By Elsie Walker
Its sign says, “Abiding Peace Lutheran Church.” However, “Abiding Peace” is more than just this Budd Lake church’s name. It is the church’s identity. Whether as part of an interfaith alliance of local churches or in reaching out to others, this Lutheran church strives to reflect its name and to live the phrase, “love one another.
The church is part of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). Its pastor, the Rev. Serena Rice, explained what that means.
“The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, and it was formed when several other denominations came together in 1988,” she said. “The ELCA is a ‘big tent’ denomination, meaning that it tries to make room for significant diversity in perspectives among its members on things on which the gospel provides room for disagreement. It is also the most inclusive Lutheran denomination in that it ordains women and LGBTQ+ clergy members and provides the option for clergy to bless same-sex weddings.”
Howard Corneilson and his wife Susan, of Roxbury, are charter members of Abiding Peace, having been with the church since the beginning, and shared its history.
“The Division for Mission in North America, Lutheran Church in America, started planning for a new congregation in the Morris, Sussex, and Warren (“Tri-County”) area in the late 1960’s,” said Corneilson. “One of the reasons the Budd Lake site was selected was the growing number of Scandinavian descendants then moving to Vasa Park. Rev. James Parks, who became the church’s first pastor, was appointed as the Mission Developer and began contacting local residents to begin the mission.”
The Corneilsons were living in Mt. Olive at the time and became part of the group tasked to establish a mission church in late 1970. The congregation was formally organized on May 9, 1971 with 134 baptized members (92 confirmed and 42 children).
The congregation did not have a building and until it did, with the permission of the Mt. Olive Board of Education, it used what is now the Chester M. Stephens School for worship and Sunday School. Other meetings were held at members’ homes.
Corneilson shared, “A building site was purchased in the early 1970’s by the Division for Mission in North America, Lutheran Church in America for the future use of the congregation. Under the leadership of Rev. G. Richard Linderman, plans to construct a worship facility began. The first Liturgy was celebrated in our Parish Life & Ministry Center in May 1978 and was dedicated in June 1978.”
When asked about significant events in the church’s history, Corneilson noted the establishment of the Abiding Peace Senior Housing Corporation as one. It secured federal funding to build a non-sectarian senior housing complex in Flanders.
“The groundbreaking ceremony was held on October 10, 1992 and the completed ‘Mount Olive Manor’ (as the new senior housing was later named) opened to its first residents on September 30, 1993,” shared Corneilson.
Other signification events have to do with church outreach, specifically establishing projects helping with food needs. Abiding Peace started a small food pantry, stocked with donations by the congregation, which is used to help supplement members of the community with limited resources. Also, a vegetable garden was started on the church grounds. What is grown is used by the food pantry and also donated to the residents of Mount Olive Manor. In addition, members took on the role of volunteering to prepare and serve meals once each month at the Faith Kitchen in Dover.
A new chapter to the church’s history was added recently, when its vicar (interim pastor), Serena Rice, became its full time pastor. Basically, an interim pastor is a candidate for ordination who serves at a church while completing his or her candidacy requirements. The hope is that the candidate and the church will be a good match, and that after the candidate is ordained, he or she will be called by the church to be its pastor. That is what has happened to Rice; Abiding Peace is her first church serving as a pastor.
“My call to the church has been a lifetime in coming, although I don’t feel like I wasted any of the years that came before,” said Rice. “Every experience has shaped me into the person and the pastor that I am now.” Those experiences include attending Westmont College in California where she double-majored in religious studies and sociology, graduating in 1999. She married her husband, Tyler in 2000, and they moved to New Jersey, so she could complete a dual-degree program with Princeton Theological Seminary (MDiv) and Rutgers School of Social Work (MSW).
She became a Licensed Social Worker, focusing on research and policy advocacy on issues related to poverty.
“Prior to entering candidacy, I served as the first executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of N.J., a statewide education and advocacy organization that sought to empower communities and individuals to work together for policies that would make N.J. a place where all people can thrive,” said Rice. “That work was absolutely consistent with my calling to serve the world that God so loves, and I continue to stay involved with advocacy by serving on the Board of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of N.J., as well as regularly calling my elected officials as an engaged citizen.”
Also, Rice shared that she is the mother of two, a daughter, 11 and a son, 9. She enjoys good books, walking, hiking, and writing poetry and personal reflections. She also “dabbles” in Italian, which she learned while living in Milan for three years, and the flute, which she learned in her youth, but now seldom has time to play.
Worship at the church is set for 10 a.m. on Sundays. Nursery is available with parental supervision during worship; there is a coffee hour following the service.
“Blended, respecting the traditional and welcoming the contemporary,” is how church member Mary Kasakove of Budd Lake describes worship. It includes choral and instrumental music. Also, Abiding Peace is home to The Messengers, a liturgical dance group of which Kasakove is director.
“Liturgical dance is God’s message through movement,” said Kasakove. “We dance during the service to amplify and glorify the message of the day. Our group is comprised of seven dancers. We dance six – seven times a year at Abiding Peace and also at other churches on occasion.”
While there is Sunday School set from 11:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., Rice notes that the children are not excluded from the worship community, but play an active role in it. She said, “During the service, children have the chance to help with appropriate tasks, like ushering, lighting candles, or taking the collection, and they are invited up for a special interactive children’s sermon each Sunday. We also provide a ‘pray ground’ area at the back of the church, for younger children who benefit from a place to color or play with quiet toys, while they absorb the service going on around them.”
Children also take first communion class with their families and the pastor before receiving first communion, at whatever age their parents think is appropriate. Junior High youth participate in an additional Confirmation program that includes classes and study at home.
The church also believes in adult education, which is an important focus of time and energy at Abiding Peace. The church offerings include both Sunday “adult forum” classes and evening mid-week studies. Topics include Bible studies on different books of the Bible or topical studies, spiritual formation, current social issues, Lutheran history and teachings, learning from other faith leaders, and wellness topics. Rice noted that the church has made a commitment in its spiritual community to an education and engagement process called “Loving Dialogue.” Today, there are many topics people disagree upon. However, those in the church have the same faith identity. Using that as a basis, these topics of disagreement are discussed in the loving atmosphere, challenging those in the conversation to a make a more direct connection between their faith and their positions.
Abiding Peace, along with the Islamic Society of North Jersey and the United Presbyterian Church in Flanders is a founding member of the Mt. Olive Interfaith Alliance. Rice describes the Alliance as in “its infancy.” She noted is has hosted different shared meals, learned about each other’s traditions, and done a few community-service projects. Those projects include a food drive for the Presbyterian Church pantry to help those in need in the community, and making sustainable lunches to be given out to the homeless through the Bridges project. The idea for the latter came from a family of the Islamic Society of North Jersey. It turned into the ELCA service day project at Abiding Peace with the Islamic family joining the church in packing 248 lunch bags with non-perishable items.
In talking about the alliance, Rice said, “We hope to expand this effort and to create some opportunities for broader community conversation in Mt. Olive about interfaith understanding and working together for the good of our community.”
Reflecting on her church, Rice noted, “Abiding Peace is a genuine community of loving and imperfect people who find meaning, support, and joy in following Jesus and being [in] church together… Most importantly, we come to know God and God’s love and grace together, and that knowing changes us in ways that hopefully help us to change the world.”
For more information about the Abiding Peace Lutheran Church call 973-691-9393 or visit www.abidingpeacechurch.org.