Tag Archives: Tom Albright

Becoming an Authentic Pastor

by Ben Walter, Ripple

I grew up attending a Church of the Nazarene congregation every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, well into my teenage years. Our family was at church whenever the doors were open.  My parents often sang up front, Dad playing the guitar and Mom banging the tambourine against her leg.  They asked me to join, but I was too shy and self-conscious.

I can’t tell you when I became a Christian, or when I was “born again,” because as far as I can remember, I have always looked to Jesus as Lord, savior, teacher, and friend.  Despite my semi-forced dedication to the church, becoming a pastor was not on my to-do list; standing up front, talking, and inviting people to kneel at the altar to get saved for the tenth time wasn’t my idea of a fulfilling job.

As I entered my late teens and early twenties, I drifted away from the church.  I thought about God often, and prayed occasionally, but my faith wasn’t guiding my decisions. 

After spending 3 years in the military, I prepared to start college.  I was thinking about becoming a pastor, but I felt like, if that’s what God wanted for my life, I couldn’t be obedient to that call.  A nagging feeling of guilt began following me around.  So I went to talk to my pastor.

I remember my pastor said, “You will know.”

I didn’t really “know” at the time, so I ran.  I guess I assumed God would get the message to me if I needed to hear it.

During my final year of college, like the prodigal son, I returned.  I started attending church and met some good Christians friends who helped me stay on track.  The youth pastor at my home church asked me to help with the youth.  This turned into seven years of teaching, chaperoning, and mentoring.

Over time, particularly after the start of the Iraq War, I began thinking more deeply about Jesus’ teachings on peace, justice, oppression, and solidarity.  I didn’t have a label for it, but I was on my way to becoming an Anabaptist.

In 2008, I decided to pursue a Masters of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. I wasn’t interested in pastoring, but wanted to dedicate a few years to serious study of scripture to help in the ministry I was already doing.  

During my studies, I learned about the Anabaptists and was told by one of my close friends that I was one.  This was news to me, but I embraced the label.  I also had the opportunity to be taught by a Mennonite adjunct professor, Steve Kriss. 

Steve was the teacher for my final class at Biblical Seminary.  As I walked out the door of my last session of that class, marking the end of my seminary education, Steve stopped me to ask a few questions.  He told me that there was a church in Allentown that might interest me and wondered if I’d like to meet Tom Albright, the pastor of Ripple.  I decided I would check it out.

Ben spending time with Ayanna and Angel in Ripple’s Community Garden. Photo credit: Angela Moyer

When I got to Ripple, I saw a church that was dedicated to being a safe, welcoming place of worship for people who have been pushed to the margins of society, those with whom Jesus calls us to solidarity.  A few weeks later, Ripple called me to be one of the pastors, and I “knew.”

I initially thought I couldn’t be obedient to God’s call to be a pastor because the pastors I had known seemed to be straight-laced and uptight.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not me.  At times I still feel pressured to fit a certain pastoral mold, but for the most part, Ripple has allowed me to pastor from a place of authenticity and vulnerability.  I have learned that being a good pastor is simply about being the person God has created me to be.  I don’t have to pretend.

Thank God!

Confirming call: wrestling, resisting, remembering, surrendering

by Carolyn Albright, Ripple Allentown

Juanita is nine months pregnant. Her boyfriend, the baby’s father, is in hospice dying of cancer, and she’s about to be evicted from her apartment in downtown Allentown. She arrives at Ripple desperate, yet cheerful. Tomorrow is her birthday, and we celebrate by singing and giving her a whole cake, complete with candles.

Last week when I saw Brian, his hair and beard were white, in keeping with his aging frame. Today he looks years younger with his obviously dyed hair. He tells me he’s living in a new “time warp,” caused by the convergence of aliens and Americans.

Today, my husband, Tom, and I will officiate at a funeral for a homeless man who attended Ripple.

Carolyn Albright explains the significance of communion to the congregation.

Yes, these are some of the realities of Ripple, where I sense God’s call to pastoring.

What brought us here? God. What keeps us here? God. How did I get here? It has been a long journey, involving wrestling, resisting, remembering, releasing, and surrendering.

My Lutheran upbringing prepared me for service in the church as a choir and youth group member and leader, and later as president of our college fellowship (where I met Tom), Sunday School teacher and Bible study leader. For one year after college, I participated in Lutheran Volunteer Corps, an organization similar to Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), in Washington, D.C., where I met households of MVSers, who began my introduction to Anabaptist theology.

Early married life with two young children brought us to worship at Whitehall Mennonite Church, where, eventually, Tom was chosen to pastor. We were both rebaptized, as were our children later.

Tom prayerfully began pastoring in his “free time,” alongside his job as a teacher. I wrestled with the time crunch that his two jobs created for our family, and even resented how church took Tom away from our family. Meanwhile, God was nudging me to get involved and begin recognizing my own gifts of pastoring, but I refused. What would our kids do if both of us were sucked into church work?

So many brothers and sisters at Whitehall began calling out pastoral gifts in me that I could no longer deny that God was calling me to a pastoral role. Yet, the resistance continued, as Tom enrolled in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s Summer Institute for Spiritual Formation. I decided to tag along to keep my eye on him—he was having some medical issues at the time—and ended up enrolling as well. Taking those classes was a fresh start for me, as I paid close attention to my own spiritual formation and internal conversations. I began to seriously consider what being called to pastor meant, and started meeting with a spiritual director. At the same time, we were moving out of Whitehall Mennonite’s realm to start an inner city ministry we first called “Ripple Effects.” Franconia Conference was instrumental in nudging us to take on this “missional experiment,” and Ripple continually reshapes itself, in true experimental fashion.

In the midst of all this, as our children approached college age, I returned to teaching school. Now how could I take on studying to be a pastor, when I, too, was working full time? Wrestling and resistance continued, until I remembered that others wrestled with God. I was in good company!

Children wash Carolyn's feet at Whitehall's Maundy Thursday worship.
Children wash Carolyn’s feet at Whitehall’s Maundy Thursday worship.

Releasing our country farmhouse and swapping for an apartment in inner city Allentown was a breaking point for me. I began Gateway classes after our first year in Allentown, and I have one more to complete. Because of Ripple’s ministry focus, I have also taken classes in restorative practices, and will earn a 24-credit certificate in ministry studies from EMS in the spring of 2015.

City life is so different from suburbia, but mission trips to Honduras also prepared us for life in Pennsylvania’s first majority-Latino city. We are part of a forming, informal group of Christians who live and work here in Allentown, and God keeps expanding our circles.

Recently, I wrote a response to some credentialing interview questions. One question, “What biblical principles guide your life and ministry?” caused me to reflect on love, relationships/community building and transformation. All three of these are rooted in Anabaptist theology and guide my daily living. Ripple’s byline is “moving closer to Jesus as our center,” and we do this by loving others Jesus’ way, building relationships, and praying and working for real, lasting transformation—beginning with me! In surrendering to God’s patient, persistent, risky call, my life has opened to new, life-giving possibilities. God is shaping me with a refreshing, transforming, loving perspective for my brothers and sisters in the inner city, as I pursue this adventure of being called to pastor at Ripple.

Juanita is still at risk of eviction. Brian still suffers with mental health issues. The family of Ronald, the homeless man whose funeral we officiated at, is still grieving. We are all moving closer to Jesus as our center, as we love, participate in community, and allow God’s transformation to happen.

Congrats to this year’s seminary grads!

Danilo Sanchez graduated from EMS this yearCongratulations to our Franconia Conference seminary graduates this year. Our conference had five individuals graduate from Eastern Mennonite Seminary: Danilo Sanchez (pictured), Boyertown congregation, graduated with a Master of Divinity; Scott Hackman, Salford congregation, graduated with a Master of Arts in Church Leadership; Emily Ralph, Salford congregation, graduated with a Master of Arts in Religion; Anne Yoder, West Philadelphia congregation, graduated with a certificate in ministry; and Tom Albright, Ripple congregation, graduated with a certificate in ministry.

HARRISONBURG, VA — The following Franconia Conference students were recognized as members of the dean’s list for the spring semester at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.

Madeline Clemens, a first-year business administration major from Harleysville, Pa. She is the daughter of Douglas and Rebecca Clemens and attends Blooming Glen.

Hannah Clemmer, a senior psychology major from Harleysville, Pa. She is the daughter of Michael Clemmer and attends Towamencin.

Jonathan Drescher-Lehman, a junior biology major from Green Lane, Pa. He is the son of Jon and Sandy Drescher-Lehman and attends Souderton.

Anna Hershey, a senior biology major from Harleysville, Pa. She is the daughter of James and Brenda Hershey and attends Salford.

Brianna Kauffman, a first-year accounting major from Harleysville, Pa. She is the daughter of Steven and Lisa Kauffman and attends Franconia.

Laura Keppley, a senior biology and music major double-major from Boyertown, Pa. She is the daughter of Carl and Alice Keppley and attends Perkiomenville.

Morgan Kratz, a sophomore social work major from Souderton, Pa. She is the daughter of Douglas and Marice Kratz and attends Plains.

Samuel Moyer, a senior nursing major from Harrisonburg, Va. He is the son of Stephen and Naomi Moyer and attends Bethany.

Megan Nafziger, a sophomore nursing major from Mohnton, Pa. She is the daughter of Don and Rose Nafziger and attends Vincent.

Benjamin Nyce, a senior liberal arts and kinesiology & sport studies double-major from Perkasie, Pa. He is the ons of Timothy and Teresa Nyce and attends Deep Run East.

Matthew Nyce, a sophomore Spanish major from Perkasie, Pa. He is the son of Timothy and Teresa Nyce and attends Deep Run East.

Konrad Swartz, a senior English and writing studies double-major from Spring City, Pa. He is the son of Timothy and Rachel Martin Swartz and attends Salford.

Ryan Swartzendruber, a sophomore mathematics major from Sellersville, Pa. He is the son of Conrad and Sharon Swartzendruber and attends Plains.

Aaron Wile, a first-year psychology major from Telford, Pa. He is the son of Daniel and Kristi Wile and attends Franconia.

To qualify for the dean’s list a student must achieve a semester grade point average of at least 3.750 or above and complete at least 12 semester hours of credit.

Eastern Mennonite University is a Christian liberal arts university of about 1,500 students, located in Virginia’s scenic Shenandoah Valley. EMU is guided by the peace principles of Mennonite Church USA, educating students to serve and lead in a global context through cross-cultural study and an interdisciplinary curriculum. Established in 1917, the university offers over 40 undergraduate majors and six graduate programs offering nine master’s degrees. Eastern Mennonite Seminary is part of the university, as is the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.  See more at: emu.edu/about.

Conference pastors recognized for leading and serving

by Stephen Kriss, skriss@franconiaconference.org

Tom & Carolyn Albright
Tom & Carolyn Albright

Tom Albright, lead pastor of Ripple, an emerging Anabaptist missional faith community in Center City Allentown was recognized by the Lehigh County Council of Churches with the Ecumenical Service Award for 2012.  According to the Council, “the award is not to glorify the individual, but to give witness to the important work of affirming and strengthening Christian unity. The award is given to well-known and little-known individuals, to people deeply involved in the life of the Conference and to those who have offered their gifts elsewhere.”

Ripple is a church-plant that was birthed from Franconia Conference congregation, Whitehall Mennonite Church, just outside of the city.  Tom and his wife Carolyn were honored with this award for “hearing God’s call and moving into the city.”  He accepted the award on behalf of the emerging community at Ripple, suggesting that this award wasn’t only about him but also about the community of people who gather weekly and who live the Good News every day in their hearts and on the streets of Allentown.

Earlier this year, Ripple called two additional pastors–Ben Walter and Angela Moyer—to serve alongside the Albrights in leading this growing congregation of approximately 100 people.  Albright is the first Mennonite pastor recognized by the Council with this award, given since 1981.  The award presentation was marked with a dinner on May 15 at Allentown’s Dieruff High School.

Aldo Siahaan received his award on May 22. Photo by Basil Zhu, China World News.

As part of WPVI ABC-TV’s celebration of Asian American Heritage month in Philadelphia, Aldo Siahaan, lead pastor of Philadelphia Praise Center, was honored for his commitment to the Indonesian immigrant community since arriving in Philadelphia over a decade ago, part of a wave of approximately 10,000 immigrants from Indonesia who settled in Philadelphia in the last 15 years, the majority of whom were Christians escaping religious persecution in their homeland.  Siahaan is the first Mennonite pastor to receive this award.

Siahaan was honored for his work in community service and communication among the immigrant community in South Philadelphia along with approximately ten other leaders from the diverse Asian communities in the city.  He is the founding pastor of the now multilingual, multiethnic urban Anabaptist congregation of Philadelphia Praise–approximately 250 people, the largest Mennonite Church USA congregation in the city.

An award celebration was held at the historic Joy Tsing Lau restaurant in Philadelphia’s Chinatown section on May 22.  The celebration included cultural celebrations of the Delaware Valley’s Asian communities, from Pakistani dance to Japanese Kobuki-style drama.

For Siahaan, the honor was unexpected.  But for members of the congregation at Philadelphia Praise, the honor was appropriate and even missional.   According to Adrian Suryajaya, a young adult leader from Philadelphia Praise who attended the event along with Siahaan, “The time has come for Godly leaders to rise and be recognized, to be salt and light.  Christians are called to being God’s love, passion and Good News to the community where we are placed.”

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices

by Tom Albright, Ripple Allentown

Christmas Eve, and Allentown has had its 4th murder in a week. What are people thinking? Is it about money? Passion? Retribution? Evil? Fear? Lack of choices?

It is a hard week full of the usual busyness and expectations that accompany the holiday. Where is the Christmas spirit? Where is the hope? I found myself awake at 3am again. It is not fear, but sadness, futility, and concern.

Then an idea–what if we spent Christmas Eve at the site of the double murder six blocks from our home? What would it be like to light candles and sing carols in the darkness of the alleyway where the shotgun had rung out and the car had run over bodies only a few days before? The thought would not leave me.

Christmas Eve morning I decided to walk and pray as I visited the sobering locations of the recent violence. It was cold and windy and I forgot the address of the first death. I walked up and down the street and realized that God knows.

But where are you, God–why do you not act?

The sun was shining when I started but as I walked the clouds increased and it became colder. I tried greeting people on the street by smiling and saying, “Merry Christmas,” but my heart was not in it. I wandered around past the site of the stabbing, and headed toward the site where a young couple was murdered.

I passed am old Lutheran church that reaches out to the homeless through meals, an overnight shelter, and a parish nurse, and I saw a small sign advertising their Christmas Eve service at 10:30 that evening. I found the house and walked half a block with a lady pulling her laundry cart. I asked if she heard about the killings.  “Of course,” she said.  “My husband woke up and heard the shots–I heard when they got run over by the car. I wanted to get out. This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening. The murdered woman was a crossing guard for the kids.”

The neighbor and I stood between the three memorials that had been created. About thirty tall glass candles covered with pictures of Mary, Jesus, and Saint Michael had all been extinguished by heavy rain. There must have been twenty-four colorful silk tulips laid beside the candles.

I got on my knees in front of the candles and prayed. It felt hard and cold and vulnerable. I thought of the carol,  I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I got up off the damp concrete and left with a plan. That evening, my family went to the church’s Christmas Eve service. We sang the carols, heard the Christmas story, received communion, and left the sanctuary at a few minutes past midnight Christmas morning, while the organ played the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  We drove around the block, taking our candles from the church service to light as many of the tall candles as we could – pouring the water off, shielding our small flames from the wind. Together we lit over two dozen candles.

And now there was light.

Then we laid a wreath of fragrant cedar boughs and prayed for the family, for the couple’s little girl, for the community, for justice and peace, for education, for new ways of handling disputes, for safety, restoration, and for hope in Jesus when all hope seems lost. We sang:

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

Looking back at the candles, up at the stars, and at the lights on the windows around us – I was shaking with cold. We wondered how many people might be watching and if the police might be called. As one young man walked towards us down the windy street I felt tired, hopeful, and overwhelmed by it all.

Maybe that is what we need, someone to show us our weary souls and their true worth, and to rejoice on this night of our Savior’s birth–and every night.

I realized how little I truly understood of the pain, hopes, and fears of this place where I live. But I have fallen on my knees and perhaps heard a faint sound of the angels’ voices. I have seen a bit of the manger – that rough, earthy feeding trough where God was laid, so vulnerable out on the streets.  God was there and is there on the streets of Allentown on that Holy Night . . . and tonight.

[Join the Ripple community at 3:15pm on Sunday, January 8, 2012, for prayer and candlelighting at the Peace Pole in Allentown, followed by activities at the church.]

Climbing walls and coffee shoppes: Transforming meetinghouses and cities in the UK

Tom Albright, RIPPLE Allentown, tomalbright1@gmail.com

This summer I spent two weeks in the United Kingdomtraveling by train to visit eight distinctly unique Urban Expression gatherings. As pastor of Ripple, an inner city, missional Anabaptist congregation in Allentown, Pa., I went to observe, learn and “compare notes.” Each gathering and each family that I visited had a uniqueness and creative energy related to and reflecting its neighborhood, culture, size, resources and leadership. I had never encountered so many different faith expressions in such a short time or been able to experience them so honestly and openly. Each church had its struggles, joys, cutting edges and things that were changing. All had a belief that God had called them to the city, to these people; they loved the people in their neighborhoods.

Playground built on a vacant lot by E1 Community Church in East London as a safe place for neighborhood children to play. Photo by Gay Brunt Miller

Some groups had old buildings, while some had newer buildings. Some had no buildings but gathered in homes, or pubs, or community spaces. While walking in BristolI saw a steady flow of people entering and leaving a large and, undoubtedly, old church building. Curious, I went inside and found a climbing gym. Children climbed the walls in what might have been the Sunday School rooms. More advanced climbers made it to the top of the sanctuary and others tackled the bell tower. In all the church buildings I visited, this was the only single-use facility.

At St. Mark’s Baptist Church in Bristol, I had a great lunch prepared by volunteers with a bill that was “pay what you could” in the church’s new cafe. The place was full. The building’s double balconies in the sanctuary held an eclectic display of artwork by local artists and school children. There were rooms that were refurnished for students with special needs and other spaces for community arts programs. In another part of the turn-of-the-century building, the church planned to begin a food bank in cooperation with the local citizens and grocery stores. All of this was open on a summer Saturday afternoon.

I found churches that had remodeled their cavernous sanctuary space into three floors of apartments, a coffee shop run by people in need of job skills, community social service offices and, yes, a number of cozy meeting spaces used for worship, Bible teaching, Sunday school, parenting classes and addiction recovery. The reflection on space was interesting, organized and exciting. There was often a facilities manager on the premise to moderate and coordinate the building use. The spaces have been transformed – not lost, but used in creative ways, open seven days a week to meet needs Monday through Sunday.

On other occasions, worshipping groups gathered in public places, transforming them into holy space. Bible studies around pub tables, meeting people in parks, movie nights at the local community center, and church- run community carnivals on the town square all witnessed to Jesus’ presence among the people, outside of formal church buildings.

These encounters provoked questions about facility use, whether we have been blessed with space of our own, or where we gather if we do not own our own meetinghouse. What does God ask of us? Are we being faithful to the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, and to our neighbor? Are we willing to open up and to be the center of the community, a light on a hill? Or are we being nudged to move out of our church buildings into the public spaces to proclaim the gospel? May we think creatively, remembering the meetinghouse turned into a climbing gym, as we follow Jesus and form missional communities.

Tom’s time in England was partially funded by a Missional Operational Funds Grant to continue to build relationships with Anabaptists in the United Kingdom and to cultivate further learning and implementation of God’s dream in Allentown.