Carla Wilke

It may not be apparent now, but for many years I was a long-distance runner; a marathoner. Over a period of about 9 years I ran 9 marathons and 2 ultra marathons – one of which was 56 miles. The training was arduous, many, many, many hours on the road. But on race day I knew deep inside that I could do it no matter what unfolded on the course; The hours of hard work would pay off and I would, without question, finish the race.

I tell you this because to me faith is like training for an ultra marathon. It does not come easily. It requires work, dedication, complete surrender to the task at hand; if I am completely honest, surrender is not my thing. Hard work to me is easier than faith. It’s tangible. It relies solely on my efforts…I am in control. I have discovered that faith and control are somewhat at odds with each other.

I think folk like me make God’s job tougher. We are less patient, tend to hand things over less easily, and honestly just get in God’s way. He has to pull out the big guns, deliver proof to open our eyes, and activate real life angels in our paths to get us to hand over the reigns so He can work His magic in our lives.

Some of His angels, my angels, are in this congregation today. My husband Harry who is the answer to a long, detailed written prayer that God answered 3 years after I wrote it. Harry has taught me more about love and trust, patience, the importance of a rich relationship with God, and the power of faith and hope than anyone else in my life. It’s because of Harry that I come to Park Avenue Methodist Church and, over the last 7 years, have begun to understand the comfort and strength that comes from having a church home and community to hold me during the highs and lows of everyday life.

This church ushered Pastor Cathy into my life. She has been unconditional in her love and support of me. Her prayers have helped me recover from a miscarriage and celebrate the birth and life of the son that followed. She has been an anchor through job losses and gains as well, and has affirmed that in relationship with God, being human, with all of its imperfections, is OK. God gets it and gets me even when I don’t get it at all.

What I have learned in my journey is that faith is like training for an ultra marathon. It is not easy or one dimensional; it comes with blisters, cramps, moments of triumph, and moments of near defeat. Faith is fueled by support, by surrounding yourself with the faithful. Their strength bolsters yours when you are too weak to walk forward; their prayers hold you in God’s presence when you are too hurt and tired to reach out to God in prayer. Faith’s success is contingent on showing up and exercising it, even just a little bit, every day.

Thank you for supporting me in my journey. May God bless you all in your journeys of faith.

Eric Palmer

Good morning, Church family,

Every year, Laity Sunday comes and I am always excited to hear everyone’s faith journey.  When Pastor Cathy asked me to speak, I was excited but nervous.  Thank you, Pastor Cathy for this opportunity.

My faith journey has been a long one.  As a child, I had to attend church.  My siblings and I did not have a choice until the age of 12, when the decision to go to church or not was all mine.  Beside special occasions, my choice was not to attend church for approximately 26 years.  After approximately 26 years, I was invited to church by my then girlfriend – now wife – Ngozi, and I have been blessed ever since.  You see, I was not excited to go to church, but I was excited she had asked me to go.  Men, when a smart, beautiful woman invites you to church, I encourage you to say yes because it may put you on the path to a more purposeful life.  Thank you, Ngozi, for inviting me to church.

You see, I am eternally grateful to Ngozi.  She reintroduced me to a life I never considered.  A life of faith and belief in the power of prayer with community.  Taking that leap of faith and eventually being baptised here helped me find my way in this life.  Let’s not get it twisted, for those 26 years prior I was spiritual.  I believed, but did not have faith.  I had been through a few things growing up, and some of those unresolved issues or circumstances lingered during my transformation.  To the untrained eye, you would not have noticed how unsettled I was on the inside.  I became a member of Park Avenue almost immediately after Ngozi and I got married.  Why?  Because the new pastor was awesome.  And l don’t know about most men who get married; I did not know how, and I was not prepared to be a great husband to my wife, and if I was going to attempt to be, I was going to need some help.  My Park Avenue Church family has been with me when I was all in my feelings.  They supported me through rough patches, personally of growth, and relationship growth.  They encouraged me to be true to myself and be honest with others.  They had a job club when I was unemployed.  This church supplied me with other people that survived career changes.  They provided a sense of purpose through working within the church on the finance committee and ushering during my unemployment.  This church and its congregation provided me with a new sanctuary.  A place to renew the commitment I made to God and Ngozi.  The only other place I ever felt this safe and comfortable was a wrestling room.  In those 26 years without the church that was my sanctuary, I had finally found another place that I could be vulnerable without fear.

I shared this condensed version of my journey with you today to say thank you to the congregation and more importantly, to say thank you to Ngozi for sharing her faith with me and being my why, and to thank the Lord for allowing our paths to cross.  For this and many more reasons, I am grateful for all the blessings I have been given, and for those I may receive in the future.  And may God shower you all with Love and Kindness.  Amen.

Matthew Klein

Good morning everyone! My name is Matthew Klein and I am lucky enough to have been at this church for my entire life, baptized and confirmed. I am very proud to be a member of this church. Our congregation stretches back nearly two centuries, through civil and world wars, and through major social changes. Earlier this year I was given the honor of speaking at our Pastor Emeritus Reverend Philip Clarke’s memorial service. He was our spiritual leader here throughout my childhood. As I listened to the stories recounting his works during his 43 year tenure here, I was reminded of the fact that he was sent to Park Avenue United Methodist to close down what was considered a failing church. There was low membership, no money, and I would imagine, very little hope.

As you can all see we have come a long way since then. This is a very special place, a place I have always felt is unique as a congregation. We are an eclectic mix of backgrounds and lifestyles, hailing from all different regions and nations, just as any real New York City church should. My faith was bolstered by an experience here that was truly not the norm. We were always positive, loving, kind, and always together in fellowship, bringing out the best in one another. When I was young, if I was asked what it was to be part of the church, I would have said, “Being kind to one another, singing, and of course, eating” … after all, we’re Methodists.

As you grow older, and continue to explore the mysterious nature of faith, you realize that no two people share exactly the same relationship with God or the Church. To some this may seem disheartening, or proof that somehow this doesn’t work. What I have come to believe is that in these differences is the work. We become closer to God as we come closer to one another. Aren’t the two great commandments of Christ  – Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.. And the second, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself?

When I was preparing to speak today, I thought about what I felt was most important to communicate to this church about both my personal faith, and what is special about this place. What immediately came to mind was an excerpt from one of Rev. Clarke’s sermons that I read at his memorial about the 3 B’s of being a Christian, Believing, Behaving, and Belonging. Of these three, belonging is what ultimately saved this church, and provided me with some of the best role models a young person could ask for. Here is what Rev. Clarke said:

Believing he describes as “You believe in Jesus as the love of God… you believe in that love and are willing to commit yourself to it without fear! Believing! That’s first.

Behaving comes second- He makes a point of saying that a person whose behavior does not in some way reflect his belief is no Christian and this you can put down “IN BLACK AND WHITE” there are religions where religious belief and behavior are two different things, but Christianity is not one of them.

The third B is the one that has been so true to me, and has kept me coming back here all these years: belonging.

“When one person is drawn to another person, he is inevitably drawn into the circle of other people who are also drawn to that person. This happens in all of our human associations.”  You’re drawn into a circle. You become part of it.

And so a person who is drawn to Christ is very quickly drawn into the group of people who are also drawn to Him.

And in the group several things happen – especially when things work out well. One thing is that the spirit of Christ is always present in the group in a way in which it is not apt to be present apart from the group. This is hard to put into words, but what I mean is – something happens when a group of people who love the Lord meet together to thank Him, and to Praise Him and simply to think about Him… to talk about Him. This coming together of the groups seems to bring him closer.

I’ve felt this sort of thing happen on occasion in this Church. It doesn’t happen every Sunday. But there are those Sundays when we do feel something lifting us, moving us.

You also find, as a member of the group, that you are able to make an impact upon the world around you which you could never make as a single Christian standing all alone.

There are those who will occasionally ask you, “Can’t I be a Christian without joining a Christian Church or fellowship?”. Yes, you can be, but you are a much more effective one when you become tied in, and actively associate with a group of Christians. The ties of membership should always represent a deeper commitment. There is strength in unity. You could stand out on the corner of 86th Street and Park Avenue all day and all night and perhaps not mean a single thing to anybody. But this Church standing here, the gathered fruits of the labors of love of many over the years… why this building alone speaks in its silence to thousands who pass by it in a week in a way- that you – by yourself – could never speak.

These words ring very true to me, and I reminded that any point in the life of the church, we are just one generation from not being here anymore. Thank you Pastor Cathy and thank you all for helping those who explore their faith feel like they belong. We should stick together. God bless.

Jennifer Jacob

I am a lifelong Methodist. My several times great grandparents who emigrated to the United States from England were Methodists. My great-grandmother played the piano at the Methodist church. Growing up in a small town in rural Iowa, going to church was just something that everyone did.  Sunday morning services, Sunday afternoon youth group.  It didn’t matter how late you were out at play practice, band contest, or at a basketball game on Saturday night; you got up and went with the family to church on Sunday morning. On Wednesday, school activities ended by 6:00 because it was church night, and everyone had choir practice and confirmation class.  Every summer I spent two or three weeks at church camp.  I even had my introduction to theater at church, when my mom and the church choir were recruited to be in the ensemble of a community production of Shanendoah, and at the age of four I stood on stage in a long dress and bonnet holding her hand.

My faith was fostered growing up in the church, as was a call to service.  As president of the UMYF in high school, I sat on the church council and learned about how the Methodist church was structured and run. When, during my freshman year, the pastor that had served our church through most of my childhood was reappointed to another congregation, I learned about the larger conference and appointment system. At 17 I went on my first mission trip and learned to hang sheet rock with Habitat for Humanity. Yet, until I went away to college, I never really thought about what it meant to be a part of a community of faith because I’d never known anything different.

I consciously chose to go away to college, selecting a large university two states away.  Because I had always been an active Methodist, at orientation, I signed up with the United Methodist campus ministry.  However, once the school year started, their programming didn’t fit into my new life and schedule.  They were based at the large Methodist church downtown, and I didn’t have a car to get there from campus, so I didn’t make much of an effort to go. I felt like I was being preached at instead of preached to. Also, my parents weren’t waking me up for church on Sunday morning, the one day of the week where I didn’t have any other commitments.

In early October of my freshman year, I made my first weekend trip back home.  Of course we went to church, and everyone in the congregation was interested to hear how I was doing off at college. That weekend first realized what I most valued about going to church, and that was the sense of community.  It was like going to a really large family reunion with all these people who cared, and until I was away from them, I didn’t realize how important that sense of community was to my faith practice.

The next Saturday, back on campus and hanging out with some new friends, one guy mentioned that he had been interning at a local church and was giving his first sermon the next morning, and would we be willing to go and support him. Turns out, he was serving at a small Methodist church just five blocks from campus.  That first Sunday, even though we were just a few blocks from a university with thousands of students, we were the only college students there. We were made to feel so welcome.  The next Sunday, I decided to go back alone, and two grandmotherly ladies invited me to sit with them then join them for lunch afterwards.  I had found my community – people of all ages and backgrounds coming together for worship and service.  I attended there for the rest of my college years.

After college I moved around the country following jobs then attending graduate school, usually far from my family and friends. In each place, I found my Methodist faith community.  On the surface, they couldn’t have been more different: Central UMC in Kansas with only a couple hundred members, most of whom were retirees.  Peachtree Road in Atlanta with more members than there were people in my hometown in Iowa.  Christ UMC in Chapel Hill, a new founded church in the growing suburbs.  But at their core, each of these churches had a strong, welcoming, and connectional community.

When I moved to New York, I started “church shopping” right away. Since I live in Brooklyn, I started with churches close to me, but nothing really felt like the right fit.  That sense of welcome and community was missing. I’d been looking for several months when a friend recommended I visit Park Avenue. My first Sunday, Pastor Sara invited me to join a group of young adults for brunch, which lead me to come back the next week. When I walked in my second Sunday, Pastor Bill remembered my name, and the folks I’d gone to brunch with the previous week waved me over to sit with them. My third Sunday, they announced a new member class, and I signed up. The next week I was invited to help with the Christmas Fair. I had found my faith community in New York City.

In the 12 years that I’ve been a member of Park Avenue, there have been a lot of changes both in our congregation and in our world, but the one thing that is constant is the intentionality with which community and connection are fostered here.  Churches like Park Avenue, with our welcoming people and strong core of faith, don’t happen by accident.  Building communities like ours take a lot of work, and that is work that I am honored to participate in with all of you. On this Stewardship Sunday, as we make our commitments to this community for the upcoming year, both financial and spiritual, I thank you all for committing to doing that work and joining in this community with me.