By Karen Zautyk
This Sunday, Dec. 8, at 9:30 a.m., Grace United Methodist Church, 380 Kearny Ave., will be holding its new celebratory service with the theme “Recovering Joy.”
Regular services continue to be held on the other Sundays, but the second Sunday of each month is now focused not only on prayer and but also “healing, singing and laughter.” In other words: joy.
From the interview we had recently with Grace Church Pastor Nicholas J. Connolly, we think he is the perfect person for such a ministry, considering we spent a great deal of time laughing. (Not at his work! Rather, at your correspondent’s initial discomfort when she learned she was interviewing a former Jesuit. In my mind, Jesuits are the intellectual ecclesiastical equivalent of astrophysicists. Some of them astrophysicicts. Connolly, though, while obviously intellectual, proved down to earth. (No pun intended.) And all clergy should be blessed with a sense of humor like his. And with his sense of purpose.
The new service, he notes, represents “a new direction” that a “new congregation” is taking — an outreach “to those recovering.” From what? From “any addiction or codependency.” From “guilt and shame due to religion or upbringing.” “From grief.” Et al.
“We’re all recovering from something,” Connolly told us.
“Recovering Joy” also is a service “for all faiths, those struggling with faith or who have no faith.” And Grace Church welcomes “all sexual orientations.”
Grace Church, which has been serving Kearny for over a century, is, in the 21st century, continuing to celebrate inclusiveness and “the joy of the Lord.” And breathing even more new life into its mission is the recent merger with the First United Methodist Church of Arlington, formerly at 601 Kearny Ave.
Hence, the earlier reference to a “new congregation.”
After the merger became official Oct. 26, Connolly issued this statement:
“Two respected congregations in Kearny stand poised for a new future. The First United Methodist Church . . . for 139 years has provided rich and diverse ministry to Kearny, especially the Arlington section, and North Arlington.
“For 112 years, Grace United Methodist Church has offered ministry in the center area of Kearny.
“For decades, these two churches have been relating in ministry — feeding the hungry, common Bible Studies, Holy Week Services together, dinner and fellowship activities.”
And for one of those decades, they have had a common pastor: Connolly.
He noted that, although there had been talks of a merger in the past, those deliberations had indicated “it was not yet time.”
But now, “The time has come.”
The congregations have had what you might term an informal merger since 2011, when they began worshipping together at Grace Church during the winter months. First United has since offered its own building to New Canaan United Methodist Church.
As part of the merger, Connolly arranged for what he cleverly calls “an organ transplant.” The beautiful 1910 Moller pipe organ, dedicated and housed at First United since 1912, was moved in November 2012 to Grace Church.
The pastor, noting that the wood of the organ and that used in the construction of Grace Church are similar, commented, “It looks like it has always been here.”
The pipe organ, he said, “was the musical heart of First United, so to have it live on is a great comfort.”
It is comfort, fellowship and support — a sense o family, if you will — that Grace Church will offer. Along with “a joyous expression” of faith though music and “the power of singing.”
“The emotional expression is important in worship,” Connolly said.
In his statement on the merger, the pastor also noted that “the new congregation offers inspirations for fresh initiatives,” especially ministry to children and families. He is a family man himself, married to his wife Georgina for nearly 30 years.
“We really want to reach out to the community to meet its needs,” he emphasized.
As for Grace Church’s “recovery” mission, Connolly brings to it decades of experience as a professional drug and alcohol counselor. Currently, he works with the Inter-County Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse (ICCDAA). The private nonprofit, which serves Hudson, Essex and Bergen counties, has offices at 480 Kearny Ave.
Connolly, born in Newark and raised in Kearny, is, as noted earlier, a former Jesuit. When he decided to leave the priesthood in 1984, he became involved in counseling thanks to a network of friends, including other expriests, working in the field of recovery and addiction.
“I never thought about becoming a minister,” he recalled, but one day he went to see a Methodist bishop about doing counseling. “And he [the bishop] said, ‘What about taking a pulpit?’”
Now, Connolly noted, he is “technically retired” as a minister, but continues to serve part-time.
“Retired” or not, he has lost none of his devotion to his calling. “There is a need for people to feel welcome in a faith setting, even if they don’t have faith,” he said.
Many people are searching, and it is important to “find a place to express that search and find the comfort of being accepted.”
And the foundation of it all is “the joy of the Lord.”
(Information about Grace Church services along with two blogs — one for families, one for children – written by Connolly can be accessed at gracechurchkearny.org/).