Looking back, looking ahead

Celebration: Jennings Chapel United Methodist Church marks its 150th anniversary with an eye on the future.

Religion

April 30, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The parking lot at Jennings Chapel United Methodist Church was jammed Sunday morning. There were all kinds of cars from all kinds of places squeezed into and around the small white building in Woodbine - even spilling on to the grass by the quiet road on which the church sits.

Inside the cozy sanctuary, it was nearly shoulder to shoulder in the wooden pews.

Sunday morning services always draw a nice crowd to the rural church on Jennings Chapel Road in Woodbine, but this was different. The church was celebrating its 150th anniversary, looking back on a long history while looking forward and hoping for more of the same in the years ahead.

Rev. Charles Leger (Le-ZHEE) has been at the church for about 10 months and said that seeing so many people come back to join the celebration was touching.

"We wanted this to be a community celebration," Leger said. "We had a lot of people who came back who hadn't been there in years. Most of those people who came back were raised in the church and came back [for this]."

There were cars from Delaware, New York, Maine, Washington and Rhode Island, bringing back people who had a connection with the church at some point in their lives. Leger said Jennings Chapel usually draws about 70 people on Sundays and has about 200 members. About 150 people squeezed in for the celebration.

The Rev. Paul Shoffeitt, a member of Jennings Chapel for 24 years, spoke during Sunday's service.

"This little chapel has had a powerful outreach," he said. "It's not just a focus on the members but on the entire community."

Shoffeitt is a clinical psychologist who has filled in as a minister at Jennings Chapel on occasion. He predicted that the church would continue to play a strong role in the community.

"There's a long legacy here of ministry to this community," Shoffeitt said.

Marge Cissel, a member for about 40 years, said the church is made up of a close group of people who have formed a strong bond that touches many in the area.

"It's our second family, it really is," Cissel said of the church. "If you ever have a problem of any kind, those are the folks who are going to be at your doorstep saying, `What can I do to help?' "

Jennings Chapel is proud of its history. There are pictures of weddings from the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s, as well as this month.

In the area where Sunday's celebration luncheon was held is a copy of the document that the first nine trustees of Jennings Chapel signed in 1854. Along with it are a record of deed for the church, dated Nov. 25, 1853, and a list of this year's trustees.

As Jennings Chapel's members and alumni celebrated its 150th anniversary, a new question came up - What's next?

Leger wants to draw more people. The influx of residents into western Howard County will give Jennings Chapel more from which to draw.

Leger said the church must decide on the best way to recruit people - who might not have attended services in a while.

"The vision is a very different thing right now," Leger said. "We're in a time of transition. How do you reach out to the young professionals that are moving there that may not have a churchgoing history?"

He has made reaching out an issue since arriving last year. Leger said attendance at services probably has doubled in the past 10 months, and he wants to see more of the same.

There are plenty of people the church can try to attract, but as Sunday's celebration showed, there are just as many who can try to come back.

"There's a lot of history here," Leger said. "There's a strong reliance on the traditions of the church and the family histories, as well. The bottom line is, it's a community church, and the people there have grown up with each other and most of them have known each other for 40 or 50 years, and I think they kind of all love each other."

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