HOLYOKE—When Bobbie and Chuck Morkin took over as the pastoral team at the United Congregational Church of Holyoke five-and-a-half years ago, they hoped to make it much more than a place of worship.
The church, dating back to 1799, is located in the heart of downtown Holyoke and the Morkins planned to make it a central part of the neighborhood.
“This is a basilica kind of building and historically, the basilica used to be in the middle of the town square or plaza,” Chuck said. “The doors would be left open and people could come in and out all the time.”
Chuck said he and Bobbie wanted to make their own church similarly accessible.
“Our vision has been to open the doors of this place, as much as is practical, to as many different groups and as many different people as we can,” he said.
That openness has taken on various forms at United Congregational Church. The church has about 140 people in its congregation from Holyoke, South Hadley, Westfield, and Southwick. While the building is located in an area of the city that is predominantly Latino, Chuck Morkin said there are few Hispanics members. But the Morkins have reached out to the local community, inviting Emanuel Restoration, a local Hispanic church, to hold its annual Christmas party at United Congregational, and hosting various events for children and adults.
“Membership is not the only way to define how a church sees itself,” Chuck said.
United Congregational Church hosts monthly free “family film nights” for the community; popcorn, drinks, and snacks are part of the fun.
The church also runs Rebekah’s Closet, an outreach program for young parents in need of children’s clothing, diapers, baby furniture, and other items. Low-income parents get a referral from a local social service agency and can pick out free clothes, toys, and other necessities once a month. An Alcoholics Anonymous chapter meets at the church each week.
Six times a year, the church offers six concerts, all open to the public. Recent performances include José González, a well-known local Latin Jazz musician, the Pioneer Fiddlers, the Springfield Youth Orchestra, and the sublime Madrigal Choir at Holyoke High School. Bobbie Morkin, who also is the church organist and choir director, said the shows are donation-based, but no one is turned away for lack of money.
“If you can’t put anything in the donation box, you are still welcome to come in the door,” she said.
The church has two historic pipe organs and puts them to use when silent films are shown, Last November, the Morkins teamed up with the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts to show the silent film “Alexander Nevsky” as a fundraiser for the restoration of the Victory Theater in Holyoke.
Other community events include a college salsa dance for incoming students at Amherst College who spend a week in Holyoke as part of an immersion/community service program and a three-and-a-half day ecumenical study conference drawing leaders of different faith traditions from around the country. In addition to Christian faiths, the conference includes representatives from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and other religions.
“It’s a progressive conference, not something that is fundamentalist or evangelical,” Chuck Morkin said. “It’s not ‘there is one way and it’s my way.’ We recognize there are lots of ways to God.”
Mayor Alex Morse approached the Morkins about holding an interfaith breakfast at the church as part of his inaugural celebration last year. Spiritual leaders from various faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Pentecostal, Catholic, and Protestant – all said prayers at the gathering.
“We have always offered a strong welcome to all different traditions,” Chuck Morkin said.
Bobbie Morkin said that one of the church’s members, Alan Gilburg, is part of the South Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative. Gilburg is working to form a group of laity from local churches in the city who want to become more involved in downtown Holyoke.
“It’s a way of getting all the churches to play a role in the revitalization of downtown Holyoke,” she said. “It’s something the two of us are very passionate about, as well.”
In an effort to become more inclusive, the United Congregational Church of Holyoke took a big step last fall in deciding to become an “open and affirming” congregation of the United Church of Christ. The move means the church fully welcomes lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered people (LBGT). The move happened after more than a year of study; 87.5 percent of the congregation members who voted agreed to become an open and affirming church.
Bobbie Morkin said she believes that Jesus Christ would “not have had any problem” with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
“If we truly want to follow his example, it’s only right that we as a church try to live up to that,” she said.
The move is just one of the many ways that the United Congregational Church embodies a progressive and humanistic philosophy. The Morkins are committed to keeping the United Congregational Church open, alive, and relevant to the community.
“This is one of those cities that has a number of grand old buildings in the middle of downtown and one after another they are closing,” Chuck Morkin said. “Holyoke doesn’t need another mortared skeleton sitting on this corner. We see this as an opportunity to be the center of life and vitality on this corner. We are both passionate about it. This city needs us to be the very best we can be.”
Chuck Morkin said the church has an endowment that allows it to offer various programs for free or at low-cost and to maintain its operating budget.