HONORING BLACK HISTORY MONTH
by Eileen Kinch
If you visit Ripple Church on a Wednesday morning, you will likely find Pastor Charlene Smalls cooking. She makes hot, fresh meals for the unsheltered and takes the food to the Allentown Transit Center, where she gives the food to the hungry and homeless. Spend the rest of the day with her, and you will probably pick up food donations for the next hot meal. “I love to cook,” she says. “It’s me pouring myself into ministry.”
In 2020, Smalls became the first African American woman to be credentialed in Mosaic Conference, as well as in the former Franconia and Eastern District Conferences. At the time, she did not think of the historical significance, but today she is honored and wants to live up to this distinction. “I was called to serve in this space at this time,” she says. “I have been called to be a light in my community and in the Mennonite faith.”
Smalls, a New Jersey native who has lived in Allentown, PA for 35 years, is one of four co-pastors at Ripple Church (Allentown, PA). Before her time with Ripple, she was a servant leader at Union Baptist Church with Helping Hands International. Helping Hands focuses on immediate, practical needs. Smalls helped to run a clothing bank and organized back-to-school events that provided backpacks and school supplies for students. She also organized Thanksgiving dinners for needy families.
But Ripple Church offered something else Pastor Charlene was looking for: an opportunity to meet needs, but also to connect deeply to the community, even to its suffering. She has a passion for people who are broken. At Ripple, she ministers to the forgotten: the unhoused, the mentally unstable, and the addicted. Ripple Church also invites and welcomes these folks to worship.
During a summer internship with Ripple Inc., a separate nonprofit organization, Pastor Charlene learned that, like the Baptists with whom she worshiped before, Mennonites value salvation. But Mennonites also value peace.
“Salvation without peace is incomplete,” she points out. Peace with God comes from Jesus’ presence in our lives, but it also comes in other ways, such as accepting God’s comfort when we are distressed. God’s peace must be modeled in our lives, churches, and families.
Pastor Charlene is especially grateful for the peace she experiences through prayer, Scripture, and music. This is important because some days the work of ministry is difficult. Accepting God’s call to ministry means saying yes to pastoral phone calls at 3:00 am. It also means seeing suffering but recognizing human limitations to address it. The peace and joy that Christ offers amid chaos and heaviness is not as the world gives.
Pastor Charlene looks forward to God directing her path in future peacebuilding work. She wants to invite those who hold power to “experience people of color in a deeper way.” She hopes that by sharing power and sharing space, people will be open to the transformative work of peace and justice.
Pastor Charlene is grateful for her co-pastors at Ripple Church. The co-pastors divide the tasks of worship and fellowship. Pastor Charlene often preaches and leads worship on the first and second Sundays of the month. During the week, she is involved in cooking meals and visitation. This involves visits to the hospital or to the sick and shut in.
On the days when ministry is hard and even ugly, Pastor Charlene never experiences any lack of strength. God is faithful and always sends help. “Each day brings new challenges, trauma, and blessing,” she says. “But I still say, ‘Yes, Lord.’”
Eileen Kinch is part of the Mosaic communication team and works with editing and writing. She holds a Master of Divinity degree, with an emphasis in the Ministry of Writing, from Earlham School of Religion.