Herbie Miller is the pastor of Corinth Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Dayton, OH. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton’s Department of Religious Studies. His academic work centers on historical theology and American Christianity. He has published in U.S. Catholic Historian and is an adjunct lecturer for Emmanuel Christian Seminary.
I’m the pastor of a small and lively Presbyterian church in a working class neighborhood in east Dayton, OH. Like most Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations, my church’s membership numbers have followed the downward trends of mainline Protestantism. Yet, the 70 or so people who attend our weekly services have not gotten the memo that they should be pining for the 1960s when their membership rolls swelled to 700. Instead, they’re leaning into the future in hopeful anticipation of what God has planned for them. One source of this lively (yes, Presbyterians can be “lively”!) congregation’s hope comes from its belief that God has placed them in a specific neighborhood at a specific moment in history to carry out the work of Christ.
From its beginnings in 1942, Corinth Presbyterian Church understood itself to be a “neighborhood church,” primarily serving the (mostly) white, working-class or middle-class families who lived in the Hearthstone neighborhood that surrounded it. Having never moved from its current location on Corinth Boulevard, the congregation has always felt a deep connection with its neighborhood. Historically, Corinth was populated by people who lived within walking distance of the church. Corinth’s membership swelled to 769 in 1960, in large part, because of something all realtors know about what drives up property values: location, location, location!
But the subculture of mainline Protestantism has been dissolving for the past 50 years. And it’s not just mainline Protestantism. Rapidly increasing numbers of Americans identify themselves as religiously “nonaffiliated.” As a result, the social pressure to attend church has radically declined. In the case of Corinth Presbyterian, as individuals and families from the neighborhood moved away and found other churches, the people who moved into the neighborhood didn’t replace their predecessors in the pews.
In early 2017, Corinth’s leadership formed a self-study committee (so Presbyterian!) that would ask three basic questions about the congregation:
1) What is our history?
2) Who are our neighbors?
3) What is God calling us to?
Among the many valuable insights this study produced, one stood out: Dayton’s immigrant population has doubled in the last decade, and these immigrants have included a good number of refugees from east Africa. Between 250 and 400 refugee families a year are resettled in this region, with about 40 percent coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And east Dayton – where Corinth Presbyterian is located – is one of the targeted resettlement areas for these African refugees.
In short, what Corinth’s self-study team learned was that while its building hadn’t changed in the last forty years, its neighbors had. With this in mind, this little church has decided to double down on its commitment to being a neighborhood church. Other churches can pick up stakes and head for the suburbs. That’s not what we are doing. The place we occupy in East Dayton is not superfluous to the ministry God has called us to. It is integral to who we are.
In the following post, I will discuss the ongoing relationship between Corinth and the refugee families, and how it is enriching for both.