By Tracy Simmons/Creedible.com
“Summerfield was the church on the hill that nobody knew about. Now, it’s the light on the hill that many, many people know about,” said Elsie Pratt as she reflected on her 25 years at Summerfield United Methodist Church in Bridgeport.
Pratt, 85, was watching her church slowly die. A fence wrapped around the church, locking it away from the East Ward neighborhood. And except for a handful of retired, Caucasian adults who pulled into the parking lot on Sunday mornings, the church was eerily quiet.
“It was like a cemetery,” said the Rev. Marjorie E. Nunes.
Nunes didn’t plan helping Summerfield UMC come back to life. In fact, she didn’t plan on becoming a minister at all.
She was content working as an executive at a software firm in New York City, but God kept nagging at her, she said.
“When God is calling, you get an uncomfortable feeling. He has his hands on you, he’s made up his mind calling you to ministry, and you can’t get rid of it (the uncomfortable feeling) until you say yes,” Nunes said.
She already had her bachelor’s and master’s in economics, but decided to enroll at Union Theological Seminary to study religion, hoping it would ease the badgering feeling she had in the pit of her stomach.
It didn’t work.
After making an impression in a preaching class, a professor urged her to pursue a career in ministry. Now an academic and God were nagging her and she couldn’t ignore it anymore.
Nunes earned her Master of Divinity degree, went through the ordination process and began working as an associate pastor of a vibrant church in Brooklyn before being called to serve at Summerfield in 2002.
When she arrived at the church to lead her first worship service, she found the gate in the front of the sanctuary padlocked with a note instructing guests to drive around to the social hall for service. Inside were about a dozen people.
“The church had lost its identity. No one was going to stop and come into a church with a lock on the gate,” she said. “Nobody knew the church. They knew the building, but didn’t make a connection to the church because nothing was going on.”
Nunes, the church’s first African American pastor, knew she had a lot of work to do. With the help of enthusiastic parishioners she started new programs at the church to help members reconnect to the community, went door-to-door handing out fliers, added two new congregations — Spanish and Haitian, and slowly heard the church start to buzz again.
“It took three or four years to let people know we’re a church, and we’re open for business,” she said.
Pratt said Summerfield is a thriving congregation again, thanks to Nunes’ efforts.
“The church used to be open on Sundays and that was about it. Now, you can go in almost any time of day and something’s going on,” she said. “We’re a very busy church now.”
It was in the midst of the Summerfield revival when Nunes got that “uncomfortable feeling” again. This time, it was the push to pursue a Doctorate of Ministry.
“Not another degree, what am I a professional student?,” she thought to herself. “I had my church to worry about.”
But Nunes listened and enrolled at Harford Seminary’s doctor of ministry program. This decision, she said, changed her life and her church.
She named her thesis, “To dream again: A new dream of a new community for new times.” The DMIN project, she said, is what kept her on track as she continued to help the congregation transform.
“It (her project) fueled me. It kept me focused. God uses many tools to get us to where God wants us to be. You have to be open to all those tools and Hartford Seminary was one of the tools that God was going to use to revitalize this church,” Nunes said.
Through classes, academic readings, a supportive Hartford Seminary faculty and ministry colleagues Nunes got to see her project come to fruition, she said.
Summerfield now has a summer program for neighborhood children, a food pantry, a clothing closet, has a new music program, overhead projectors and is an ethnically diverse congregation. Between the English, Spanish and French services, Nunes said about 140 people worship at the church each weekend.
“We have projections to go over 200 on a weekend, which would be a big deal for us, because we were the church nobody knew,” she said.