By Rich Arenschieldt
Nestled in Montrose, a stately Georgian structure serves as an understated but significant reminder of a Houston faith community’s 17 decades of service to its neighborhood. More than a religious institution, Bering Memorial United Methodist Church has a remarkable history that is closely associated with social justice, ministry to the sick, support of the marginalized, and a mantra of “radical hospitality” that remains undiminished.
The congregation was founded in 1848 by German immigrants, and its current 90-year-old sanctuary has begun to show its age. The Bering campus is actually a multi-use facility that hosts religious services, support groups, a homeless youth outreach, adult day care, and the nation’s premier HIV-related dental center. In addition to normal wear and tear, Bering’s historic building has some structural issues that must be immediately addressed. The leadership at Bering has embarked on a capital campaign to meet these pressing needs by asking for the support of everyone within its sphere of influence.
“The ‘Building Strong Foundations’ Capital Campaign focuses not only on tangible items, [but on securing] Bering’s place as a spiritual neighborhood landmark,” says associate pastor Rev. Stephanie Snyder. “Our goal is to raise $200,000 in order to address three main issues: repair of a crack in our sanctuary wall, adherence to current City of Houston building codes, and the replenishment of Bering’s reserve fund. Because of the historic nature of the building, special permits and repair techniques are required, adding to our costs. The crack is such that it needs to be repaired now, at a cost of more than $70,000. This damage is close to some of Bering’s beautiful stained-glass windows that are original to the building, and we don’t want to endanger those as well.
“Additionally, as the result of a City inspection, we realized that [we needed to address] fire doors throughout the building, balcony railings, electrical upgrades, and improved signage. All of these had to be completed; we borrowed funds from our trustees in order to get the building into compliance as soon as possible. Whatever isn’t spent on these projects will be placed in an emergency fund.”
The last year has been a difficult one, financially, for Bering. “We’ve had some unforeseen expenses,” says longtime member and campaign co-chair Esther Houser. “Recently we have had to replace eight commercial air-conditioning units, which depleted our operating funds.”
Throughout its history, Bering members have faced monetary challenges while still managing to meet the needs of their fellow Houstonians. Early in the 20th century, its congregants confronted the yellow fever epidemic, and the church’s response to the late-20th-century AIDS epidemic is legendary. In addition, Bering has adapted to cultural and demographic changes taking place citywide. It was declared a United Methodist “reconciling congregation” 25 years before the legalization of gay marriage. Today, it remains committed to battling antigay forces within the United Methodist denomination so that all of its members can eventually celebrate their partnerships in the “full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”
Lately, the church’s neighbors are looking less like old-school Montrosians as increasing numbers of moms and dads with kids fill the pews on Sunday mornings. Rev. Snyder, who is a fairly recent addition to Bering’s pastoral staff, has noticed the changes. “I’ve been here for just over two years. In that time, we have seen an increase in all types of families accessing our programs. In addition to our traditional focus on social-justice issues, we have expanded our ministries for children and families, something attractive to the neighborhood’s newer residents. We have so many more couples, gay and straight, who are adopting and/or fostering children; it’s exciting to see the church actively celebrating that.”
As Bering has grown, opportunities for outreach to young adults and the greater community have expanded. “People seem to enjoy that we work in this neighborhood,” Snyder says. “A lot of churches feel compelled to venture to impoverished nations, when acute needs exist right around the corner. We’ve partnered with Meals on Wheels to deliver food—something participants love doing. We value that time of fellowship, and this type of activity fits well into our members’ busy schedules. We’ve done various service projects assisting organizations in close proximity to our campus.”
Bering’s most enduring legacy is, undeniably, its stalwart effort on behalf of Houston’s LGBT community. Longtime volunteer Mary Parker, who at 85 still coordinates the locally famous perpetual rummage sale known as Second Blessings Ministry, has witnessed the congregation transform. “My son and I came here in 1992, [and we got involved] in the Bering Support Network,” remembers Parker, who continues to shepherd that ministry.
“One year, Bering needed some additional funding, so we decided to hold a rummage sale to raise additional funds; 18 years later I’m still helping to manage that project,” Parker says. “If you open a closet anywhere around here, a donation for the sale is likely to fall out!” The rummage sale raises $100,000 annually and supports the church’s Open Gate Homeless Ministry, the Bering Support Network, and a household goods program that provides items to individuals and families in need.
“Half the amount for the Building Strong Foundations campaign is currently pledged; we are working to reach our $200,000 goal,” said Houser. “Many people who were involved with Bering in the ’80s have returned to support us now. If there is anyone who had a profound experience with our organization in the past, we encourage them to honor a friend or loved one by making a gift.”
“The church has changed in many ways,” says Parker. “However, one thing remains constant: our people are just fabulous. These walls have always contained an incredible amount of love and human energy . . . ready to tackle the most difficult tasks. This attitude, coupled with our folks’ sincere desire to know and support each other, keeps us as strong as ever. Our building and physical plant need to be just as enduring.”
To donate to the Building Strong Foundations campaign, visit beringumc.org or call 713.526.1017.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.