Founded in 1894 by Hungarian immigrants who named it "Bridgeporti Templomi Egyletet," First UCC had over 600 members in the 1960s. Forty years later, however, the dwindling membership chose to sell their building to the Bridgeport Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church. The two congregations already had a creative partnership, as Tabernacle had been meeting there already.
As the two congregations worship on different days, the arrangement has worked very well for both. Most important to First UCC's members, it insured the church's continued use in the service of God. The 2006 sale permitted First UCC to continue to worship there rent-free for up to twenty years, and also provided the church with a substantial pool of resources for supporting ministry.
"We're in a unique position [to give,]" said Chief Elder Nancy Szwejkowski. "My theory is that it doesn't do any good sitting in the bank."
The gifts to the seminaries came with the encouragement of First UCC's pastor, the Rev. Karen DeWerth-Wamester, who is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). The church has made significant gifts previously to local helping agencies including the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, Bridgeport chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and the Merton House food pantry (and several smaller church-based food distribution sites), as well as to the Silver Lake Conference Center Scholarship Fund.
"We have a box of requests," said Szwejkowski, who serves on the review committee. "If we can help, we will. We really do our homework."
The Rev. Dr. Philip Krey, President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, accepted the church's gift toward a new seminar room, and offered the sermon in thanks during Sunday morning worship. "You're investing in God's creation," he told the worshipers. "You're investing in this community; you're investing in theological education."
Accepting the gift on behalf of Lancaster Seminary in Lancaster, PA, Kelly Schober, Director of Planned and Major Gifts, read a thank-you letter from a Lancaster student whose theological education was made possible by previous donations. First UCC's generosity will provide a new scholarship at the UCC-related school.
"With this gift from First United, more women and men called to serve God will be able to say 'Yes' to a theological education at Lancaster Seminary," wrote Lancaster President Dr. Riess W. Potterveld to the congregation, expressing his gratitude. "And today, the need for financial assistance for seminarians is critical and we rely upon the generosity of persons who value Christian ministry and believe that the education and strengthening of leaders is worthy of support. This gift is a reminder of God's presence in our midst, moving hearts to generosity."
"What a wonderful witness to the full communion agreement between the UCC and the ELCA for the First United Church of Christ to give a generous gift to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia," said Krey. "Our traditions have grown together, our students study together, our pastors like Pastor DeWerth-Wamester serve one another's congregations, and now we support one another in the preparation of leaders.
"As Lancaster Theological Seminary and the Lutheran School of Theology grow in collaboration in Christ, how lovely it is that the generosity of First United, guided by Mrs. Nancy Szwejkowski and its leaders, will build the capacity of both schools to prepare theologically ministers of the Gospel for long into the future."
The Rev. Michael Ciba, Valley/Northwest Regional Minister, brought the greetings and thanks of the Connecticut Conference for the church's support for theological education. The Rev. Dr. Don Studer and the Rev. Arlene Studer, both Lancaster alumni and long-time friends of First UCC, joined in the day's worship and celebration.
And in the afternoon, the commitment to give found another expression, as First UCC members stood together with those of Bridgeport Tabernacle, offering refreshments to participants in the city's CROP Walk as they passed.
(l to r) Kelly Schober of Lancaster Seminary, Philip Krey of Lutheran School of Theology, First UCC Chief Elder Nancy Szwejkowski, First UCC Pastor Karen DeWerth-Wamester
Reprinted, with permission, from ctucc.org, the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. © 2010 The Missionary Society of Connecticut