by Elsie Walker
About 20 years ago, Rev. Jeff Edwards started ending his children’s sermon with the phrase, “there’s always room in the circle” as he would ask the children join hands in prayer. That phrase stuck as a description of The Parsippany United Methodist Church, where everyone is welcomed
“Our church is a place where it is safe to both laugh and to cry, to acknowledge your shortcomings and embrace your gifts,” says Edwards. “It is a place to become fully human through the grace of God.”
Celebrating his 30th anniversary with the church this coming year, Edwards has shared a great deal with his congregation, including a gift for writing plays which has sparked a special type of outreach: a theater ministry.
“In the process of making something for the stage, we strengthen and even create bonds of friendship,” said congregation member Fred Mendez of Parsippany. “Perhaps most importantly, by displaying our little world and telling its story, we reveal something of the way we, as Christians, view the world and our hopes for it.”
The church welcomes everyone.
“[Parsippany United Methodist Church] is diverse in a variety of ways: by age, economic and educational backgrounds, ethnicity, sexual orientation, politics and theology,” said Edwards. “The common thread is the love revealed by Jesus. True hospitality is a central Christian value, and too often the Church in this world has been lacking in this quality.”
Edwards notes that being pastor at the church for so long has allowed him to develop a depth of connection to the congregation which he feels is rare.
“There have been people I’ve baptized as babies and watched grow into adulthood,” he said. “There are people I’ve confirmed, married, and then baptized their children. I take particular care with funerals to tell the stories of peoples’ lives, and oftentimes I have memories that date back decades,” he shared. Edward’s own family includes his wife, Sarah, and their three grown children, Andrew, Kate, and Bobby.
Edwards came to the church in 1989; however, the church’s history stretches far back from there. It began in 1830 when a wealthy Presbyterian church-goer thought servants of the wealthy should have their own church. He donated a plot of land and the Methodist church was built. That church building stood on Route 46 until 1962 when progress, in the form of Route 287, came along and the building had to be torn down.
The congregation worshipped in local schools and members’ homes until 1964 when a new fellowship hall and education building were erected on the current site on Beverwyck Road. The fellowship hall was a type of all-purpose room where worship, church dinners, and plays were held. However, the congregation hoped one day to have a sanctuary in which to worship. After Edwards came to the church, the growth of the congregation made it possible for a sanctuary plan to develop. Meanwhile, worship in the fellowship hall reflected the love of the church, even if it wasn’t a sanctuary. The written history of the church notes, “In the 1990s, in a time when most churches were treating people with HIV/AIDS like lepers, our congregation was providing retreats for rest and renewal for people suffering from the epidemic. Our theme became ‘There’s always room in the circle.’” Fundraising and planning for a new sanctuary took time. Its design was envisioned as being simple and open, like the spirit of the congregation. Building of the sanctuary began in November 2001 and it is the sanctuary that stands today.
Worship in the sanctuary is set to be held at 10 a.m. every Sunday. It is a blended service, including elements of the traditional and the contemporary. Images and hymn lyrics are projected onto a screen for all to see. Worship aids include a choir and bell choir.
In addition, “Every other month half a dozen young violinists from the Allegro Music Academy come to provide music throughout our worship service,” shared Edwards. After the children’s message, the children go to Sunday School, which is held for children ages 3 to 18. During worship, mothers with babies can take advantage of a nursery area. In it rocking chairs are behind glass windows which allow parents to both see and hear worship while taking care of their infants. After worship, there is a coffee hour which Edwards explains is well-attended.
Outreach at the church includes involvement with feeding the homeless through Homeless Solutions and Family Promise and ongoing food offerings. The church takes turns with others helping Interfaith Furnishing, a ministry that provides furniture to people without financial resources. The church also reaches out to a local nursing home.
A unique type of ministry and outreach is the church’s theater ministry.
“At least once each year, our pastor turns into a playwright to create a little world and a few people in the context of a fictional story,” said Mendez. “Then, members of the church come together to put on a show to show what Pastor Jeff has created. We call it a play, and despite the hard work and challenges involved in creating it, we have a lot of fun and it is like playing.”
So far, Edwards has written 10 full length 90-minute Christmas plays, containing drama and comedy.
“With the characters and story lines that arise I find a way to give expression to what I believe to be the core Gospel message of Christmas: that a God of great love and joy comes among us in the muck, the despair and even the violence of this broken world,” said Edwards.
Each play takes about three months to write and thoughts about them start early in the year as Edwards looks for inspiration to hit.
“This year the seed that caught my imagination involves a bus filled with strangers travelling on Christmas Eve with a severe snow storm chasing it,” he said. Because it helps him to know who will be in the play, he sends out an email in July to see who would like to do it. Once he knows, Edwards starts writing the play, and as he does, in his head he hears the voices of those who will be the characters saying the dialogue.
Church member Terry Germann of Lake Hopatcong is one of those who acts in the plays and states of her experience, “I used to do acting in plays when I was younger and I always enjoyed it, so when I joined this wonderful church and found out that Pastor Jeff writes his own plays, and does Christmas and Easter plays, I wanted to be a part of it! Getting together at rehearsals is so good because I actually get to know people better through spending time with them at rehearsals, while waiting for us to go up to do our part. I’ve made friends that way, [with] Jean, Tracy, Jennifer, even the younger teenagers. Also, knowing that Pastor Jeff actually writes the plays with me in mind for a particular role, [that’s] is a huge compliment.”
While not everyone wants to get into the act, Edwards estimates that over the years about 100 different actors have performed in his plays, some coming back again and again to perform new roles.
“In addition to the ten Christmas plays, I have also written two original full length dramas, two plays about holy week and a play for children about Pentecost, and two full length plays for Confirmation youth that provide entertaining, and yet hopefully compelling, overviews of Christianity,” Edwards stated. In addition to those who perform, there are volunteers who help backstage.
Edwards, who currently acts as both playwright and director, finds it gratifying to see his plays performed by his church. The plays are also a type of fellowship opportunities for members of the congregation.
“It definitely brings us together, and as we get closer and closer to the actual date of the play, we get all the more excited because we’ve all created something beautiful,” said Germann. “Sometimes, the message behind the play is very heartwarming and we can discuss it together. Then, there’s the big team work behind the stage, wanting all of us to do well, to remember our lines, to remember to bring our props or to remind people of their cues. Plus acting with the kids is my favorite part because they are so good with remembering lines; it just floors me how good they are.”
Of course, sharing the message with the audience is important.
“Every year, we get together and work hard for creative, wholesome, friendship building fun that has a higher purpose, and in doing so, we model for each other and our audiences the kind of constructive playing we, as a church, would like to see more of in the real world,” said Mendez.
Along the same lines, Edwards said that from the sometimes chaotic start during rehearsals, something beautiful arises, “Not only the cast, but people who have made it a tradition of attending, testify that whereas the season is easily hijacked by the culture making it overly commercialized and frantic, the play provides an opportunity to be reminded of what it all really means. It does so for me personally.”
Upcoming events at the church include the Happy Apple Bazaar which is set for Sat., Nov. 3 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the Christmas play set for Dec. 14-16. For more information about the Parsippany United Methodist Church visit the website at http://parsippanyumc.org.