The congregation at Miller Avenue United Church of Christ has changed the way it does church.
Instead of being a traditional church in which people attend Sunday morning worship services in Akron’s Summit Lake community, it is a mission for the neighborhood.
“We have a heart for the community and our focus is on service instead of the traditional Sunday morning worship,” said Andrew Kishman, who began as mission pastor at the church Oct. 1. “For us, worshipping God is building relationships with each other and empowering people in our neighborhood to become leaders.”
The small congregation, which has a core of about 30 traditional worshipping members on Sundays, made a decision about eight years ago – amid dwindling membership and declining finances – to partner with suburban United Church of Christ congregations to meet the material and spiritual needs of the Summit Lake community.
The congregation and the pastor at the time, the Rev. Tom Gerstenlauer, rededicated themselves to building relationships with community members and creating several outreach ministries. Those ministries, which are still intact, include a hot meal program, an emergency food pantry, a clothing closet, a community garden and a public playground.
It was the playground that brought Ann Sparks to the church with her two daughters – Madalynn, 11, and Jordan, 4. The single-mother moved into the neighborhood about two years ago to live with her sister. She brought her children to the playground next to the church to give them something to do. While there, Sparks discovered that the church was more than the typical place to go on Sundays.
“This is a place where there is something going on every day. People in the community recognize Miller Avenue as a place where they can get their needs met,” Sparks said. “The people here genuinely care. Once I found out about the opportunities here, I began helping out — sorting clothes, serving meals, whatever needs to be done. I enjoy helping others and I want to teach my children to give back.”
Jane Carl, who is a member of the mission’s board that governs Miller Avenue, said the primary goal of the transition into a community-based ministry is to reach people like Sparks, who live in the community.
“As a congregation, we knew we had to do something different and we wanted it to be something that would have a positive impact in the community and help improve the lives of the people who live here,” Carl said. “The congregation is a loving, warm community. We just want to do something meaningful, something that makes a difference in people’s lives.”
Carl said that although the church has made strides in the community during the last several years, it has gained momentum since Kishman, who choose to live in the Summit Lake neighborhood, arrived.
“He’s turned this place on fire!” Carl said of Kishman. “We were already smoldering, but now we’re on fire!”
During Kishman’s short tenure, he has been in dialogue with the Miller Avenue Mission’s board and neighborhood teens, community leaders and ministry partners about transforming the former three-story parsonage (next to the church building) into a youth center. The mission’s board includes representatives from Miller Avenue's suburban partner churches (Bath United Church of Christ, Trinity United Church of Christ of Wadsworth and First Congregational United Church of Christ of Hudson).
The center is expected to be a place that provides academic tutoring, mentoring, recreation, fitness programs, nutrition classes, art programs and peer discussion groups for students in the neighborhood. Programming will be available Monday through Thursday after school.
Kishman has also partnered with the Rev. Michael Starks, a community organizer and head of SLAAP ministry (Start Living and Acting Positive). Starks, whose work includes jail and prison ministry, re-entry counseling and mentoring, has moved his office to Miller Avenue where he plans to work as a resident organizer.
Miller Avenue’s neighborhood partners also include South Street Ministries, the Peter Maurin Center and Family Promise of Summit County.
Kishman, who will be ordained next month as a United Church of Christ minister, said he is working to build on the legacy left by Gerstenlauer to make Miller Avenue a hub in one of Akron’s poorest neighborhoods.
“We think Jesus calls for a different kind of Christianity that focuses on building relationships with one another. Worship, for us, is building those relationships,” Kishman said. “Miller Avenue is a place where the same people who sometimes need to use one of our services – like the hot meal program – become program leaders who help prepare and serve those meals. We want to make sure Miller Avenue continues to be a center of community and spiritual life here in Summit Lake.”
Kishman, who completed graduate school at Union Theological Seminary in New York and undergraduate school at Grinnell College in Iowa, set out to become a Buddhist monk. Along his journey, the Vermilion native was drawn back to Christianity by the gospel’s social vision.
After earning his undergraduate degree in philosophy, Kishman moved to California, where he worked as a community organizer in Los Angeles County via a faith-based Americorps program. It was during his work as a community organizer that he developed an understanding that the most powerful form of worship was helping transform lives in neighborhoods. His work included organizing after-school programs and homeless services.
“That work gave me a heart for tearing down social barriers to figure out ways to merge community organizing and the worship of God. It all boils down to relationships,” Kishman said. “Miller Avenue is the perfect place for me because there is such a spirit of cooperation in this community. Everyone is willing to come together to meet the needs of the people who live here.”
The church, located at 1095 Edison Ave., offers a casual 10 a.m. worship service on Sundays. Plans for a second service are in the works. More information about Miller Avenue can be found at www.milleraveucc.org or by calling 330-253-2324.