Rural church keeps small town united: A close look at Peace United Church of Christ
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values (ColumbiaFAVS.com.)
Editor's note: We'd like to tell more stories of rural churches and their role in the community. If you think your church would be a good fit for one of our stories, or if you know of another church we should profile, please email Columbia Faith & Values Editor Kellie Moore at Kellie.Moore@ReligionNews.com.
Peace United Church of Christ in the village of Hartsburg is more than just a house of worship – it serves as the cornerstone of the community.
Hartsburg's population has reached a little more than a hundred people, but the congregation of Peace UCC exceeds that number by attracting members from neighboring communities. Up until about 15 years ago, Peace UCC was the only non-Baptist church between Columbia and Jefferson City.
Rev. Clairnel Nervik has been the pastor of Peace UCC for more than seven and a half years. “One of the interesting things, I think, about being a pastor at a small town church is you’re a pastor the entire community, not just to the people that come to church," Nervik said.
Peace UCC is part of the United Church of Christ – a body in which churches function autonomously, rather than being under a central governing body. Often, these churches are home to a variety of viewpoints. (Click here and here for a history of the United Church of Christ.)
“We’re called non-cradle, which means you don’t have to agree to a certain set of beliefs to be a member of the church. It’s just anyone who is seeking God through Jesus can be a member," Nervik said. "You don’t have to believe specific things.”
Peace UCC was established in 1894, and took part in the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, which aimed to unite Protestant churches of the world along with all of Christianity.
The last time Nervik counted, there were about 19 different denominations represented in the congregation of Peace UCC.
“Absolutely there’s different beliefs, and people are, for the most part, accepting," Nervik said. "For the most part it’s live and let live, and they don’t want to raise issues.”
Before new members decide to join the church, Nervik tells them: “If you can sit next to somebody in church that believes the exact opposite of what you do about that belief and still love them as your brother or sister, then this is the church for you.”
Joining the Church
Members of Peace UCC welcome newcomers with open hearts and minds.
Carmen Hughes first came to the church as a pastor's wife and quickly felt welcomed. Her husband has since died, but Peace UCC remains her church home.
“When I came down here, I was new as a pastor’s wife. I was new to the community. They just welcomed me like I’d been here my entire life. I just felt it was home, and I’ve really enjoyed the people," Hughes said.
Former Peace UCC member Donna Meyer had a similar feeling when she first went to the church.
“Everybody was just so friendly, you know. They came up to you, and talked to you, asked you questions and invited you to come back," Meyer said. "Everybody was just so friendly.”
Another important factor that draws people to Peace UCC is the inclusive environment for people of all ages – especially children.
While children can sometimes be seen as distracting in church, their presence is important – to Nervik, it's "part of what makes a church alive." The way she sees it, if they're not welcomed and encouraged to be in the church as children, they won't grow up to be there as adults.
The church's youth participate in multiple services and activities within the community.
“Christianity is not something that’s taught by the book," Nervik said. "It’s something that’s taught by doing. And so they’re learning the prayers, the liturgy, the hymns. They’re learning to be part of the community by being part of the community.”
Floods of Hartsburg
Flooding in the town has brought this emphasis on doing to the forefront.
During the Great Flood of 1993, Hartsburg was under six to seven feet of water. The help and support the church received during the recovery period inspired them to form a new disaster relief mission group.
A few decades earlier, the church had a flooding incident on Easter Sunday. Hughes didn't think people would show up for the service until she saw members approaching in boats. Peace UCC ended up having a good crowd that Easter, and Hughes recalls it as one of her first, memorable moments as part of the community.
The People Make the Church
Church members say the thing that makes Hartsburg and Peace UCC so special is the people.
“The real thing that gives it vitality is the people,” Salter said. “It’s a true polyglot, a wonderful mix of social groups and demographic groups.”
Peace UCC encompasses a sense of communion. The people celebrate together, care for one another and get through the struggles of life together.
“We just, we just loved everybody," Meyer said. "When our son got killed in an car accident, we probably, neither one, would have made it through that without all of the friends we had at Peace church."
“I just can’t say enough about how kind the people are, how caring the people are down there," Meyer said. "That’s the main thing.”
Hartsburg Lives On
Peace UCC has attracted involved people dedicated to the church. During one of Nervik's sermons, she recalled a message she learned from another pastor about what it means to join a church.
“When you join a church, you need to fall in love with that church. And it’s difficult to do if the church is too large," Nervik said. "And so they come where if they’re not here, it’s noticed. Where they spend 20 minutes often after church talking to one another.”
In Hartsburg, the larger community and church community are one.
“It stays strong because of lateral ties. People caring about each other and sharing meals. It’s a very nice part of what makes a small town a wonderful place," Salter said.
“It looks like it’s doing all the right things, I think, to be not only a good small town church, but to help a small town stay vital in an era of small towns drying up and blowing away."