A changing 'Hallelujah' in New London

In the days leading up to today's holiday - which, in its spiritual manifestation, celebrates in the story of the birth of the Christ child the origins of a belief system that transformed the world - this newspaper has documented a Christian transformation in New London.

It is a story that could have easily escaped the perpetual reporting of the events of the day. For a time it did so. This story took place outside the usual news fare. No crimes were committed. No municipal committee took a vote. No one issued a press release.

However, something fundamental in the city has changed - how its people worship.

The congregations of the city's traditional Protestant churches, some with roots burrowed so deep they reach to New London's founding, had dwindled. Many of their flocks had moved to the suburbs. New generations chose not to inherit the tradition of faith, at least not in the form in which their parents handed it down. For various and sundry reasons church attendance shrank, the hymns of a smattering of worshipers echoing off stone walls in sanctuaries built for much larger congregations.

Then, as veteran Staff Writer Ann Baldelli documented in a series of stories still available for viewing on theday.com, a rebirth began.

New church groups for new worshipers emerged in New London. Some formed partnerships with the traditional congregations; others inherited or purchased their church buildings.

The non-denominational Engaging Heaven Church, led by charismatic, tattooed 34-year-old pastor James Levesque, is in the process of purchasing the soaring, stone First Congregational Church at the corner State and Union streets, dating to 1850. Pastor Levesque said he makes no more effort to cover up his past than he does his shaved head, pointing to the overcoming of his teenage sins of drug use and extramarital sex as evidence of Christ's redemptive power.

The Congregationalists and the Engaging Heaven worshipers share the sanctuary, but in separate services.

"While the Congregationalists stood for prayers and sang customary church hymns, worshipers at the Engaging Heaven service raised their hands in the air and danced in the aisles. Some had lain prostrate on the cold church floor," wrote Ms. Baldelli of the dramatically different approaches to Christian worship.

While theologies of these several new churches differ - from conservative evangelicals to groups tolerant of changing cultural norms - they share a willingness to embrace modernity to relay their Christian message. Scriptures and images project on overhead screens; drums, guitars and bass provide instrumental accompaniment to contemporary Christian songs; rappers weave Bible verses into inspirational performances; adrenaline rushes through sanctuaries once accustomed only to somber reflection.

These churches cater to a new New London, younger, racially and ethnically diverse, and often poor and struggling.

The Church of the City worships at the former First Baptist Church at 268 State St. It is a merger of the former First Hispanic Baptist Church, which grew rapidly after its founding in 1981, and the dwindling First Baptist congregation, dating to 1804. Collectively, they now embrace a church "diverse racially, culturally, and economically."

As evidence that the impact of these new churches will extend beyond their old walls, the Church of the City purchased the former Bank of America building next door, naming it City Center. The Church of the City has opened an immigration center there to help documented and undocumented immigrants seeking to improve their lives and navigate a changing system. Space is provided also for counselors working with young people confronting substance abuse issues.

Church leaders plan more community outreach by working with local, nonprofit, human service groups. That sounds like God's work.

Faith, while changing, appears abundant in a city that sometimes lacks the faith that things will get better. It is an interesting series. If you have time, you might visit www.theday.com and read it. It is certainly in keeping with the true spirit of the holiday.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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New Awakening: The evolution of New London's churches

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