Religious differences — even differences between denominations within the same religion — are sometimes enough to drive apart families, friends and neighbors. In one unusual case in State College, however, two Christian denominations came together to merge into one church.
This month, the University Baptist and Brethren Church celebrates 50 years since that merger took place, and the results that have benefited people in the community and around the world.
It all started in 1922, when a small group founded University Baptist Church in State College. Several decades later, members from a local Church of the Brethren began meeting in each other’s homes, before considering building their own church. However, they realized their congregation was small, financial resources were scarce and State College already had — even at that time — an abundance of churches.
The Church of the Brethren began looking for another church they could potentially join as a group, and the University Baptist Church was similar in faith and practices. The two organizations merged through a dual affiliation and became University Baptist and Brethren Church in 1968.
Pastor Bonnie Kline Smeltzer, who has served at the church since 2002, thinks she knows why the relationship has worked so well over the years.
“The American Baptists and the Church of the Brethren share some core values and principles. Both are congregational in authority and practice the priesthood of all believers, where everyone is seen as a minister, with gifts to share. Both practice Believers’ Baptism, where one becomes a Christian and member of the Church when you are mature enough to make that decision for yourself,” she said. “And both denominations believe that people are responsible for their relationship with God and their spiritual growth. There is no force in religion and belief.”
It’s these shared values that have allowed UBBC to uniquely serve the community and thrive for the past five decades.
According to Smeltzer, UBBC actively welcomes the LGBTQA community, as “a refuge and sanctuary for people who have been hurt, shunned or rejected by the Church because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“Newcomers to UBBC often say that they feel like they’ve found a home in the congregation,” Smeltzer said. “The welcoming hospitality the people of UBBC provides helps to heal some of the deep hurt that people have experienced in other churches. Some have never felt accepted in church, or been exposed to a loving God. This welcoming love changes people ...”
UBBC also supports a variety of local and international nonprofit initiatives and offers its facilities for community use. This is hardly new to the congregation, however. Outreach to all corners of the globe has always been a key part of UBBC’s mission. In the 1970s, a UBBC Refugee Resettlement Committee welcomed and assisted refugee families from Vietnam, Burma, Cuba and Romania.
In the late 1980s, the church did the same for Russian families arriving in State College. In the past, other activities have included establishing the in-patient psychiatric unit at the Centre Community Hospital, the Community Alternatives in Criminal Justice organization, Volunteers in Prison and the annual Alternative Christmas Fair.
In the next 50 years, UBBC (which, Smeltzer mentions, may be getting a new name that more accurately describes its future rather than its history) aims to continue to use its influence to address important social issues, “whether it be racism, climate change, criminal justice reform or non-violence,” she said.
“This is a congregation whose ministry and mission is informed by the needs of the times.”