A HISTORY OF GRACE BIBLE FELLOWSHIP CHURCH
OF READING, PENNSYLVANIA
In 1882, a traveling preacher was sent by the Mennonite Brethren in Christ to organize a mission station in the city of Reading. His name was Samuel H. Frey, and in 1884 he would be appointed by the Annual Conference to serve the young congregations of the Reading-Terre Hill circuit.
Pastor Frey gathered together a small band of believers who met at first in the home of William and Lizzie Gamler in the northeast part of the city, where they prayed weekly for revival. Pastor Frey tried valiantly to solicit funds from established MBC churches to erect a church building for his tiny flock, but with little success.
In 1884, a further division of circuits linked Reading with the Fleetwood and Blandon congregations. W.B. Musselman was appointed that year to serve the circuit. After one year, he asked for appointment to Reading alone, sensing the potential for growth in that city. Under his ministry a hemlock board church was erected at Tenth and Oley streets “in a very rough part of the city.” It was a crude structure, built on stilts, over a creek. Erected in only four days, it became known as “The Four Day Church.”
The work grew rapidly under W.B. Musselman’s dynamic leadership, necessitating two additions to The Four Day Church in the next year. Outdoor baptismal services were held almost weekly during the first winter to accommodate the influx of new converts. In one eight-week period, the number of members rose from ten to thirty-six. Revival services were marked by a spiritual fervor that was manifested in church members falling into trances and reporting having visions and revelations. The Reading Times dispatched its reporters to record these unusual phenomena for a fascinated public. Pastor Musselman encouraged unaccompanied lively singing, in both German and English. Out of his efforts to compile a hymnal of revival songs, The Ebenezer Hymnal was published in 1896, to find wide acceptance by churches of the Conference.
It was a time of financial panic, and the Reading flock was experiencing hard times. Pastor Musselman often shared his own store of potatoes with hungry parishioners.
In 1887, Abel Strawn was appointed to Reading. Under his ministry a brick church was built on the site of The Four Day Church, incurring a debt of over $2,000. For years the congregation struggled to meet even the annual interest payments of 6% on the mortgage, held by Elder William Gehman. “The Reading Debt” became a recurring matter of concern to the Annual Conference for the next 17 years. Each succeeding Presiding Elder inherited the problem of raising money throughout the Conference to help defray the debt. At last the Annual Conference of 1902 was able to commend Presiding Elder H.B. Musselman for “raising sufficient money to pay off the Reading Church Debt.”
Reading again became a circuit in 1896, sharing its pastor with Athol (present-day Amityville). This circuit arrangement continued until 1912.A parsonage was purchased at 632 Locust Street during the ministry of Pastor C.H. Brunner. It was sold in 1918, and “a valued property, well-located,” was purchased at 936 Oley Street to house Pastor B. Bryan Musselman and family.
The Reading church hosted the Annual Conference eleven times between 1887 and 1919. The 1918 Conference was held during a quarantine due to the Spanish influenza epidemic, and attendance at the sessions were restricted to pastors and delegates only. The 1919 Conference was held in the local Odd-Fellows Hall, to accommodate the large assemblage.
In 1924, 37 years after the brick church was built, renovations were made to provide space for a prayer meeting room in the rear of the auditorium. New pews and pulpit furniture were installed. J.C. Roth was the pastor during these improvements.
The ever-growing Sunday School of Faith Chapel, as the church was now known, soon required an additional facility. In 1927, the adjoining property to the church was purchased to provide needed classroom space, with Pastor E.N. Cassel guiding this endeavor.
By 1941, a “Forward Movement Fund” was initiated by Pastor F.M. Hottel, under whose energetic ministry the Sunday School experienced phenomenal growth, to become the largest in the MBC Conference, with an enrollment of 510. The Fund was designated for further renovations, but increased membership and limited parking facilities led to the consideration of an entirely new location.
During the ministry of Pastor A.G. Woodring, a suitable lot was found at the corner of Hampden Boulevard and Marion Street, and the congregation voted on July 14, 1950 to purchase this property. Pastor Woodring guided the congregation in planning the new church edifice and in financing the project through the systematic giving of its members.
The Rev. Paul T. Stengele, after serving eight years as District Superintendent of the Allentown District of the conference, became the pastor at Reading in 1953. The building program was begun in 1954, with the erection of a parsonage on the new lot at Hampden Boulevard. Pastor Stengele guided the phases of the building project to its completion. On March 15, 1955, a ground-breaking service was held at the corner, of Hampden Boulevard and Marion Street to begin the erection of the new church edifice. On September 11,1955, a corner-stone laying ceremony was held. On September 30, 1956, upon the completion of the beautiful new church building, a capacity audience convened to give praise to God at a Service of Dedication.
The Reading Church changed its name to Grace Bible Fellowship Church in 1959, after the Annual Conference in April of that year had approved a change of name for the denomination from The Mennonite Brethren in Christ of Pennsylvania to the Bible Fellowship Church.
Pastor Stengele is best remembered for his forceful preaching style. He took a great personal interest in the youth of the church, and regularly attended their Saturday evening Menno Youth meetings, often teaching a Bible Book series and leading their discussions. He also encouraged the women of Grace Church to assume a more active role in missions. They responded by organizing a Women’ s Missionary Society, electing Josephine Seidel to serve as their first president. The WMS sought to assist our missionaries through prayer, correspondence, personal contacts, and in practical ways.
In 1961, Pastor James G. Koch succeeded the retiring P.T. Stengele as pastor. “I found an orderly church, a peaceful and spiritual church, one that had respect for its pastor,” he is quoted as saying. He was also impressed by the earnest spirit of the youth, who sought him out for instruction and guidance, and took their places spontaneously in the front of the sanctuary. A Youth Fellowship program was developed that year, and cooperative Youth rallies also became a regular feature. Christian Service Brigade and Pioneer Girls were added in 1968. Pastor Koch also introduced annual missionary conferences. Reading Bible Institute was encouraged to use church facilities for its program and continued to do so until 1994.
A Mortgage Burning Service was held on January 1, 1967. A new Baldwin electronic organ and a Baldwin grand piano were installed in the sanctuary in 1968. These fine instruments greatly enhanced the music program of the church. In 1969, a Unified Budget system was adopted.”
The Reading church was one of the last in the Conference to continue to practice feet-washing at each Quarterly Conference, reluctantly abandoning the custom in 1970.
In 1970, Pastor Jansen E. Hartman succeeded Pastor Koch. During his first decade as pastor, the emphasis was on evangelism and discipleship. An extensive bus ministry flourished under the direction of Jack Raybuck and his dedicated staff. The Sunday School grew rapidly, so that in July of 1975 an enrollment of 749 students and an average attendance of 503 were recorded. Christian Service Brigade, Pioneer Girls, and Word of Life all had capacity memberships. Ruth A. Hartman was appointed Christian Education Director, and her task was to coordinate the various programs for children and youth, and to provide guidance and resources for the workers. In 1973, the house at 1116 Hampden Boulevard was acquired for use as a Christian Education annex.
In July of 1973, The Board of Elders approved the introduction of a Bible memorization program, the Victory Valley Bible Memory Contest. Any child completing the program was awarded a free week at camp. The program is now in its 26th year, having sent hundreds of church children to camp.
The pressing need for additional full-time workers led to the appointment of John Vandegriff in 1974 as Pastor to the Youth. He was succeeded in 1978 by David Jones. Calvin Reed was called in 1982 to serve as Assistant to the Pastor. Each of these brethren rendered invaluable service as role models for the youth of the church, as they fulfilled their duties as part of the pastoral staff.
Meanwhile the demands of a growing church taxed the capacity of the building to its limits. Facing such problems as crowded classrooms and inadequate office space, the Board of Elders studied the options. One possibility was to relocate, but the cost was prohibitive. When a decision was made to add to the present facilities, an architect was engaged in 1981 to develop preliminary plans for two additions. A two-level building was to be added on the north side of the church to provide for a nursery and church offices. In the space between the south side of the church and the parsonage, a three-story Christian Education building was to be erected. When bids were submitted on the completed plans, the cost was so prohibitive that a bold step was taken by the Board of Elders. It was decided that the Church would serve as its own contractor. A construction manager was hired, and individual bids were put out for each area of construction. A ground-breaking ceremony was held in September of 1982. The building process took over three years to complete. Some of the labor was donated by various church members. Financing was managed through a local bank and through loans from individual church members. The total cost of the construction came to approximately $600,000.
In May of 1985, two men were called by the congregation to serve on the ministerial staff. Ron Hagy was called to serve as Assistant to the Pastor of Youth Ministries. David Gundrum, a son of this congregation, was called as Assistant to the Pastor in Pastoral Ministries. The contribution of these brethren to the growth and spiritual vibrancy of Grace Church was soon evident in new and creative programs of evangelism and discipleship.
Grace Church also sought to minister to families within its fellowship. An innovative program designed to help couples to strengthen their marriages was conceived by Glenn and Sue Ruoss, who organized a Married Couples Conference in 1978, featuring speakers from the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. The need for such a ministry became apparent as its popularity spread well beyond the borders of Grace Church. The Sandy Cove Bible Conference offered the best setting for an attractive program featuring a banquet, fine Christian entertainment, social activities, and workshops led by biblically sound counselors on a variety of relevant topics. The MCC continues to grow, and will hold its twenty-first annual conference in November,1999.
Another truly unique program for families with young children is the Lambs Christian Preschool. After much prayerful planning, the Lambs held its first classes for three and four year olds in September of 1988, with Filomena Reed as Director, and Pam Potteiger as her assistant. Offering a biblical foundation along with fundamental learning skills, the school has grown each year until there are 40 preschoolers presently enrolled. A Shepherd-a-Lamb scholarship program has afforded a number of children the opportunity to attend. The school has attracted many families to consider Grace as their church home.
The music ministry of Grace Church has always been a source of great blessing and inspiration. Faithful lay members have provided the talent pool for choirs, orchestras, instrumentalists, and special music for the services for many years. Robert E. Lee and his wife June served as Choir Director and accompanist during Pastor Hartman’s tenure, working together indefatigably to present musical programs of high quality, technically and spiritually. When Bob Lee resigned in 1989, the Music Committee recommended that Lesley Hart be appointed as Choir Director. Karen Yerger, who had served so capably as organist for many years, continued to serve in that capacity.
In 1989, a beautiful new Alien organ was presented to the church by Dr. and Mrs. Byron Showers, in memory of his mother, Melva Showers, and his grandmother, Stashia Youse. A Service of Dedication was held on November 16, 1989.
Pastor Hartman informed the board of his intent to resign before the mandatory age of retirement, so that the Board of Elders could conduct a self-evaluation of its ministries and administration in preparation for calling a new pastor. His resignation became effective on July 2, 1990. Pastor Hartman’s ministry had spanned 19 years and 9 months, and was the longest tenure of any pastor serving at Grace Church.
Randall A. Grossman accepted a call from this congregation to become its new pastor, and began his official duties on July 30, 1990.
The ever-expanding services, programs, and vision of Grace Church required additions to the pastoral staff. James Neher was called in September of 1990 to serve as Pastor of Christian Education. Bryan Shoe was appointed Youth Director in July of 1992. Jonathon Arnold was called to serve as Assistant Pastor in 1994, and Clyde Bomgardner joined the pastoral staff as Pastor of Youth and Discipleship in 1995. A new Choir Director, Charles Ebersole, was appointed in 1995, when Lesley Hart and her husband Lynn left to serve as short-term missionaries in Italy.
A study of facility needs of Grace Church led to several renovations over the next few years. In 1995,the sanctuary was redecorated to provide a more comfortable, attractive, and efficient setting for worship. In1998 a need to relocate several Sunday School departments led to the renovation of several classroom areas in the Christian Education building. Plans are being made for a renovation of the Fellowship Hall level in the near future.
Moving into the last decade of this millennium, Grace Church has responded to the vision of Pastor Grossman and the Elders to reach our “Jerusalem”, the people living in Northeast Reading. Inviting local agencies to use the church facilities for worthy causes, and enlisting members to help in local after-school programs for teens, have been two practical ways to reach out to the community. A recent church-sponsored neighborhood Labor Day picnic drew about 2,000 people and many favorable responses.
Reaching the lost through worldwide evangelization has received a fresh impetus in several ways. Two work teams from Grace Church traveled to Yugoslavia, one in 1992 and the other in 1996, to work on renovating an old building in the town of Backi Petrovac to provide an evangelistic center for the ministry of our missionary Ondrej Franka and his staff. The building presently accommodates a Bible training institute, a radio broadcasting studio, and a station for relief work among refugees.
The emphasis on missions has spurred an enlarged vision for sacrificial giving, until presently over 25%of the church budget is now allocated to the cause of missions.
A residence next door to the church at 1118 Hampden Boulevard was acquired in 1992 to provide a Guest House for missionaries in transit to or from their fields of service.
Perhaps the greatest investment in missions has been realized in the number of men and women who have left Grace Church to serve on the mission field at home and abroad. As of 1999, twenty-two missionaries were either members and /or grew up at Grace Church.
At the turn of the century and the threshold of a new millennium, Grace Bible Fellowship Church continues in its desire to see God glorified in the spread of the gospel in northeast Reading and to the ends of the earth.