by Sharon Williams, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life, with Carrie Hagen
One hundred years ago, the Franconia Mennonite Conference planted its first mission in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The Norristown Mission began with an awareness that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people. Today, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church draws from twelve different countries. Earlier this fall, Norristown New Life was honored as the first Mennonite congregation accepted into The National Fund for Sacred Places, a national historic preservation grant-making program launched by the Lilly Endowment. Norristown New Life was one of 13 congregations selected from a field of 178 for the 2018–19 cohort.
Norristown New Life’s capital campaign, “Enlarging Our Place in God’s World,” includes the restoration of its 1907 Gothic Revival building, located in Norristown’s historic district, one block from the county courthouse. Built from Valley Forge marble, the sanctuary features two large stained glass windows and seventeen smaller ones. In addition to restoring the windows, the building needs stone pointing, new flooring, a new roof, interior and exterior painting, and HVAC work. Norristown New Life also seeks to make the meetinghouse more accessible to those with physical disabilities by installing new restrooms and an elevator.
The congregation purchased the historic Bethany United Methodist Church building for its meetinghouse in 1990, when three independent Mennonite congregations—First Mennonite, Bethel Mennonite, and Fuente de Salvación—came together to form Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church.
Since 1990, three associate pastors representing the three major ethnic groups represented in the church body—Hispanic, African American, and Caucasian— share all pastoral duties. This leadership system of power-sharing is Anabaptist, a key commitment for the congregation’s leadership model. Bilingual worship services are shared in English and in Spanish.
The National Fund for Sacred Places team, says Director Chad Martin, was struck not only by the congregation’s history of interracial and intercultural membership and leadership but also by its community ministries.
Norristown New Life has developed partnerships with Precious Life Childcare Center, the Montgomery County Association for the Blind, Narcotics Anonymous, and the county’s addiction counseling services. It operates a discipleship housing ministry for single women and trains adults and youth in restorative justice practices utilized by the school district. At the photo ID clinic held in the congregation’s youth center, trained volunteers assist people with the paperwork and money orders they need to acquire state-issued IDs, birth certificates, and Social Security cards in order to obtain jobs, medical services, bank accounts, and apartment rentals.
Prior to its admittance into the National Fund, the congregation had raised over $500,000 of their capital campaign’s $2 million target. Its goal now is to leverage the highest matching grant offered by The National Fund—$250,000—as part of the effort to raise the remaining $1.5 million. The grant requires 2:1 matching funds of $500,000.
Acceptance in the National Fund program, says Pastor Ertell Whigham, is a gift for Norristown New Life’s mission to serve its community.
“As ambassadors of reconciliation, the gift of this grant enables our congregation to offer our place of worship as a continued presence for community partnerships, service, commitment, and hope.”