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Keeping the Faith: Challenging Tradition at University Baptist and Brethren Church

by on September 06, 2015 6:00 AM

It was a time of crises at the University Baptist and Brethren Church in State College when Pastor Bonnie Kline Smeltzer first came to the congregation in 2002.

The church, after a multiyear process of debate and deliberation, had officially decided to openly welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals into their congregation. Their parent organization – the regional chapter of the American Baptist Association – disfellowshipped them, effectively disowning the church.

“There was a lot of grief around being rejected for taking what they strongly believed to be a Christian stance,” Smeltzer says. “It’s like being rejected by your mother for doing something she taught you to do: Love everyone.”

In addition to the spiritual hardship of this rejection, the church was going through added difficulties. There was a changing of the guard in church leadership as Smelzter came to the church after its previous longtime pastor had retired. And on top of all that, several lifelong members of the church began to pass away of natural causes, forcing the congregation to confront the great despair of death.

But if you stand in the austere chapel of the University Baptist and Brethren Church today, which is unadorned by stained glass or intricate architecture, you will sense no lingering sadness.

The congregation was adopted by another parent association, the American Baptist Churches organization, validating the decision to affirm gay, lesbian and bisexual parishioners. More recently the church even invited transexual individuals to come speak to and educate the congregation, leading them to openly welcome anyone regardless of gender identity and expression.

New life has bloomed in the congregation as families with young children have flocked to the church as a place where they know their kids will be raised in an open-minded, Christian environment.

 Photo by Michael Martin Garrett

Where once there was sorrow, there is now a profound sense of communion and joy when the parishioners embrace each other in greeting each Sunday. And when they join together in song, their voices elate the soul in ecstasy as they meld into one great chorus singing, “we blossom and flourish as leaves on a tree.”

Bringing together worshippers from both the Baptist and Brethren traditions, there is a sense of unity at UBBC that transcends background and belief. As their welcome statement says, neither the white nor the black, the young nor the old, the rich nor the poor, the gay nor the straight should be kept from seeking God in fellowship with their Christian family.

“I was raised in this church, coming here since I was about five years old,” says Heidi Loomis, who also worships with the State College Friends. “This church has always been, and always will be, my home.”

FAITH WITH INTEGRITY

Standing before her congregation one Sunday morning, attentive faces filling the rows of simple wooden pews, Pastor Bonnie Kline Smeltzer speaks of the tale of Jesus and the Pharisees, the religious leaders who clashed with the Son of God over the role of religious tradition.

“When I think about it, I think I know a little of what it’s like to be a Pharisee, and to think that I have the proper way of practicing the Christian faith,” Smeltzer says from the pulpit. “I know a little about what it is to carefully watch and to criticize what others say and do while I sit back in my secure and smug practice of faith.”


Photo by Michael Martin Garrett

But the purpose of faith, and the purpose of the traditions the Pharisees so rigorously upheld, isn’t to deride those we deem less pious than ourselves. “Faith is not about exalting our rituals but rather about our ethics, about how we live,” Smelzter says.

Smeltzer tells her congregations that she was baptized in her home church at 12 years old, allowing her to participate in a tradition known as the “Love Feast,” which emphasized the importance of service, forgiveness and sacrificial love. Before her baptism, she eagerly looked forward to being able to join the feast, which involved sharing a meal, a period of self-examination, the washing of feet and taking of communion.

But Smelzter, like all women in her church, was expected to wear a prayer covering to the feast, which bothered her as a “budding feminist.” After all, men weren’t expected to wear a covering, and it didn’t help her feel any closer to God, so why bother with it?

“[I remember] this growing sense in me that it was becoming more and more important to live and practice my faith with integrity,” Smeltzer says. “I no longer simply wanted to profess it or perform it through rituals that held little or no meaning for me.”

But at the same time, though she rejected the tradition of the prayer covering, she didn’t condemn its value to those who felt differently than her. When Smeltzer's grandmother died and left Smelzter her prayer covering, she was deeply moved despite the fact that she no longer wore a covering of her own.

“These are the questions I invited all of us to engage, to sit and reflect on with these last lazy days of summer: What is it you to want to come from your heart, from the heart of your faith, to demonstrate your love of God and of neighbor?” Smelzter asks.

“Let us think on these things together, and alone. Amen.”


Photo by Michael Martin Garrett

BETWEEN THE FREEDOM FLOWS THE SPIRIT

This focus on freedom and challenging tradition has always been a part of the UBBC, even before Smeltzer took over the reigns as pastor.

“I think there’s been great consistency over the years that I’ve worshipped here,” Loomis says, explaining that the church’s commitment to community service and welcoming everyone regardless of background has stayed the same.

Pastor Mike Scroggins, who led the UBBC through the 60s and 70s, even welcomed gays and lesbians into the church for community dialogue, “which was really radical at the time,” Loomis says.

Another longtime congregation member, John Bellanti, says he would have “never been caught dead in Baptist church,” until he came to UBBC for the first time in 1964. He remembers how Pastor Scroggins’ wife warned him how “Mike will get to you,” but Bellanti shrugged the comment off.

Then, after attending his first service and going out for lunch with Pastor Scroggins, the church leader said something to Bellanti that he vividly remembers to this day and convinced him that UBBC was the church for him.

“He said to me, 'You don’t tell me what to preach, and I don’t tell you what to believe, and between the freedom of the pulpit and the freedom of the pew flows the spirit of God.'”

Since then, Bellanti has been with the church through four different pastors, but he says the church’s convictions have never wavered.

Whether they’re getting disfellowshipped for welcoming LGBT members (“which I thought was hilarious,” Bellanti says), providing housing for disadvantaged families, or using church space to house nonprofit organizations like the Center for Alternatives in Community Justice, the UBBC is keeping the faith.

“When I think of this congregation, I think of a group of people – I call them characters, because they’re all unique – who have a lot passion for making the world a better place and finding ways  to use their gifts and time to serve other people,” Pastor Smelzter says.

“To be a part of this group is wonderful in many ways, because I think the congregation pushes me as much as I try to push them.”


Photo by Michael Martin Garrett



Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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