New Awakening: Focus of Church of the City ministries is human services

New London — In the 1950s, the city's First Baptist Church was the second largest Baptist congregation in the state and the largest Protestant church east of the Connecticut River.

But cultural and socioeconomic shifts in the 1960s and '70s, coupled with the move of many city dwellers to the suburbs, led to declining membership. First Baptist, which traces its origins to 1804 and built its Victorian-style church at State and Washington streets in 1856, was down to 100 members by 2013.

By that time, First Hispanic Baptist Church, which incorporated in 1981 as Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de New London and was sponsored and hosted by First Baptist Church, had grown to more than 300 members and was ready to move in a new direction.

The two joined last year to create the new Church of the City, with a plan to "be diverse racially, culturally, and economically, in age and gender and by languages we use in ministry," said a memo signed on behalf of the the two churches. "We seek to be a church which embodies the words of Galatians 3:28, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.' "

Their objective was to establish a human services center to assist in a variety of needs, and to offer both traditional and contemporary worship services in Spanish, English and possibly other languages. Shortly after the merger they purchased the former Bank of America building at 250 State St. for $240,000 and renamed it City Center. They've opened an immigration center there and provide space for a program that counsels young people with substance abuse issues.

First Baptist had been a longtime supporter and advocate of First Hispanic Baptist, housing it in 2002 while its new church - the first American Hispanic Baptist church in New England to be built from the ground up - was being built on Redden Avenue.

More recently, after a period of self-study and strategic planning, Pastor Daniel Martino and his congregation decided it was time to expand their spiritual offerings and establish a presence in downtown New London.

When Martino discussed his vision with First Baptist Pastor Thomas Hogsten, "the way forward for the two churches soon became clear," according to the memo "History and Vision of the Church of the City, New London," signed by both men.

They have big plans for the sprawling City Center.

With a massive refinished basement and two additional floors of office and meeting areas, the building has 22,000 square feet of new space whose possible uses include church ministries and partnerships with nonprofits that offer human services.

"The first time I walked in this building," Martino said of City Center, "we prayed that day - 'If this is for the benefit of the city, let us reclaim this building.'"

"This is a place where people can be served in the heart of downtown," he said. "Every corner of this building is a possibility that the city of New London can turn around profound social issues. This is doing our part."

Signs are taped on doors and entryways identifying potential future uses. In the basement cubicles where bank customers once opened their safe deposit boxes, the church envisions study carrels for local students. An old basement bank vault could be converted to a recording studio, and the former bank lobby may someday be used as performing arts space.

The myriad offices would be used as ministries for groups such as senior citizens, former prisoners, college students, the military and recovering addicts. And there may be opportunities for online or social media ministries operating from City Center.

Prior to the merger, both churches shared their space with the community. With help from some other churches, First Baptist has hosted a Saturday night meal for the needy for years and provides space in its basement for Kent Ward's Heavy Hitters and Whaling City Wrestling Club.

And Higher Edge, which guides low-income and first-generation students through enrollment, retention and graduation from college, was started at First Hispanic Baptist. Also, for more than a quarter century, Mystic Congregational Church has partnered with First Hispanic to offer a tutoring program for city students that has recently been expanded.

'Right heart, right vision'

The idea for City Center grew out of Encounters of Hope, a grant program started at First Hispanic Baptist in 2010 that did some work on immigration and human services issues before funding ran out.

"This is a challenge, it's a huge challenge for us as a church," said Martino. "We have a strong vision, but when the reality hits - who pays the bills - money is always challenging."

Hogsten called it "divine intervention" that the bank building "was seriously for sale" when the church consolidation was far enough along to make the purchase a reality.

"It takes time, but with the right heart and the right vision things will come to pass," he said. "We have many dreams in our heart but we cannot rush this.

"Things will happen with the faith and commitment of many people in the community. The Lord ... He will give us the resources to run it."

Both Hogsten and Martino said churches today are ever evolving to serve the needs of the communities where they are located.

"People are looking for God in meaningful ways in their lives," said Martino.

"We are in the first stage of understanding that the church of the 21st century has to change," he continued. "It's the same message, but we have to reach people in different ways. And when you have the right vision, and offer something meaningful to people, they respond. People want to be part of something that is alive, driven - something that has purpose."

Hogsten said providing a place for human services helps people to live their faith.

At a recent dedication and opening service for the new immigration center, congregants from both the former First Baptist and First Hispanic Baptist celebrated the milestone together.

And, a new contemporary English service has been added on Sundays in the lobby of City Center, in addition to the traditional English, Spanish and Haitian services already offered at Church of the City's three locations.

"We are confident that God will continue to provide the people, resources and direction necessary for our work together in the city of New London," said the pastors.

Twitter: @annbaldelli

Coming Wednesday

• When congregants of the Second Congregational Church decided to give away their historic building, Miracle Temple members saw it as "a gift from God."

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