Laying down roots in Cincinnati’s Northside.
“Sometimes he’s up at four in the morning,” marvels Northside resident and community volunteer Valerie Sacko.
“Not four o’clock. Five o’clock,” Pastor Abe corrects.
Either way, it’s a busy life for Abe and Joni Brandyberry, founders of Covenant Church of the Nazarene in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood. They know that being the church is a seven-days-a-week proposition. As a matter of fact, that’s precisely why they started Covenant.
When Abe and Joni settled in Joni’s hometown of Cincinnati after finishing college at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, they were looking for somewhere to serve. An organization called CityCURE connected them with a Presbyterian church in Northside. “We walked in the first night, and there were two adult leaders and about 50 kids running around,” Abe remembers. “We were like, ‘Looks like they need some help.'” So they jumped right in. It was 2005.
The Brandyberrys helped out there for about a year and a half, and they observed that in the Presbyterian congregation and other churches in the community most of the members were people who used to live in Northside and were now driving in from other neighborhoods. They were engaging youth on Wednesday evenings, but otherwise people from the neighborhood weren’t involved. “It felt like we needed to start something for people who live in the neighborhood,” Abe recalls.
So with a grant from the Church of the Nazarene, they rented a storefront. At first they had game nights and other activities for youth and families in the neighborhood, and after a couple of months they started worship on Sunday mornings. Six people attended the first worship service in March 2007—Abe, Joni, and a few people from other churches. Now weekly worship attendance is about 55.
Valerie tells about how she and her husband, Lance Sacko, encountered Covenant Church for the first time:
One morning me and my husband were catching the bus and saw a sign saying free breakfast and worship. We remembered when it was and went back. They were in the storefront then. Pastor Abe was in that building praising God. I introduced myself, talked, and cried, and everything was all right. One more time we went in for breakfast, and we’ve been there ever since.
In 2008 Covenant Church moved from the storefront to an old Episcopal Church building that had been vacant for a few years. Volunteers came to fix up the building, and youth and adults from the neighborhood created art to display on the walls. Covenant displayed a video of the event on its YouTube channel.
Now Convent Church and its neighborhood ministry arm, Cincinnati Urban Promise, offers after-school tutoring, two community meals a week (Wednesday dinner and Sunday breakfast), youth activities, and adult small groups on Wednesday nights. They’re about to take on a Friday evening meal, they plan to start a food co-op, and they’ll be opening a ministry center across the street, where they hope to host ministry interns, a start-up business, and a computer center.
And according to Lance, there’s a lot more going on. Relationship building with families of gang-involved youth, “VBS, camping—Pastor Abe’s church is number one in that. Transportation too. Encouraging parents to come.”
No wonder Abe is up at five a.m.!
Covenant plans to hire an associate pastor—who, Abe points out, does not have to be from the Nazarene denomination. Church members pitch in, and volunteers from outside the neighborhood help out. Abe and Joni would also like to host interns from outside the community, but, Abe says, “I want to raise up our indigenous leadership, so I don’t want it to get overdone with people moving in.” He confesses that he struggles with impatience: “I have to be reminded that it takes time for leaders to emerge and disciples to be made. There are a lot of times where my wife and I feel kind of alone in this. Most of the people in our church have been Christians for two years or less.”
Abe explains that the ministry of Covenant Church is informed by Christ’s approach to ministry: “Jesus didn’t spend his time holed up in the four walls of the temple. He was out among the people and in homes, and he was with the sinners and the tax collectors and everyone else.” It’s a firm foundation. But one senses that the greatest challenge for Abe and Joni, as for many leaders of new Christian Community Development ministries, is to make such all-encompassing ministry sustainable over the long haul.
You can reach Abe Brandyberry of Convenant Church of the Nazarene and Cincinnati Urban Promise at [email protected]