NEW CASTLE —
The Sept. 12, 1988, New Castle News had two Gilberts on the front page.
One was a roaring, relentless mass of hot air.
The other was a preacher.
There’s probably a punch line there somewhere, but both the hurricane that was strafing the Gulf Coast and the minister who was starting a new church were forces to be reckoned with.
The latter, though, proved to have the greater staying power, and this week, Independent Methodist Church — founded and still pastored by the Rev. Frederick Gilbert — is marking its 25th anniversary.
At the time, Gilbert had just left Savannah United Methodist Church to begin another congregation, which met for the first time on Sept. 11, 1988, in the chapel for the William & Roger DeCarbo Funeral Home. According to Gilbert, 267 people attend that inaugural service, which was reported in the next day’s newspaper, right underneath a story about his tropical storm namesake.
Less than two months later, the church moved into a former Shenango Township tavern, where members continue to worship today.
Early on, Independent Methodist’s challenges were many. According to a recent study by the North American Mission Board study, only 68 percent of new churches survive their first four years – meaning at least three out of 10 will fail within that time span.
“We’re coming into a structure, and you have a lack of monetary resources, and you’re starting from scratch, and you have to be recognized as a nonprofit institution,” Gilbert related. “And when you have an autonomous church as we are, and you don’t have the back-up of a denominational system, lending institutions are very hesitant to become involved with a religious organization because of that history.
“But this church has been solvent, we’ve had highly committed people and the Lord has provided, and we have leadership.”
Oh, there were make-dos for a while: chairs instead of the pews that now fill the sanctuary, surplus hymnals donated by the New Wilmington Christian & Missionary Alliance Church and cramped facilities.
“Before we had a narthex, on a busy Sunday, you could hardly even get your coat on,” recalled Anne Long, Sunday morning organist (the church also has a Saturday night service). “It was so small, and there were so many people. Our kitchen used to be like the narthex. We were doing dinners, and you could hardly turn around in there,
“We had no bathrooms on the top floor, only the bottom. So the new additions made it nice; made it more accessible.”
Indeed, renovations eventually came, including a large tower and narthex with restrooms born in large part from international tragedy: the Aug. 31, 1997, death of Princess Diana.
Gilbert had amassed a personal collection of royal items including Prince Charles and Lady Diana collectibles and about a dozen limited edition dolls. He decided to sell it all following Diana’s death, as such items were then commanding a high price. The $5,000 he raised initiated the narthex project.
That sort of dedication is reflected as well in Gilbert’s home, a spacious, one-bedroom apartment attached to the church via a door that opens into the sanctuary and a stairwell that leads to a basement addition housing the expanded kitchen area.
“I come from a family with pastors in it, and I know that lot of pastors do not want to live close to the church,” Long said. “But his fondest wish was to be right here — to live in the church. That’s what he lobbied for. He wanted to be right here for us. Sometimes that gets taken advantage of, but that’s OK. God is watching over him.”
The living arrangement undoubtedly makes it easier for Gilbert to be on time for all of his church responsibilities. In addition to services on Saturday night and Sunday morning – a departure from many Protestant churches that offer two Sunday morning services – Gilbert also must be present for a pair of Wednesday Bible studies. He’s also maintained for 24 years a midweek Bible study at Golden Hills Nursing Home.
Teaching such as this is one of two Independent Methodist hallmarks.
“That’s the first thing I recognized about him many years ago; it was like going to a college,” Long said. “I had gone to Asbury (a Christian liberal arts university in Kentucky) and it was like sitting in on a class in Asbury. He will not teach down to you, so you try to come prepared and to open your mind.
“But he doesn’t look down on anyone. I’ve never heard him put anybody down for asking a question that’s maybe not so with-it – like some of mine – but he’s not going to water it down. If you come to Bible study, let’s come to learn something.”
Perhaps the most important thing Gilbert has taught his congregations is how to love one another.
“These people pray for each other,” Long said. “That’s because he has fostered that, that we would send each other cards, and pray for each other and care about each other. Over the years, that’s gotten really embedded in the people.”
Darren and Allison Myer are living proof. Seemingly unable to conceive, the couple had all of Independent Methodist praying that God would bless them with children. Today, they are the parents of a 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old triplets.
“Just the love that’s here is a great testament to our congregation,” Allison Myer said. “We had a whole congregation that prayed for us to have children. I think the love that Rev. Gilbert has for everyone is just an awesome testament; not only the knowledge that he brings to us, but his love.”
Jeff Cunningham, who joined the church in 1993, also has felt its embrace.
“It’s a community of faith,” he said. “It’s a family. Through 20 years of being here, I’ve gone through numerous things, positive and negative – some life threatening. This was my place of refuge. When the world was crashing down on my shoulders, it was the one place I could come and let my guard down and I was safe.
“This is not a church for people who are perfect, it’s a church for people who are deeply, seriously flawed, and as a deeply, seriously flawed person I’ve been able to grow in knowledge and I’m a stronger Christian than I was 20 years ago. And that means a lot to me.”