Our church was founded in 2000 as a church plant of Eastern Hills Bible Church. We were conceived out of the evangelical philosophy of maximizing outreach through the building of a megachurch with a large staff, excellent programs, hip music, and a state of the art facility. Much to our surprise, we succeeded in building a large church in a short time—so much so we ran out of room at our New York Mills location. However, the more we succeeded in this model of church, the more empty we felt. We drew big crowds on Sundays but didn’t do much to love our neighbors and our community. We needed something outside of ourselves to help us overcome our myopic perspective, but we did not know where to start.
Then, one Sunday after church, one of our college students told Pastor Mike about an urban ministry in Utica that he was involved in and asked if we wanted to meet the founder and director of the ministry, Rev. Maria Scates. In a few minutes she told Pastor Mike the story of how ten years earlier she had felt called by God to show up in the most dangerous neighborhood in Utica and simply love her neighbors. She bought a burned out house, fixed it up, provided a safe place for neighborhood kids to play and learn about God, worked with the city and community leaders to drive the drug dealers away, and improved the beauty and safety of the neighborhood. Now, ten years later, she has rehabilitated several houses in that neighborhood to provide twenty-six apartments for a drug recovery program for women and their children. Utica is an immeasurably better place because Rev. Scates chose to love her neighbors. We couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed by seeing her accomplish all that on a shoestring budget while we racked up huge surpluses for mostly entertaining consumers.
Over the next few years we began to help Rev. Scates with her youth and children’s programs. It was stretching for us, but it allowed us to see the world beyond our church. For the first time, many of us felt like we were doing something meaningful because Rev. Scates invited us into a world that we had heretofore chosen to ignore. In 2006 we were presented with an opportunity to move to Plymouth Bethesda, a large church building in the city of Utica that would solve our crowding issues and bring us closer to Rev. Scates. Initially, our congregation was hesitant to move to the city for “safety” issues. However, in 2007, the incredible hospitality of the people of Plymouth Bethesda coupled with our desire to do more meaningful service helped us overcome our reservations and we moved to Utica.
That was five years ago. Today, Cornerstone is still flawed and imperfect; but now we are doing our best to be honest about our issues. Prostitutes, gang members, ex cons, suburban dwellers, urban dwellers and refugees from around the world all worship together on Sunday mornings in our banquet hall, around tables, facing one another as friends. And it’s not just about gathering for church activities; many of us from the suburbs have sold our houses and moved into the city so we can actively love our neighbors around the church by being neighbors.
Best of all, through all of this, we have experienced the reality that the greatest joy, meaning, and fulfillment in life comes from giving our lives away for the sake of loving others. Jesus’ words have never meant more to us as a church: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”