Feature

The Power of Partnership

Many hands make an inner-city church possible

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In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the stately capitol building stands in the downtown area. But less than a mile to the east is the Allison Hill neighborhood. If you live in the Harrisburg area, as I do, and watch the local news, you hear about Allison Hill almost daily—for all of the wrong reasons. Though Harrisburg is not large, this neighborhood has all the blighted urban characteristics common to inner cities: unemployment, broken families, addictions, racial tension, gang activity, crime and murders. For too many years, I listened to stories about Allison Hill but did nothing about them. But God changed that.

In 2008, the Lord opened the door for the church I pastor, Immanuel Church of the C&MA in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, to plant a Spanish-speaking congregation in our facility. Pastor Xavier Godoy and his wife, Alex, along with their three children, came to us from Quito, Ecuador, by way of Rio Grande Bible Institute in Texas. Xavier is a man with a big vision to reach his people for Jesus Christ. Soon he realized that there was a larger Spanish-speaking population in Harrisburg, just across the Susquehanna River, so he started a Bible study there.

One morning, as the two of us were driving around Harrisburg, we began to brainstorm about doing in inner-city Harrisburg what we were doing in Mechanicsburg—planting a church with both English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners. We talked about it for a few minutes, but the idea was placed on the back burner, not to surface again for more than a year.

A number of things were happening in my mind and heart in November 2010. Through The Hole in Our Gospel, a book by Richard Stearns, I was being challenged to reach “the least, the last and the lost.” My mind turned back to Allison Hill in Harrisburg. Simultaneously, I was seeking to understand Immanuel Church’s role in replanting a nearby suburban Alliance church that had closed. Our sister congregation, Daybreak Church, had started a new campus in the same vicinity, and I knew they would provide great evangelistic covering for that area. So what did the Lord want us to do? As I was walking and praying one morning, He spoke these words to me: What about Harrisburg? His voice wasn’t audible, but it was as clear as a bell. I clapped my hands together and said, “That’s it!”

When I got to my office, I typed out the vision the Lord was pouring into my mind—one church in two languages in the Allison Hill neighborhood. I called it Heart of the City Church, which eventually morphed into Heart of Harrisburg Church. And the key way the Lord indicated this church should be started was through a partnership of all Alliance churches in the Harrisburg area. Though we would have available to us most of the resources of the suburban church that had closed, this project was still too big for any one congregation to tackle. It needed a team effort. I ran the vision by Xavier, who enthusiastically embraced it. Then I sent it to Wayne Spriggs, superintendent of the Eastern Pennsylvania District, who gave his blessing.

Now it was time to take the vision to the other pastors. First, I talked with the two whose churches were closest to Allison Hill, John Stoeckle and Alan Rathbun. They did not have to be persuaded. Next, we gathered as many Alliance pastors from our area as we could for a time of vision casting. Together we confessed that while we were encircling the city, we weren’t really touching it. Prayerfully, we decided to change that.

Several area pastors formed the Harrisburg Task Force and began to pray and search for two church planters—a Spanish speaker and an English speaker who was African-American, since that is the largest demographic group in Allison Hill. Almost immediately, the Lord brought Paul and Marisa Regalado to serve as our Spanish-speaking church planters. Paul was originally from Ecuador, and Marisa was from suburban Harrisburg. They had just gotten married and had graduated from Nyack College. They obeyed God’s call to this church plant, even though it meant they would be living and serving in a dangerous area.

However, the search for the English-speaking planter was not quite as fast. In fact, it lasted for about a year and a half. Several candidates were interviewed, but we couldn’t seem to locate the right couple. We were tempted to give up and just have a Spanish-speaking church plant. But in the end, the Lord wonderfully answered our prayers. Ricardo and Christian Volcy had been serving on staff at Syracuse (N.Y.) Alliance Church. Superintendent Spriggs met with them in relation to a different pastoral opening but afterwards thought Ricardo might be our Heart of Harrisburg planter. Ricardo is originally from Haiti but is culturally comfortable in the African-American setting. The Lord’s call became clear to them, and they arrived in Harrisburg with their children in March 2013.

Meanwhile, the Lord provided a 15,000-square-foot former Baptist church building for us to purchase quite affordably. It had great structure but was in considerable disrepair. Less than a month after we took ownership, a massive flood damaged two thirds of the building. Initially, we were devastated, but then our insurance company stepped in and paid for extensive renovations. God is sovereign and God is good!

Sunday services were launched in January, and now 60–70 people attend each week. The worship time is bilingual, and then the two groups divide for language-specific preaching. Several people have come to faith in Christ, and the church recently celebrated its first two baptisms. Slowly but surely, we are building bridges of Christ’s love to this community, where hopelessness abounds. Children and young teens have been especially responsive. This summer we are once again able to hold outdoor outreach events and just walk the streets and meet the many people who are out and about, engaging them in spiritual conversations and prayer. We are praying that the seeds planted this summer will lead to a great spiritual harvest.

God has graciously honored the partnership of our C&MA pastors and churches. He has answered our prayers and is making the dream He gave to us a reality. We have two church planters, a strong core team and a great building. But, we have a long way to go. We are still learning, still figuring out exactly what this ministry should look like and still earning the trust of the community. Yet, by God’s grace, we are off to a great start. Jesus is using us to build His church in this challenging, needy neighborhood. His light is shining in darkness.

And there has been another exciting development. The Heart of Harrisburg pastors shared their story at the Eastern Pennsylvania District Conference in September 2013. As Brian Kannel, lead pastor at York (Pa.) Alliance Church listened, the Holy Spirit put it in his heart to do the same thing in inner city York. Now the Alliance pastors in the York area are meeting and praying and planning for what may well become a “Heart of York” church plant.

Is there a needy and neglected neighborhood or people group near your church that the Lord is calling you to reach? Could the Alliance churches in your area form a partnership and plant a church in a nearby urban area? Is God calling you to lead something new or to get on board with a ministry that already exists? Does the thought scare you half to death? If so, join the crowd! All of us who are involved in this project felt the same way. But as we have taken even small steps of faith, the Holy Spirit has replaced our fear with courage. I know He can and will do the same for you as you follow His call wherever it takes you.

It Starts with Prayer

At the beginning of this project, we laid out four levels of commitment for the partner churches. We did this by faith, not knowing exactly how they would respond to a church-planting venture in such a challenging area. Now, more than three years later, we are grateful to look back and see how the Lord has enabled each of those levels to be attained.

Level 1 was prayer. The partner churches have bathed Heart of Harrisburg in prayer through their prayer meetings and small groups. We have had prayer rallies, evenings of prayer and worship and prayer walks—all on-site in the target community. Persistent prayer is necessary to spiritually penetrate a neighborhood like Allison Hill.

Level 2 was giving. The partner churches have given about $25,000 each year since this project started. We constantly remind ourselves that this is not a short-term commitment. We are in this for the long haul––including our financial investment.

Level 3 was what I called “boots on the ground”—people from the partner churches actually going into Allison Hill to extend ministry to the community. Would anyone feel safe enough to go into this area and get involved in ministry? With the Lord’s help, yes, they have! People from the partner churches—lots of them—have led vacation Bible school (VBS), been involved in a Christmas dinner where we gave children gifts and a Back-to-School Bash where we gave away backpacks filled with school supplies, cooked and served community dinners. They have also engaged people in spiritual conversations during prayer walks. I followed one dear, courageous lady into a bar to let people know we were having VBS!

Level 4 involved sending the called ones. We prayerfully committed to send the called ones out of our partner churches to be part of Heart of Harrisburg. And we prayed that there would be some called ones to send. God answered our prayers! One church commissioned 10 of its people to go, another seven, and other churches also sent people. One couple is in the process of selling their suburban home to relocate to Allison Hill. These called ones make up part of the core team—a group of people that form a stable foundation of prayer, giving and service for this church plant in an area marked by instability.

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