WESTMINSTER — Regaining the ability to support a minister on its own is a dual cause for celebration at the Union Street United Methodist Church.
OnSunday, the 85-member congregation welcomed the Rev. Joan Carter as its full-time minister, rejoicing that they no longer need to share her with the Fairview and Strawbridge United Methodist churches in NewWindsor.
But the service -- filled with singing, music and liturgical dance -- also celebrated their being the only black United Methodist congregation in Carroll to be recognized as a station, or self-sufficientchurch.
"This started as a dream," Carter said. "This is definitely a step of faith for this congregation."
The group -- organized in 1866 -- originally was affiliated with the Westminster United Methodist Church, sharing a pastor, Carter said.
"Westminster was the big white church and Union Street was the small black church that thewhite church had to give a hand out to," she said.
In the early 1980s, the church broke out on its own, but financial difficulties forced it to join with the other two congregations.
"Membership started dropping and we had to go with the other churches to pay for the minister," said Eleanor Moody, a 51-year member of the church. "We didn't think we were going to pull through, but with God's help, we have."
With the arrival of Carter in 1987, membership again began to grow. Members say the spirit of the church changed, and young people again were attracted to Sunday services.
The formation of a men's choir, reinstituting Sunday School and the youthful attitude Carter brought are some of the reasons members say attendance grew and people outside of the community on Union Street came to the church.
"Since Rev. Carter came, we've had members from other areas and people whohave moved to the county are coming to the church," said Moody. "Rev. Carter has reached out to the young people and she, being young herself, has drawn them back.
"The progress for the young people has been quite fruitful."
In September, Carter approached her members about trying again for station status.
"After three years, I didn't want to serve three churches anymore," she said. "But I knew that Union Street had the potential. It sits in the middle of a community and the people were ready to give more and do more."
However, the congregation first had to prove to the district leadership that members were ready to accept the responsibility.
"I took it to the district supervisor, who took it to the bishop, and at first they said, 'Well, maybe in two or three years you'll be ready,' " Carter said. "Financially, we couldn't afford the responsibility of paying for a full-time pastor."
But with prayer and work, the group began to progress. Members planned retreats, dedicated themselves to giving more to the church and eventually impressed the supervisor with their progress.
"We worked with people about the total concept of stewardship -- giving of your time, money and talents," Carter said. "I look at individuals and can see how they've changed and grown with the process."
After proving that their finances and attendance had grown -- about 180 people regularly come to weekly services in the church that seats 140 -- district leaders gave their blessing to the congregation's change.
Church growth has not just been in numbers of members ordollars, Carter said. Members also have grown spiritually and now consider themselves an important element in the community, ready to speak out on issues.
"There was a time in the black community that the church was a way of life for the people," Carter said. "Church was a place of strength and guidance and gathering people together for issues.
"I see us coming back as a center for the people. This church can surely be an instrument in people's lives, helping them make decisions in living."
Peaceful resolutions of conflicts with their neighbors has proven that the church is more respected in the community, Carter said.
For example, Western Maryland College officials met with members of the church and community before replacing the boiler plant next to the church that blew up last year. Walls and windows of neighboring buildings were destroyed in the blast.
"They just didn't put it back there like we weren't here," she said. "The church is ready to speak out. No longer will we let people walk over us or pass us by.
"People know that Union Street is here, and they're going to have to include us or they're going to hear some voices."
Yet Carter stresses that although the church's membership is primarily black, its mission is to be inclusive. Church membership rolls include white congregants, and members welcome parishioners of all races.
"We're open to anyone who's in need of being loved," said Carter. "We don't love them to death, we love them to life."
Congregants have commented on that warmth and say they return to feel it again, Carter said.
"It doesn't matter who comes in, they don't have to be aUnited Methodist," she said. "But they feel they have come here and praised the Lord."