 30 people, some posthumously for their contribution to the building of the congregation over the years,” Kyerematen said. “Because of the [Church of the Brethren’s] philosophies and history, the sense of community is paramount.”
Honorees included the Rev. Dr. Earl Zeigler, who served as a denomination official, and the Rev. Ronald Gene Lutz, a former pastor of the church. Both men made invaluable contributions to growing and sustaining the church, which is part of the Anabaptist tradition, Kyerematen said.
The denomination was founded in Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708. After the immigrants came to the U.S. in 1719 and began worshiping in homes, they finally built their own building in 1770.
“We are one of the few churches in the country and in the world from that era that are still worshiping on the same grounds,” Kyerematen said. “That’s something very exciting and worth celebrating.”
According to Kyerematen, tenets that unite Churches of the Brethren include Anabaptism (The doctrine that baptism should be administered to believing adults), pacifism, and a call to service.
Kyerematen is originally from Ghana in West Africa, and was called to serve as pastor in 1989. The church he leads, a small, diverse congregation, has offered programs throughout the local community such as a food bank for families and older adults, counseling services for the youth, support for Emlen School through R.I.S.E (Reading Incentives for Supplemental Education), and their program ACE (Achieving Competitive Excellence), which is designed to help local high schoolers prepare for the SAT. The church has also established a reading program for students in Ghana.
“Now that I look back, every experience and training that I had many years ago has prepared me for this call,” Kyerematen said. “It’s an honor to be able to bring people together while having the privilege of being a part of various programs and projects; This has been a call to serve, and that’s the most important part of leadership.”
Today, the Church of the Brethren denomination has more than 1 million members worldwide, with more than 87,000 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Kyerematen noted that the first refugees of the denomination that came from Schwarzenau in 1719 were aware that colonial Philadelphia was religiously tolerant, and the current congregation strives to maintain those same values, emphasizing the church as a haven where diversity and different backgrounds are welcomed.
“The history and beliefs of the church make it easy for integration – the congregation has had the privilege of seeing many families born, healed and restored,” Kyerematen said. “For me, it’s about living out that sense. I’ve seen so many miraculous stories of people that walked into the church and became a part of the life and fabric of the church’s community.”