by Elsie Walker
There’s a saying that some people are so generous that they’d give their right arm. In the case of Rev. Rick Oppelt, he didn’t give a right arm; he gave a kidney.
Just before he came to United Presbyterian Church in Flanders, 11 years ago, Oppelt was at a church in Edison where a parishioner with diabetes asked the congregation to pray for her as she was going on the kidney transplant list. As she exited the church that Sunday, Oppelt quipped, “I’ve got two. If I end up being a match, I’ll give you one of mine.” Later, the woman came back to Oppelt and asked if he was serious. He was tested, found to be a match, and gave the parishioner a kidney. Thanks to Oppelt’s kidney, that woman was able to live 10 more years; she later succumbed to other complications of diabetes.
Oppelt’s giving spirit is reflected in the Flanders church. The church reaches out to the local community, Appalachia, and overseas; plus, it offers a place for people to grow as Christians through education, services featuring diverse musical styles, and a warm fun fellowship, especially when the annual Apple Festival comes along.
Church historian, Faithe Ludlow of Chester Township, shared that The United Presbyterian Church, Flanders came to be in 1959 when two long established churches, the Flanders Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church of Mt. Olive merged. Both were small churches with dwindling congregations, so a merger was suggested. Oppelt quipped that they combined the spiritual DNA of the two churches to form one congregation.
Ludlow shared that the new church occupied a church building on Main Street, Flanders. However, over time, the congregation grew and wanted more room. Land was purchased and building started. The result is the present building which the church moved into in 1983. Worship in its sanctuary is at 10 a.m. on Sundays.
“Our worship style is a very eclectic format comprising all genres of worship music, several music ensembles, [and] uses one or two large screens for videos and lyrics,” said Oppelt. There is some sort of musical offering every Sunday, an adult choir sings twice a month, a bell choir plays monthly, a Little Ringers chimes group and a worship band each play one Sunday a month. “In addition, we have different individuals who add flavor to our worship through ukulele, guitar, harp, flute and various musical ensembles, including barbershop quartet,” said Oppelt. “Our Music Director, Argaille Dimatteo, just celebrated her 40th year with us and remains a dynamic force of inspiration and musical creativity.”
A musician himself, Oppelt shared that “music is an important part of my outreach ministry.” He not only plays music in church, but entertains those in nursing homes. Among the instruments he has collected and plays are the mandolin, violin, piano, strummed stick (an instrument with roots in Appalachia) and the ukulele. He shared that he started a ukulele group at the church. In addition, recently Oppelt introduced the congregation to his latest “musical toy,” a bowed psaltery.” Common to the area of the south below the Mason-Dixon Line, Oppelt noted the psaltery makes a “ringing sound” and is a harp-type instrument.
Oppelt also noted that the church has a Sunday school for pre-K, through 8th grade. Youths are confirmed in the ninth grade, and Youth Coordinator, Denise Bouvier, actively recruits middle school and high school youth for church projects and youth activities. One week during the summer, the church offers a Vacation Bible School. There are also opportunities for adults to learn as well, including a periodic “Jesus Café” video series after worship and a monthly evening small group that meets at a member’s home for fellowship and to discuss a faith-based book. The fall book will be “Inspired” by Rachel Held Evans. A weekly men’s Bible Study meets to study New Testament books using the commentaries of Scottish pastor and scholar, William Barclay.
Speaking of learning, the church is also home to the Fun n Friends Nursery School. It began as a parent co-op more than 35 years ago, and Oppelt said it is still going strong today. The director of the school, Kolleen Adams, as well as the volunteer board, are all church members.
Oppelt shared, “The school provides excellent socialization and beginning education for pre-schoolers, with many different programs, trips and presentations over the course of the year.”
Besides its well-known pre-school, the church touches the local community in many other ways. Oppelt said that he participates in the Mt. Olive Clergy Association and the church is part of the Mt. Olive Interfaith Alliance. The latter was formed through the efforts of Oppelt, Serena Rice from Abiding Peace [Lutheran Church ] and Mohsin Ansari from the North Jersey Muslim community.
Oppelt explained, “[It} is devoted to building bridges of understanding and cooperation between our various faith traditions. We plan to continue planning events that show it possible to work together, in a social and political climate that seems to be devoted to dividing, rather than uniting people.”
One event the Alliance held was to raise money for the food pantry at the Presbyterian Church which helps families in need on a weekly basis.
The Presbyterian Church also participates monthly at Dover’s Faith Kitchen, which helps the needy, by providing and serving food, and has an ongoing relationship with the New Bridge Group Home in Flanders, a residential facility for adults with special needs.
United Presbyterian Church, Flanders reaches out beyond the local area, too. It has members involved in an organization known as the Foundation for Peace, which does development work in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Kenya. Also, for more than 20 years, the church has made a yearly trip to Central Appalachia to help those in one of the poorest parts of this country. That yearly trip took place recently.
Flanders resident Kathy Benfe, the church’s Congregational Life & Fellowship Elder, was one of those who made the trip. It was her eighth time going on the mission.
“[The mission team] is a combination of teens and adults; anyone over the age of 14 is welcome,” said Banfe. “We do construction work to repair homes that are in poor condition with homeowners who are unable to do the work themselves, for monetary or health reasons. Some owners work beside us. They are all so appreciative. Most towns we visit have an average household income of $10,000-$20,000 per year.”
This year’s trip, coordinated through the Appalachian Service Project (ASP) included 17 people, who were on the worksite for one week, Monday – Friday. The volunteers were from United Presbyterian Church, Flanders, Union Hill Presbyterian and a United Presbyterian Church, Flanders visitor. However, Banfe noted, “we encourage anyone to join, not just our congregation.” Banfe shared that the locations of mission work include places in Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. This year, the team helped out in Logan County, West Virginia.
Banfe shared that she goes each year with her two sons and several friends. While she admits that she is out of her “comfort zone,” she says she gets a great deal out of the experience, makes new friends, and finds the experience to be rewarding and “grounding.”
“We have so much compared to those we help and they are so kind, generous and appreciative,” she says. “We love meeting the families, playing with the kids and their animals. ASP has evening activities. One night each year, we do something related to the local culture. It is always interesting to learn about their lives, the coal mines, local folklore, music history of the area.”
In order to fund its many outreaches, like the Appalachian trip, United Presbyterian Church, Flanders has fundraisers, with its biggest being its Annual Apple Festival. This year, the 17th annual Apple Festival will be Sept. 22 from11 a.m.-3 p.m. Banfe and co-elder, Cindy Peach, organize the congregation into sub-committees to make the festival possible.
While the name may give people the impression that it is all about apples, Banfe shared that the festival offers much more.
“[There will be ] picnic foods for purchase, crafts and games for children of all ages, including a bounce house; vendors will be selling jewelry, accessories, food items, bath and body [items], and more,” Banfe shared. “R&H Farms will be there with fresh produce. [There will be] live music from Shane Zen and live and silent auctions.”
In addition, the Red Cross will be on hand to sign up donors for a blood drive the following Wednesday. The drive is coordinated by the family of the late Fred Swinson, a congregation member who was the original person responsible for it happening and the drive continues in his honor.
In addition to fundraising and outreach, the Apple festival is a time of fellowship.
“Applefest not only brings us (the congregation) together for a fun day, it is a great way for us to have visitors and introduce ourselves to the community,” said Banfe. “Everyone who attends, members and visitors, all mingle for a fun day. There are a lot of kids laughing, running and playing. Adults visit over lunch, shopping vendors and enjoying live music. And of course, the auction is tons of fun.”
The United Presbyterian Church, Flanders is located at 58 Drakesdale Road, Flanders. Worship is 10 a.m. on Sundays, with nursery care for young infants. Its phone number is (973) 584-8195; its email is firstname.lastname@example.org More information can be found on its website: www.unitedpcf.com.