The rude word of this visiting evangelist dismissed what was otherwise quite evident in his findings. Even at the turn of the 19th century, the area had many Baptists, who were willing to be faithful to the Gospel, build some of the earliest area churches and kept a good witness as towns and cities developed in these parts. While the minister measured God’s favor and the one true religion based solely on counting Congregationalist numbers (and we Baptists have been just as guilty ourselves), religion in the developing Herkimer County area was blessed by those who were willing to be in the minority (i.e. religious when not too many around them chose to be) and in the midst of their community.
Flash forward to 1888. Herkimer’s Baptists organized on February 17, 1888, with nineteen charter members. A few years later, the present church building dedicated on July 8, 1902, just over a hundred years after that Massachusetts missionary had declared not much hope for the area. For the past 128 years, Baptists in Herkimer have been part of the community and even called in more recent years a pastor who had standing with the Congregationalists. (Somewhere up above, that old missionary likely fainted.)
Flash forward to May 2016. Leading up to this day, undoubtedly memories of the past have been on the minds of the congregants, former congregants and friends of the church as the decision was made to dissolve this church. We come here to mourn a closing but also to give God due glory for the Baptists who preceded this church, who sustained this congregation over 128 years and the legacy being left to support Baptists here and elsewhere around upstate New York through the ABCNYS Region.
Churches tell their story often through the official church histories written and published, surely some of you have these keepsakes at your home along with other treasures. The nooks and crannies of church buildings with bulging filing cabinets and old boxes of bulletins and mementoes tell part of that story. But more importantly, you come today with memories held close to the heart and replayed in one’s mind that tell the stories less likely to be captured by historians. This place is where baptisms and communion, potlucks and board meetings, weddings and baby presentations, wedding anniversaries, celebrations, recollections of times of peace within the church body and times of disagreement (It wouldn’t be a Baptist church if there weren’t occasions when somebody fussed at somebody else). And, of course, we gathered to say goodbye to a loved one, sing some hymns and give God due glory and thanksgiving for a life now ended.
All of these memories are close to the surface especially this day, and so we have our feelings mixed with gratitude, thanksgiving, hurts and pondering questions of “what if?” It’s all there and it’s all welcome as we remember rightly the complex tapestry of narratives that remind that a church made up of human beings, trying our best to be faithful to the Word, and yet being like any other church body throughout Christianity’s existence, jars of clay, fragile and fallible yet treasures before the Lord.
We mourn the day as a time of closure and loss. Yet, can we also remember that history has a good and holy purpose within it? Just as the grumpy preacher from Massachusetts found in 1801, the Baptists in these parts are made of stern stuff. While the church here at this corner in downtown Herkimer comes to a close, the legacy of First Baptist will be just as rugged and durable as the origins of the first Baptist settlers of Herkimer County.
Even as the church struggled in recent years with declining numbers and resources, the congregants and Pastor Bell deepened in their love of this community and its needs. A backpack program was started for transient persons to help them in their daily needs. Coffee with a Cop provided a safe place for citizens and police officers to gather to talk about the community’s needs and build up trust when other parts of our country struggle. Congregants gathered to discuss the different ways the Four Gospels provide insight into the mission each Christian is called to undertake, and they found inspiration to keep up the good work already underway. The Shepherd’s Table provided community partnerships to help meet the needs of a community’s food insecure households. This church may have considered itself small in number, but I would argue, you had a great big missional footprint even in your last years.
Yet, we must admit with due humility that the closure of First Baptist, Herkimer, is part of life. Congregations are not “eternal”, but temporal like all things, subject to decline and death. Nineteen people took the risk to charter this church and about the same number took the risk to say this particular church’s days have come to an end.
In the midst of a sense of loss and sorrow, may we hear yet again the Good News of the Gospel:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
So with these words of Jesus, I offer a word hope to this body of believers as you go your separate ways. Each of you here who have been part of this church are seeds, ready to be planted in other congregations and to use your gifts to strengthen ministries all around this area. In your leaving here, you are now welcome to go and strengthen ministries elsewhere with your presence and volunteerism, leadership and love of God and neighbor. It is a time of dying and yet rising again, just as our faith tells us that the life of discipleship is all about.
Even as First Baptist, Herkimer, closes its doors, may we remember this not as loss, but resurrection, going forth as hopeful people to serve God and neighbor here and elsewhere around Herkimer and Herkimer County. Indeed, may this service be remembered as the harvesting of grain, so that God’s work continues and bears much fruit. AMEN.