BANGOR, Maine — More than 100 years ago, a congregant left Grace United Methodist Church $100 in his will. The money could be used only to build a new church in a new location.
Over the years, the fund grew to $168,000, which would go a long way toward funding a new facility, but members of the church at 193 Union St. near Third Street voted year after year to stay put.
The church is surrounded by houses converted to apartment buildings in what today is considered a rough neighborhood, and Grace’s members felt the neighborhood needed God and them. A decade ago, they began serving a free lunch on the third Saturday of each month. In 2003, they opened the Saving Grace Thrift Shop in the church basement.
The congregation is willing to make sacrifices to serve the community. This winter, services are being held in the smaller fellowship hall instead of the sanctuary to save on heating oil so more money will be available for its mission work in the neighborhood.
Peter Hicks, 33, lives next door to Grace and works six nights a week at an area bakery. Now a member, he became involved with the church through the thrift shop a few years ago.
“I saw a sign for a secondhand store outside the church,” he said Monday. “I kept going back, poking around, and I picked up a few things. I was asked if I’d like to help out at the shop and I did. Then I was asked to go to a service, and I did. I sort of slid into the church.
“But when I moved in next door, they helped me with the lifting and carrying,” he said. “The church is family. It’s a place I’m not going to leave.”
For Pamela Robinson, who was welcomed as a member at Sunday’s service, it seemed natural to turn to the church in her mother’s final days. Grace was the church Robinson, 45, of Bangor attended as a child.
“I came to the church about a year ago because I needed guidance with my mom being so ill,” she said. “The elder ladies have been a lot of help and given me so much wisdom.”
The congregation is a mix of new members from the neighborhood, those who have returned to the church of their childhood and longtime members, according to the Rev. Kathy Macedo, 60, of Bangor. She has been pastor since July 2005.
“I think the congregation is amazing,” she said last week in an e-mail response to questions. “There are four members who are over 90 who are vital, active and energetic in all aspects of life. The congregation ranges from conservative to liberal, both politically and theologically, but they are all committed to Jesus’ teachings of radical inclusiveness and hospitality.”
Macedo, who grew up in Rhode Island and met her husband, Bob Macedo, 60, at the University of Rhode Island when both were in the university marching band, entered Boston University School of Theology in 1999 at age 51. Before that, she was the editor of two small weekly newspapers for a dozen years. Her first pastorate was in Burrillville, R.I.
Two years ago, Macedo led a group of 12 church members, ranging in age from 30 to 90, through a “visioning process.” Out of that a new mission statement emerged — Grace “affirms God’s love by practicing and sharing Christ’s message of hope and inclusiveness with each other and with our neighbors.”
“Many churches must move out of their urban location,” Macedo said in her e-mail. “We had a fund with a large amount of money in it that could only be used to relocate the church, but the congregation of Grace chose to remain a downtown church. It was established as a mission church over 150 years ago, and the commitment of the congregation is to remain in mission to the neighborhood. Urban churches generally struggle financially, and Grace is no exception. The building is difficult to keep warm, and there is always a need of some kind of repair.”
After a change in Probate Court rules, the church was able to remove restrictions on how the dedicated fund could be spent. They were able to use some of the money for roof repairs, Macedo said, and in the future will be able to use the funds to remain on Union Street.
“It’s important for the church to be here or the neighborhood would slide backwards big time,” Hicks said. “If anybody comes in the door needing something, we don’t turn them away. If we can’t do something, we’ll find the right resources to take care of that individual.”
The church now is debt-free after paying off a five-year loan used to purchase a new furnace, but still faces financial challenges, the pastor told the 70 adults and children who attended Sunday’s worship service.
The church plans to hold services in the sanctuary again beginning on Palm Sunday, April 5, or earlier if the weather turns mild, Macedo said.
In addition to the free monthly lunches prepared with help from the youth group at St. Mary Catholic Church and Hammond Street Congregational Church, both in Bangor, Grace offers an evening Vacation Bible School for neighborhood children in August.
Next month, the church will begin holding monthly public suppers to raise funds. The first one will be a bean supper with two seatings from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7.
Hicks most likely will be helping out.
“Everything good that’s happened in my life recently has happened because I’ve gotten involved in the church,” he said. “Before, I was just trudging through life, going to work and going home. Now I have more purpose, more reason to be around. I’m not just somebody taking up space.”
That, longtime members agree, is why Grace plans to stay put for at least another 150 years.