LEWISTOWN - Tucked into a corner of West Fifth Street in Lewistown is a small white chapel called the Church of the Firstborn.
Once a vibrant Sunday school, the church membership began to dwindle in the past decade. In the fall, its congregation decided to fold; but before the church closed, its members decided to find someone else who could use their building.
The congregation's founder, R. Leroy Smith, asked that the church assets be given to a local youth ministry, said Jane Kratzer, a trustee. She said they offered the building to a youth ministry, but it was not in a position to accept the building.
The Rev. Bernard Carpenter, front right, his wife Debbie, center, and Cindy Yoder join trustees from the Church of the Firstborn and Bethel AME Church at Firstborn on West Fifth Street. The small congregation dissolved in December and donated its building to Bethel AME.
Sentinel photo by MICAIAH WISE BILGER
This undated photo shows an early 1930s photo of the Church of the Firstborn Sunday School.
So the committee began searching elsewhere, Kratzer's daughter Carol Goss said.
"We wanted to give it to someone who would use it for the purpose Smith intended - to preach the Gospel and for souls to be saved," Goss said.
Through word of mouth, news of the search reached the Rev. Bernard Carpenter, pastor of Bethel AME Church.
"Someone mentioned it to my wife, and she to me," Carpenter said, "and something jumped in my spirit."
Carpenter said he believes the news was a sign from God. He contacted his trustees and those from Firstborn, and they agreed to donate the church building to Bethel AME's youth outreach.
"Little things can be big things when they are in the hands of God," Carpenter said of the small chapel.
The pastor said he sees the Church of the Firstborn as an "extension of our family" at Bethel AME and of the family of God.
Kratzer, too, described the church as a family of God. She said the congregation always strove to support other churches and ministries, especially those that worked with youth.
In a letter to the editor in The Sentinel soon after the church formed, Smith wrote of the church's ecumenical spirit:
"We are not fighting against any denomination whatsoever but are rather desirous to help them, for if we be followers of Christ then we are bound to be one in Him, for we are all one in Christ Jesus whether we be Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female, we are all members of the same body."
Cindy Yoder, who will serve as lay pastor of the church, said she has a strong desire to serve youth.
In 2004, her son died at age 20 of a drug overdose. Since then, she has dedicated her time to youth who feel like castoffs or misfits, she said. She actively works with the Compassionate Friends, which helps families who have experienced the death of a child.
Yoder said when she first opened the door to the Church of the Firstborn, she felt at home. She said she hopes to extend that atmosphere to all of the young people in the area.
Yoder and Carpenter share a vision to cultivate relationships between Bethel AME members and youth in the community. Someday, they want to hold open meetings on the church lawn and invite youth from the streets.
Carpenter pointed to an old black and white photo of children crowded onto the Church of the Firstborn steps.
"They felt safe here," Carpenter said.
Youth ministry always has been a key part of the Church of the Firstborn, Kratzer said.
The congregation began as a Sunday school in the Smith home in 1933, six years before the white chapel was built. The Smiths dedicated many hours to teaching children about the Bible, Kratzer said.
When cleaning the church this winter, the trustees found a large banner that the Smiths embroidered to illustrate Old Testament lessons to the young Sunday school children.
Another banner they found displayed Ecclesiastes 12:1 in large letters, "Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them.'"
Smith also took care of the church building until he died in 1991. He designated Jane Kratzer to continue the direction of the church as long as she could, Goss said.
To honor Smith's wishes, the congregation has actively supported local youth ministries, even while its membership was shrinking, Goss said.
She characterized the congregation as having a strong work ethic.
"If ever anything needed done, someone would step forward," Goss said. "We were a busy church."
Everyone who came had a job, whether it be shoveling snow or playing the piano or teaching Sunday school, Goss said.
The church closed its doors after its Christmas Day service, and it will open again under new leadership on Easter Sunday.
A prayer service will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. April 7, with special music by Carpenter, Yoder and Rick Alderton.
On Easter Day, Carpenter will preach at the church's first service at 10:30 a.m. Weekly Sunday services will continue at 10:30 a.m. led by Yoder.