When the tiny congregation of historic Bethel United Methodist Church in Camden, N.J., birthed in 1864, finally closed its doors last year—depleted of members, money and mission—it was the death of yet another urban church. But in a wonder-working faith, where death at times leads to resurrection, some doors don’t stay closed for long.
As trustees of the Greater New Jersey Conference began preparing to sell the idle church facility, three visionary ministers did a timely walk-through last fall and said, in effect, “Not so fast. God may be about to do a new thing here.”
The Rev. Glenn Conaway, Delaware Bay District Superintendent and Coastal Plains Region Team Leader, led the tour with the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, longtime pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in nearby Woodlynne, and Timothy Merrill, a leader at Asbury, but more importantly, a neighbor and former youth pastor at Bethel.
The trio saw the neglect and disrepair there—a badly leaking roof and debris strewn in rooms and hallways—all in an abandoned church unfitting of its Hebrew name, which means “House of God.” But they also saw “Possibility,” ironically, the theme of this year’s Greater New Jersey Annual Conference session.
Much of that possibility is embodied in Tim Merrill, a Camden native who lives just over a block away and has spent much of his life developing and leading youth ministries in churches and the community. He directed youth ministries at Asbury for five years—founding the Watu Moja (Swahili for “One People”) program to reach and teach African American youth by connecting them with their heritage and the global African Diaspora.
Merrill, a father of three, has directed at least seven youth outreach and mentoring programs in Camden and Philadelphia over the last three decades. That includes co-founding and chairing the Community Education Research Network (CERN) and the Eastside Preparatory School, located at Bethel UMC from 2006 to 2015. He also directed the South Camden Christian Fellowship (also known as The Fellowship House) in the early 1990s.
“My life’s work has been to guide and encourage our city’s young people,” Merrill says of his personal mission. “I specialize in serving the young people who have slipped between society’s cracks—those at economic, social and educational disadvantage.”
He has done that for decades, especially among youth involved in the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings and other gangs and also young people coming out of prison. Merrill has engaged and helped many of them as a community pastor and loving father-figure. And his wife and ministry-partner Renata Merrill has done likewise, even welcoming some of those youth into their home.
Merrill’s personal mission led him to Bethel 20 years ago to develop not only a community youth ministry there but also CERN and Eastside Prep, two innovative alternative education programs. He co-created them in partnership with longtime Latino community leader Angel Cordero. Both programs—housed at Bethel and at the now closed Rosedale Baptist Church—were a creative response to student violence plaguing Camden schools that left many Black and Latino students fearful and unable to achieve in their studies.
Despite meager resources, Eastside Prep enrolled, taught and graduated about 50 students in a safe environment, helping many of them to make good use of their hard-won education. And CERN served over 6,500 students—mostly youth but all ages, including one family of three generations that graduated together. It became New Jersey’s largest African American/Latino community-based program.
The schools eventually lost church and community financial support and had to close, a painful disappointment for Merrill. But recognized for his innovative, energetic dedication to developing young people’s gifts, leadership and character, he was recommended to become a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative fellow. He chose to focus that 18-month immersion in academic and leadership learning and peer-to-peer collaboration on developing new strategies and enlisting cohort partners to help him help more of Camden’s youth.
Now, Merrill is trying to do a new thing—prayerfully, God’s new thing—in the building where he still fondly remembers and sometimes reencounters the youth he once taught. The former Bethel church is now renamed the Imani Community Fellowship. Imani is Swahili for “faith.” And the church doors that closed last year are swinging open again on Sunday mornings for Bible study and on four bustling nights a week for children, youth and young adults who come there to learn and enjoy African drumming and dance, martial arts, and brass instruments.
The lively and loud drumming, dance, music and Karate classes, held upstairs in a large, newly renovated activity room, are sponsored by Camden’s Unity Community Center. When he received the church keys in March, Merrill promptly invited Robert and Wanda Dickerson, revered founders of the four-decade-old academy of youth development and cultural education, to bring their school to Imani. Their own small, cramped, storefront community center had suffered structural damage and was no longer usable.
The school saluted their new relationship in Imani’s rarely used sanctuary June 3 with a celebration of music, dance and poetry, amid pews that were filled with people for the first time in many years. Robert Dickerson, esteemed by many in Camden and beyond, died of a long-term illness in early October.
Today, Merrill welcomes—and invites to Bible study—friends and neighbors who come to help fix and upgrade the building, who send or bring donations for the ministry, or who come merely to seek the help they need. But he also welcomes those who come just to congregate around a wooden picnic table in the front yard situated there to offer a place for conversation.
He plans to have a larger conversation with community members at Imani this fall—inviting them to come share their concerns over dinner and to suggest more activities and services they want to see happen there.
“Tim could be the right person to start a new church here, and that’s a godsend,” said Conaway. “He has always lived and been a leader here. He has a huge network of people he knows, and that’s a great opportunity for us. Meanwhile, so much has been donated to this ministry that the conference trustees didn’t have to purchase.” That includes skilled labor, building materials and furnishings the fellowship has received.
Imani’s friends and neighbors also include generous members of other Delaware District churches—including Williamstown, Mantua and Haddonfield UMCs. More than a dozen came when invited to Imani’s Day of Service July 29 to offer their labors of love—painting, cleaning, carpentry, power washing brick walls and more. Some supporters are former Camden residents and fondly remember the Bethel church’s history of educating youth. Another Day of Service may happen this fall.
Imani is a mission of Asbury UMC Woodlynne, its supportive mother church, where Merrill is still a member. And it receives special attention from the Coastal Plains Regional Resourcing Team. But Conaway wants it to also become a new Hope Center of Greater New Jersey’s Journey of Hope initiative, which should broaden its visibility and support conferencewide. Hope Centers “collaborate with communities and build on assets to address various educational, social and economic challenges” like those in Camden. Learn more.
Meanwhile, the Delaware Bay District Committee on Ministry is helping Merrill complete his training to become a Licensed Local Pastor. As vibrantly connectional as Merrill is in his own community, he and his fledgling community of faith are no less connectional in the benefits they receive from their mother church, their district, region and conference.
All those connections should give the Imani Community Fellowship “a hope and a future,” in the prophet Jeremiah’s words (Jeremiah 29:11), so that it can grow from a small resurrection wonder and maybe become a full worshiping congregation. That is the hope of all involved—to offer a new place for new people, while serving Christ and this underserved Camden community.