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United Churches’ 75th anniversary celebration kicks off Sunday

Paul Gilmore, first president of the Council of Churches of Williamsport and Vicinity, now called United Churches of Lycoming County, sits at a typewriter in this undated photo.

For 75 years, the United Churches of Lycoming County has been bringing together area churches to serve the community. Sunday marks the beginning of a yearlong celebration of that achievement as they look ahead to the next challenges. The UCLC will kick off the celebration, which is titled “Shining Brightly Together,’ with an event livestreamed at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The featured speaker will be Bishop Barbara Collins, Upper Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who will speak on “Shining Brightly Together: Be Strong and Courageous,” based on scripture from the first chapter of the Book of Joshua. Other events planned throughout the year begin with a week of prayer for Christian Unity to be held Jan. 18-25 as well as participating in the Martin Luther King Jr. virtual walk Monday. Plans are for an interfaith conversation to be held via ZOOM at some point during the year and vespers at the Susquehanna State Park and a ride on the Hiawatha in the fall, if permitted.

The Father Manno Motorcycle event is also being planned and the annual dinner and meeting is scheduled in November. The year will round out with a Victorian Christmas Sunday afternoon with Victorian music is scheduled for Nov. 21. The UCLC is also calling for a year of ecumenical prayer with this resource being listed on the group’s website and Facebook page. A monthly prayer gathering will be held virtually the last Sunday of the month at 4 p.m. Various special projects are also planned during each month this year. Details for these events are available in the UCLC January newsletter on their website.

History The first mention of a council of churches came in 1945, when a letter from the Pennsylvania Council of Churches sent a letter dated April 25 of that year to the Rev. L. Elbert Wilson, past of Newberry Methodist Church offering a “suggested constitution for a local council of churches,” according to a history of UCLC. The next month letters were sent to all the churches in the Williamsport area requesting that they send representatives to an organizational meeting, which was held later that year in November. Twenty-four churches and two organizations were represented at that meeting.

Then, on Jan. 4, 1946, Paul G. Gilmore was elected president of the newly organized group, the “Council of Churches of Williamsport and Vicinity.” Throughout its history, UCLC has explored various issues affecting local churches and offered opportunities for community In 1951, concerns centered around the introduction of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, while in 1965 information was sent to local pastors about Social Security and in 1996 UCLC was disseminating information about flood recovery assistance. In 1978, the group published the first “Where to Call for Help” list, a guide to human services resources for people in need of help.

In 1958, the Council of Churches began the “Business Men’s Luncheon,” which was to serve as an opportunity to allow men who worked downtown a noon hour of “food, fellowship and inspiration.” These luncheons continued through the 1970’s at the Pine Street United Methodist Church until a fire destroyed the church in 1974 and they moved elsewhere. In 1981, the luncheons returned to the church as the Noon Ecumenical Luncheons, which continue today at noon on Wednesdays.

A spirit of ecumenicalism has dominated the work of the organization with dialogues between different denominations taking place and solidified in the vision statement of UCLC today. “As a Lycoming County Faith Community:

• We are persons and congregations who care about our neighbors.

• We celebrate unity through faith in action.

• We respect people and communities in their faith journeys.

• We believe in the broader mandate of Jesus to care in tangible ways to fee the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked and to visit the sick and imprisoned.

• We facilitate cooperation and understanding on faith, life and justice issues.

• We energize people by mobilizing congregations and communities in response to emerging needs.

Over the years Gwen Bernstine, who has headed the group as its director for the past 30 years, has seen growth in membership during her tenure. When she began as director, there were about 120 churches involved – now that fluctuates between 150 and 180, she said recently. One of the important things she has seen develop over the years is the importance of connections among church leaders and the laity.

“Within all the congregations within the state and nationally, the ways that we’ve linked together has benefited united churches in so many different ways,” she said. “To think about the ways we’ve worked together in flood relief and the connections we’ve been able to forge with all the different faith traditions as we work together to do that. We each do a piece of flood relief in different ways. The whole thing happens. It’s amazing how all that works,” she added.

“It is amazing to me that those kinds of connections have been the lifeblood of why we do the stuff that we do.” The United Churches has been involved with many areas of ministry. From the very beginning and continuing today, the group has provided worship opportunities for those in nursing homes and in prisons, although now because of COVID, in-person visits are not permitted. Racism is another issue the UCLC has worked with.

In 1991, when the Ku Klux Klan wanted to march down Fourth Street in Williamsport, Bernstine said that UCLC issued its first racism resolution which they reaffirm each year. “It continues to be an issue,” she said, adding that the Klan’s visit last year focused on the Jewish community. “They seem to be an equal opportunity offender. They’re willing to focus on almost anyone except themselves,” she said. Along with racism, Bernstine cited mental health and poverty as other social issues that the group “plugs away on.”

In the late 1980s the Shepherd of the Streets program was implemented. Bernstine said that now that tends to focus most on helping with medical needs for people. “That tended to be the area of need that no one else was focusing on,” she said.

The food pantry and the Shepherd of the Streets are the two staffed ministries supported by UCLC that work with the issue of poverty still today. The food pantry was one of the first groups to allow clients to “shop” for the items they need rather than handing out a prepared food bags which decreased the amount of food that was wasted.

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