HAMPSTEAD — In a thick Irish brogue, the costumed figure preached to the congregation, taking members back to the era when Methodism was new in the 13 colonies.
Robert Strawbridge -- portrayed by Ken Steward -- visited Grace United Methodist Church here on Sunday, weaving the historyof Wesleyan Methodism into the church's own as he spoke to Sunday school students and preached the sermon.
Strawbridge, the first Wesleyan Methodist preacher in the United States, lived and pastored in New Windsor during the late 1700s.
"I used to design and supervise the building of recreational parks," said Steward, who lives in Takoma Park, Montgomery County. "Now I say I'm into the redesign of human hearts."
Steward was invited to Grace as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the dedication of the church sanctuary. Church members had visited the Strawbridge Shrine near New Windsor the day before.
"We knew he'd be a dynamic speaker, and it seemed to fit in with our visit to the shrine," said Jane Drozinski, a member of Grace United Methodist. "We sort of have a 'Strawbridge weekend' taking place."
Certified as a lay speaker by the Baltimore United Methodist Conference, Steward has portrayed Strawbridge 325 times in 20 states, he said.
His ministry of spreadingthe gospel through portrayals of Strawbridge and the apostle Peter is supported by offerings he takes at every performance, although Steward is also self-employed as a landscape architect.
"He does on his own what he thinks the Lord wants him to do," said Drozinski, adding that Steward is not paid by the Baltimore
conference for his performances.
"He does this as part of his livelihood."
Steward said he re-created the Robert Strawbridge character as a class project while attending Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
"I had a problem with the discipline of reading and writing papers," he said. "One of my professors said we could do a portrayal of a character in Methodist history rather than write a paper."
Steward said that after "flunking out" of the seminary in 1980, he had a difficult timediscovering what God wanted him to do with his life. Then, in 1983, Steward met someone doing portrayals in colonial costume for the Methodist church bicentennial.
"I told him I had done a portrayal of Robert Strawbridge, and if I could be of any help, to call me," he said.
Word got around, and Steward was asked to re-create Strawbridgefor Stone Chapel United
Methodist Church's bicentennial celebration in October 1983.
"I had visited the Strawbridge Shrine (in New Windsor) and knew about the character," Steward said.
Later, for his recertification as a United Methodist lay speaker, Steward began re-creating the apostle Peter.
While Strawbridge often approaches on horseback, Steward sometimes arrives for his portrayals of Peter byrowboat, since the apostle was a fisherman.
"I have a fake beard,a fishing net and a great big cross beam as props," he said. "When Iget to the part of sharing what Jesus did for
everybody, I slap my hand and press a nail into my wrist pretty far. It's a pretty graphic picture of the crucifixion."
Full color 4-by-6 foot banners designed by Steward accompany his presentations.
The Strawbridge banner portrays a racially diverse group of people worshiping under the motto "Catch the Vision" -- the theme of the United Methodist bicentennial. The one for his portrayal of Peter shows a net with ropes made up of people's names with faces of all ages and races in the middle of it.
Steward said this signifies how everyone is encircled by God's love and reminds listeners of Jesus'
command, "Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."
Lacking formal drama training, Steward said his ability to portray religious characters is a gift from God.
"It's not much difference for me to be in costume or notin costume," he said. "It's pretty easy for me, because I'm saying and doing things in costume that I would do as myself."
Steward hasreturned to Carroll many times, including appearing in the county's Sesquicentennial Parade in 1987.
His next appearance will be at Ferndale United Methodist Church in Anne Arundel County June 9.