New Beginnings: Building Spiritual and Academic Hearts and Minds through Christ Jesus

by Sharon Williams 

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“I am so grateful for the way God is working in the lives of our young people,” say Pastor Jon Moore while reflecting on his 14 years of pastoral ministry at New Beginnings Community Church of Bristol. “It is so amazing to see what God has done through our church, making it a safe haven for the children and youth of Bristol, a place where they could do things they really wanted to do.” Although the congregation held her last worship service in September 2013, the legacy of God’s love lives on.

Pastor Jon recounts several stories of young adults whom he still mentors. A seven-year-old girl who wasn’t learning how to read will graduate from high school this year, due to her mother’s encouragement and the nurturing of a loving church. A boy, who came in contact with the church through a broken window incident and resultant community service, graduated from Temple University and works in sports administration in Los Angeles. A family whose involvement in the church helped them to stay focused on following Jesus, worked hard to buy a home and send their twins to Mansfield University. Jon’s daughter, Felicia, who ministered beside him through her high school and college years, now has a master’s degree in adult education and is a youth pastor’s wife.

new beginnings photo 2 5-7-15 - webPastor Jon arrived at Bristol in 1986. His home church was Diamond Street Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. His passion for ministering with the young people was infectious. “Near the end of his pastorate, Pastor Ben Bussey told the congregation, ‘Jon Moore loves this church so much, you should call him to be the next pastor,’” recalls Cathy Nyagwegwe, a former leader of the congregation. After a short interim pastorate, Jon was called to be New Beginnings’ pastor in 1999.

The vision and the ministry at New Beginnings started with a similar call. Before there was a Mennonite congregation in Bristol, “Brother Wilson Overholt . . . was challenged by Bishop A. O. Histand in 1936 that a Mission should be started in the Lower Bucks area.” This call became clearer in the 1940s, when the Overholts twice provided foster care for a family in Bristol whose mother was struggling with illnesses. In 1947, this unnamed family hosted cottage meetings in their home, and “were baptized and received into the fellowship at Deep Run Mennonite Church”[1] At the same time, a visiting missionary, likely J. D. Graber, preached “every church (should have) a mission”[2] at Deep Run. Convictions were stirred, and the Franconia Conference “Mission Board granted permission to start a work in Bristol.”[3]

Two government housing developments, Terraces I and II, were chosen as the geographic focal point for the ministry in Bristol. Some 600 homes had been built in 1918 to accommodate a large number of shipyard workers during World War I.[4]

new beginnings photo 3 5-7-15 - webLeadership was called forth from Deep Run and other congregations in the conference. Sunday school, worship, open air services, summer Bible schools were conducted at the community center, in tents, and at the public school. In 1954, Howard Rush was ordained as pastor and moved with his family to Bristol.  The transition from mission outreach to congregation had begun. After 10 years of ministry, increasing attendance and a great flurry of community outreach, the mission board purchased land and organized the building of the Bristol Mennonite meetinghouse in 1958. The summer Bible school taught 246 children that summer.

The congregation also had a steady flow of interaction with leaders from conference, the denomination, and related ministries and missions. Pastor Rush represented the congregation in interviews about community race relations and with State Parole Board, and in a Liquor Licensing hearing about a proposed bar in the neighborhood.

Delores Long Derstine was a teenager when her father, George Long, was called as pastor with the Bristol congregation (1966–1973). “He had a passion for the youth of the community. He made sure that we had active boys’ and girls’ clubs and a youth fellowship,” Delores recalls. The youth attended Camp Men-o-lan and later, Spruce Lake Retreat. Annie Davis, one of the Bristol students at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School lived with the Long family. Young people and adults sealed their commitments to Christ and the church through baptism.

new beginnings photo 1 5-7-15 - web“My father also built relationships with the African-American pastors in Bristol, and once attended a worship service in one of their churches, which was quite a cross cultural experience for him,” Delores remembers.

The congregation and community experienced many changes in the 1970s. The housing developments were deteriorating and being torn down; this prompted many of the Bristol families to move to other places. Raymond Jackson was the first African-American pastor called to shepherd the Bristol congregation in 1976. Pastors Gary Young (1987–1991), Ben Bussey (1992–1999), and Jon Moore (1999–2013) followed. The congregation chose the name New Beginnings Community Church in 1987. “Of Bristol” was added to the official name in 2008.

“Building spiritual and academic hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” became the congregation’s vision statement. The church started the New Beginning Learning Center of Bristol in 2007, with a library and computer lab for school children. Tutoring and mentoring, sometimes in the late evenings, was worth it—for today, some of those children are productive and committed Christians with careers as nurses, beauticians, business owners, and with various corporations.

“People tend to live in a box of their own culture,” reflects Pastor Jon. “Moving outside the box helps children to grow. We held summer camps and field trips. We visited and hosted Taftsville (VT) Chapel Mennonite Fellowship, which supported our youth programs and helped us with two flooded basement incidents. Our congregation sponsored a Christian hip hop artist concert, and enjoyed camping and retreats at Spruce Lake Retreat and Camp Hebron.

“Our mission was to equip children and their families with a Christian perspective for moving beyond downward life cycles. We held several dedications for individual teens as a way to both call and release them for ministry. As they worked beside us, they were being equipped to be leaders.  Everything was done to inspire children and youth grow up to be who God was calling them to be.”

Pastor Jon claims Romans 8:37: “We are more than conquerors through [Christ] who loved us” (NRSV). Today he lives with muscular dystrophy, but he stays in touch with the Bristol community and the young people he continues to mentor. “I do what I need to do, and let the rest go. I want my testimony to encourage others to press on [toward the goal of knowing and living for Christ]” (Philippians 3:7-12). He is grateful to God for the witness of all the persons who ministered faithfully, doing their part to spread and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Bristol.

Sharon K. Williams is a musician, editor and congregational/non-profit consultant. She serves the Lord with the Nueva Vida Norristown New Life congregation as minister of worship.

 


[1]
Esther Leatherman, “History of Bristol Mennonite Church, 1948-1981,” unpublished, 1981, 1.
[2] Conversation with John Ruth.
[3] Leatherman, 1.
[4] C. Stanley Taylor, “Bristol, America’s Greatest Single Industrial Housing Development” in American Architect, Vol. 113, Part 2, 1918, 599–615.

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