Brief History of Grace-Trinity
Conceiving the Idea of a New Church:
I came to the United States in 1989 and my wife and children joined me in 1990. For about three years we were desperately hunting for a church. Finding a home church in a segregated America in the late eighties and early nineties, particularly on a Sunday morning, was not easy. We visited several churches in and around Princeton, New Jersey. We stayed in each church from six months to a year to find our place in the family of God. People, at that point of time, were either inconvenienced or not open enough to embrace people of color or other races. (Luckily, that is less the case in America these days as there is a greater sense of acceptance in the traditionally white churches). The fifth church we tried was Trinity United Church of Christ in Holland, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Pastor Harry Shuster, who was the pastor of this church at the time, not only opened his doors for us but he also opened his arms and heart for us. For the first time my family and I breathed a sigh of relief and we found our home church. This was in late 1992 and within 3 months of worshipping in Trinity UCC, Holland, Pastor Shuster invited me to assist him as a part-time associate pastor. I assisted him for about 3 years. In 1995 Pastor Shuster retired and we both vacated our positions at Trinity for the new pastor to come and have a fresh start. We were back to square one. Again we were going through the process of finding a church home. And when we did not find one, deep in my heart I felt the need for a new church which is open enough to embrace all people, especially new immigrants who faced the same struggles as we did.
Establishing Grace-Trinity United Church of Christ in Philadelphia:
Since as a family we had gone through a lot to find a home church, I always felt the burden to provide a home church for those who were seeking one. During my time at Trinity, I came to know the leadership of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference (PSEC). When I approached them with a plan of starting a new church for new immigrants in Philadelphia, they were eager and ready to embrace the idea. Rev. Dr. Russell Mitman, Conference Minister, PSEC, and Rev. Marty Bupp, Associate Conference Minister, discussed with me to possibility of providing space of worship in 3 different locations in Philadelphia. One day in February of 1996, we visited three possible churches navigating nearly 24 inches of snow. One of the three places they showed was the present location of our church which was formerly called Frankford Congregational Church. Decades earlier, this used to be an affluent predominantly Caucasian congregation that through the course of time dwindled in membership until finally only three original members along with Linda D’Ambrosio (the organist) remained. There were several reasons why the old congregation slowly left this place: i) suburban expansion ii) changing of demography; iii) rising drug and violence related issues around the church iv) deteriorating condition of the building. Based on these reasons, leaders of the conference were hesitating to show us this location as a place for our future church. But after seeing the two suburban locations they had shown us, Betsy and I, after much prayer and discernment, chose this location as our place of ministry.
God calls the faithful out of their comfort zones in order to transform the world around them and to make a difference by shining a light in the darkness. And so we committed our ministry in Frankford to God’s hands. Those three members of the former church decided to join the new church along with the organist Linda D’Ambrosio. On the 1st Sunday of July 1996, a small but hopeful Grace-Trinity United Church of Christ had its humble beginning. (Naming the Church was a long and meaningful democratic process. Finally, we had a tie of votes between Grace and Trinity, and as a compromise we named the church “Grace-Trinity United Church of Christ”).
If you ask any pastor who has started a new church in his/her life time, they would tell you how hard a task it is and how many heart- breaking moments a pastor and his/her family go through in the process. In addition, starting a new church in an ailing and challenged location is another story altogether. Some potential new members of Indian origin in those days told us point blank, “If you start the church in this particular locality, we will not come to your church because our families cannot walk in this neighborhood”. I do not blame them completely because the situation was such that their safety could not be guaranteed in that locality.
God was challenging us to ask ourselves some soul searching questions as to the nature and purpose of the church in the world. If it is our understanding that a church should be established only in a good locality and that the membership to the church is based on the social class of the neighborhood, then something is not right from the biblical point of view.
Jesus Christ always associated himself with the poor and the needy of the world. From the missiological point of view we know that “God’s preferential option is always for the poor”. Therefore, we resolved that if some people would not come to our church because of its location, we do not need to count on them as our prospective members. From this kind of attitude of the people we clearly understood, very early, that every Indian or every new immigrant to our city may not seek to become a member of this church. We decided to count on those who were i) grounded in Christ, ii) embraced by the love of God, and were iii) open to any situation and all people, as the future members of Grace-Trinity.
This is our history of the church, now we have completed 22 years and we are faithful God is Still Speaking!
Rev. Dr. Chandra Soans