Everyone is welcome.
That is the hallmark of Church of Our Saviour Episcopal in Akron’s West Hill neighborhood.
“No matter who you are, no matter where your path is in life, you are welcome,” said Susan Kirksey, senior warden (similar to a congregational president). “We are a family with a commitment to stay in the city and meet the needs of the community.”
The 117-year-old parish, which is part of the Cleveland-based Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, is going through a transition period to determine who will lead it into the future. As the congregation contemplates what the future holds, it has decided to go through the process with a priest-in-charge: the Rev. Debra Q. Bennett.
Bennett, a native New Yorker, came to Akron in May, ending a yearlong period during which the church had been without a pastor. As priest-in-charge, she will work with the congregation for three years. During that time, she and the congregation will think, discuss and pray about the mission of the church and whether Bennett is the right fit to become the next full-time rector (or pastor).
In the Episcopal Church, a key difference between a priest-in-charge and an interim priest is that an interim cannot be called to be the next rector of the local church.
“As we discern what God is calling us to be, [Bennett] will go through the process with us as a companion priest,” said Kirksey, who has been a parishioner for more than 30 years. “Things are moving along well. Her pastoral care has been wonderful. She is available for the people; she’s active in the diocese and she’s gotten out and made connections in the community.”
Bennett, affectionately known as Mother Debra, was priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Roosevelt, N.Y., before coming to Church of Our Saviour. The New York church is part of the Diocese of Long Island, where she was ordained. She earned her undergraduate degree at Wagner College in New York City and her master of divinity at Bexley Hall Seminary in Columbus.
Before answering her call to ministry, Bennett worked as an editor at several publications and corporations in New York. Looking back over her life, she gleans that she was destined to the ministry early in life.
“It was a 14-year process for me. Everybody else could see it, but I was the last one to know,” Bennett said. “As a young girl growing up, I remember a lady in my church saying, ‘God is going to use you in a mighty way.’ I never thought about ordained ministry because when I was growing up, women weren’t being ordained.”
Bennett was always active in her home church, the historic Grace Episcopal Church in Jamaica, N.Y. In college, she felt an internal nudge toward the ministry, but didn’t act on it. Along life’s journey, she recalls various people inquiring about her spiritual calling — a woman in a friend’s church, asking if she was a seminarian; participants at a young adult retreat, asking if she was in the discernment process.
After serving as a Eucharistic minister on Easter Sunday 2004, Bennett said she remembers walking into her apartment and realizing that God was calling her into ordained ministry.
“It was like the light went on and I was like, ‘Oh!’ It had always been there. But it happened in God’s time. It’s really a God thing,” Bennett said.
Since being at Church of Our Saviour, Bennett has been impressed with what she calls the parish’s “radical hospitality,” welcoming everyone who comes through the doors.
“This church really lives up to its promise of welcoming everyone. Everyone means everyone. No exceptions,” Bennett said. “The people here also live out the social justice ministry. They take to heart the challenge ‘if you’ve done it for the least of these, you’ve done it for me.’ ”
It was the commitment to social justice and the welcoming spirit in the parish that attracted Asuama Yeboah-Amankwah to Church of Our Saviour nearly five years ago. The Ghana native grew up in the Anglican Church (of which the Episcopal Church is a part) and wanted to continue worshipping in that tradition. He said Church of Our Saviour has been a great fit for him, his wife, Ebony, and their 10-month-old daughter.
“Church of Our Saviour is truly a come-as-you-are place. The people are great. The homilies are enriching. The music is wonderful,” said Yeboah-Amankwah, of Akron. “The people are truly concerned about one another and you are encouraged to get involved as much as you want to.”
The church offers various ministry opportunities, including those that focus on children, youth and adults. Its outreach ministries include Dinner on Us, a community meal that is served at 6:15 p.m. on the last Wednesday of each month, and the Friendly Pantry, which provides groceries to those in need at 8 a.m. on the last Monday of each month.
The parish also provides volunteers for Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity and OPEN M and partners with a parish in Tanzania. Its youth group, which offers a book club at 5:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month, is developing a relationship with the youth at the Islamic Community Center of Akron and Kent and will sponsor a Souper Bowl canned soup collection Feb. 3.
“Our goal is to stock our pantry with some high-quality soups for people in the community and give our youth an opportunity to experience reaching out to the heart of another human being,” said Jennifer Boswell, youth director. “I really appreciate the commitment to outreach at Church of Our Saviour and how it is always done in a welcoming way. We don’t just hand people a bag of groceries through the door, we invite them in to have coffee and muffins and conversation. The fellowship is so important.”
Boswell, of Copley Township, came to the church about a year ago, when she moved from the Cleveland area. She said she felt welcome the moment she walked in.
Church of Our Saviour, at 471 Crosby St., attracts an average of 75 people to its 10:30 a.m. Sunday worship service. Its inclusive nature draws people of different generations, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations.
“We are doing some good work here. The people are committed to doing what God calls us to do: welcome all people and serve those in need,” Bennett said. “Going forward, we will prayerfully explore and assess what God is calling us to be as a parish community as we continue our ministry.”
More information about Church of Our Saviour can be found at www.episcopalakron.org or by calling 330-535-9174.
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org