These three words led the Rev. Dr. Michael Ford (D.Min., 2012) to Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (CRCDS) when he typed them into Google in 2009 to search for a seminary to pursue a doctor of ministry. The next year he enrolled in the CRCDS doctoral program with a Concentration in Transformative Leadership with a focus in Prophetic Preaching.
Rev. Ford’s graduate dissertation explored the effectiveness of small group reflection following a traditional sermon. He wanted to find out whether holding these kinds of focus groups increased parishioners’ understanding of sermon content.
Today, the Canadian native leads one of the most lively, diverse and engaged congregations in Rochester, New York: Lake Avenue Memorial Baptist Church. As Senior Minister, he brings a wealth of pastoral skills for real-life situations, including conflict mediation, gender relations in marriage therapy and the role of spirituality within the healthcare setting.
“All Are Welcome”
Founded in 1854, Lake Avenue Memorial Baptist Church has drawn together diverse people throughout its history of more than 150 years. It was built as a memorial to peace, a place that would always honor a commitment to promote justice through the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Ford first found Lake Avenue Memorial when he was searching for a church where he could worship while in Rochester for the week-long intensives, a requirement of the CRCDS doctoral program. He saw it listed on the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) website (http://www.awab.org), and learned that the church had been Open and Affirming for over 20 years.
“It was a great place to grow spiritually and socially,” he said, describing his first experience of the church, which convinced him to join it.
As a pastor in the Canadian Baptist Church of Ontario and Québec, which is welcoming to LGBT Christians but not affirming, he found the explicitly inclusive character of an American Baptist Church like Lake Avenue Memorial refreshing.
”It was immediately clear to me that it was a church that said, ’We welcome everyone,’ and really meant it.”
Throughout its 150 years, Lake Avenue Memorial has grown and changed. Diverse immigrant groups have joined the congregation, from freed slaves and abolitionists once involved in the Underground Railroad (an important part of Rochester and our nation’s history) to Italian immigrant workers who came to the city in large numbers during the 1920s and 1930s. Other groups, such as the Hispanic immigrants of the 1970s and 1990s, have also found a way for getting a foothold in American society through the church, whether by taking English-language courses, attending financial education classes or simply finding comfort in an open, supportive community when it was most needed.
Lake Avenue Memorial shares a long history with CRCDS. Its founder, Dr. Amos Judson Barrett, was a graduate of Rochester Theological Seminary.
Dr. Barrett was the father of Helen Barrett Montgomery, a key figure in the Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. An active member of Lake Avenue Memorial, Barrett Montgomery was the first woman in the United States to be elected to public office when she joined the Rochester School Board in 1899, twenty years before women had the right to vote. She is known for her advocacy for better working conditions for women, as well as for fair access to education. She was the first woman to be named President of the Northern Baptist Convention (what is today the American Baptist Churches, USA). She is also widely regarded for her translation of the Bible. Barrett Montgomery and her husband were generous benefactors of CRCDS, and provided the financial support for the construction of the President’s house that bears their name today.
Lake Avenue Today
The eight staff members at Lake Avenue Memorial provide a range of services for the members of the church, such as assistance with immigration applications. Worship is held daily in no fewer than eight to twelve languages, and it’s not unusual for three translators to be present at a single meeting. In addition, the church operates a variety of fellowship groups, which are an important way in which the practical and spiritual needs of the congregation are met.
Welcoming friends from Myanmar
Most recently, the church has become a place of welcome for refugees from Myanmar (also known as Burma).
These new members of Lake Avenue Memorial represent a wide array of ethnicities and languages; most have fled persecution or sectarian violence in Myanmar. Some of the most represented Burmese minority groups at the church are the Karen, Chin and Kachin peoples.
”One of the biggest challenges for many of these people, perhaps surprisingly for someone unfamiliar with Myanmar’s cultural make-up, is actually communicating with one another. Their languages are so different from one another,” Rev. Ford explained.
To respond to this need, he established a team of native interpreters that is always on site and that helps to ensure that everyone is included in meetings and worship. Each ethnic group has its own fellowship that ensures its needs are appropriately voiced to the larger community.
The Burmese community has now been part of Lake Ave Memorial, and the surrounding Maplewood neighborhood, for close to fifteen years. While new refugees still arrive that need assistance establishing themselves, Rev. Ford notes that a new generation is growing that speaks English natively and is better able to navigate the United States as Americans.
Overall, Rev. Ford values the strength his church has through its connection to the immediate community. Describing the feel of the congregation, he said, ”People are very encouraging, supportive of each other. We’re one church, one body.”
The American Baptist Churches, USA, is a familiar Christian denomination to people in Myanmar. Its connection there extends into the nineteenth century when Adoniram Judson founded the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. He was the first North American Protestant missionary to preach in Burma and was active there for almost forty years. It was his work in Burma that largely inspired American missionary work globally. Among his accomplishments were the translation of the Bible into Burmese and the establishment of Baptist churches, many of which continue today.
The Society’s work led to the conversion of many Burmese generally, and specifically many within the Karen ethnicity. One convert from the Karen community along the Irrawaddy River delta, Theodore Thanbyah, came to the United States and became the first graduate from Asia at the University of Rochester in 1871. He then attended Rochester Theological Seminary (a founding institution of CRCDS) in 1874, receiving an AM degree (similar to the master of arts degree offered at the divinity school today). He published a number of books, including Sermons in Karen, The Karens: Their Persecutions and Hardships, 1824-1854 and The Karens and Their Progress, 1854-1914.
Nearly three million Burmese identify as Christian today, including fifteen percent of the Karen ethnic group.
Did you know? CRCDS Connections at Lake Avenue Memorial Baptist Church
CRCDS and Lake Avenue Memorial have shared a strong relationship for over 150 years. Over that time, many trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni/ae and friends have worshipped or preached at Lake Avenue Memorial. It is a relationship we cherish and look confidently upon as we continue to ready new students to be tomorrow’s leaders.