Here we all are, at Hershey First United Methodist Church, in 2021. Some of us have pretty much
spent our lives here, some have begun more recently to think of it as a church home, and some may be
seeing it as a place and a faith community worth exploring. For some reason, maybe because I’ve been
coming into this building since I had to be carried in, to be baptized and put onto the nursery roll -
somehow I was dubbed as the one to tell you some of the stories of our church. But much of what I’ll tell
you also comes from the experiences of the rest of our church family. So here goes -
When I was growing up here in the 1950’s, I was coming to the First Evangelical United Brethren
Church of Hershey. We had just taken on that name in 1946, when the Evangelicals joined together
with the United Brethren Church. My grandfather, who was a Methodist minister, used to tell me that
someday the Methodists and the EUB’s would unite in structure and name, as well as in the doctrines
and worship styles that we already shared. And he was right; that did happen, in 1968.
But way before that, our congregation had started in a little, brick building down Park Avenue, near
the intersection with Derry Road, right across from what would become Hershey Park. As you’re
approaching Derry Road, look way up to your right, where there’s a steep bank, and a brick building that
looks like a church. That’s it - that’s where we started.
Several trustees in the church made it possible for this new building to become a reality by
mortgaging their own homes. At first, this building didn’t go past the main part of the Sanctuary, where
the pews end. It was because Mr. Hershey donated $20,000 to each of the five churches in Hershey at
that time that we were able to add to the sanctuary a parsonage and an educational unit. That south
section was added on, where the primary rooms are downstairs and back there in the Sanctuary
overflow area. Much later, the rooms on the east end were built, where the Kids Clubhouse is now, on
the lower level, and where the nursery is, on this floor. Then, decades later, we undertook another major
renovation. The narthex, the area outside the main Sanctuary door, was expanded, the Welcome
Center was created, the church offices were relocated to the parsonage building, and the previous office
areas became what are now the coat closet and the family restroom. Here in the Sanctuary, the entire
chancel area - where the pulpit, organ, and choir loft are - was expanded to make the platform area a
much more versatile space. Even the organ was replaced, and the new one could be moved around
and had lots of new capabilities. So for many months, we were living with plastic sheeting everywhere,
shielding the construction and more or less shielding the rest of the church from all the dust. As you can
imagine, all of that took years of discussing differing opinions, planning and revisions, and a capital
campaign to fund it all. So now, because of the foresight, collaboration, and sacrifices of many people,
we have the spaces for worship, fellowship, and service that serve us today.
And who used all these old and new spaces? Sunday School classes were hugely active in our
church for a long time. Do you know Lois Lutz? She came to this church at the age of 3, when her
father, T.J. Barnhart, came to be our pastor. Rev. Barnhart taught a large Men’s Bible Class in the
Sanctuary, while the women formed the Always Shining Class and the older Faithful Workers Class. By
the time I came along, many of the women must have joined the men, in the Social Room, as the Senior Adult Class, and they filled half of the room. And at that point, the Always Shining Class, who had
started as the younger women’s class, seemed to me to be very old. My primary Sunday School
Department back then was in the same area it’s in now, but the space looked very different. Most of it
consisted of a large room we called the Children’s Chapel, with maybe eight double rows of small pews.
They were graduated in size, so those of us in first grade (most of us, anyway) could reach our feet to
the floor, and the pews got higher as the children sitting in them were older and taller. Well before my
time, a post-high school class was organized, and without any other available space at that point, they
were relegated to the kitchen. Their first and long-time teacher was a man named Dan Lewis, and years
later, the class came to be named for him. Several moves later, they arrived at what is now the
parlor/prayer room, down the hall from the Sanctuary. One of the teachers for the class was Jim Stover,
whose wife Della is now living at Londonderry Village in Palmyra. They became aware of a family in
town who had many children and very little income, and they began to care for them. One of their
favorite ways to do that was to secretly leave Christmas presents on the family’s front porch on
Christmas Eve. Of course they got the Dan Lewis Class involved in this, and eventually they joined
forces with people in other churches to widen the scope of ministering to folks in need. That was the
beginning of the Hershey Social Ministry, which later became the Hershey Food Bank.
Besides the S. S. classes, there have been many groups in our church who have embodied the
missions of growing disciples and serving others in the world. Two of those were the women’s group,
which became the United Methodist Women, and the United Methodist Men. For decades, several
teams of the men presented a drama based on Leonardo DaVinci’s painting, The Last Supper, both
locally and to many other churches on some memorable trips.
About those missions - Hershey First has always taken seriously the call to mission. While I was
growing up, we heard all about Quincy Children’s Home, Sierra Leone, and Red Bird Mission. And our
church continues to be involved with Red Bird. Back in July, the missions committee held a pork BBQ
sandwich sale to fund this year’s trip. Unfortunately, like many other events this year, that had to be
cancelled. But we’ve had many other mission fields, as well. One of our members, Barbara Fisher, was
instrumental in beginning a new church in Kiev, Ukraine. One of our pastoral couples, Dick and Lynne
Brenneman, gave a great deal of time to another area of Ukraine and, of course, Beth Valentine and her
husband Ron Louder have served and led others to serve the people of Ukraine for many years. And I
can’t forget Jamaica. We began a relationship with a church in a rural area in 1995, with our first trip to
help paint their church and pre-school and to install some plumbing. But even though they didn’t have a
lot - in fact, my first hosts had to heat a bucket of water on the stove for me to wash with - still, they
ministered to us in ways we couldn’t have guessed. We’ve been continuing our visits with them and
helping them in various ways ever since.
We’ve had five members of our church, in my memory, go into the professional Christian ministry;
one of those grew up in our church when his father was a student pastor, then an assistant, and finally
an associate pastor here. And one of those people who grew up here is currently in full-time mission in
Czech Republic. Our history is filled with individuals and families who have given unstintingly of their
prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness to make Hershey First what it is today.
All of us and our families are welcome to claim that heritage too, and to add chapters to it, with our own
talents, time, and unique experiences.
There are lots of other stories and people who have made up the fabric of our congregation’s history.
The 11:00 p.m. Christmas Eve services have been one setting for memorable moments over the years.
Long after the pastor whom I had grown up knowing as Reverend Guinivan, but who actually had a first
name - it was Tom … long after he retired, he continued to come here and sit in a certain area of the
sanctuary overflow area for that service. And one Christmas Eve which no one who was there is likely
ever to forget was when Bishop Hermann Kaebnick, who was Winnie’s father and a part of our church in
his retirement years, stood at the pulpit and in his operatically trained bass voice sang “Stille Nacht” -
“Silent Night” - in its original German, his childhood language.
A few years before Rev. Guinivan began his twenty-year ministry among us, a college classmate of
his, a person who would become very important to many of us, began his own 51-year-long ministry
here. That was Robert W. Smith - “Bob” to all of us when we were old enough. He came as our organist
and choir director in 1948, in what was termed a part-time position, but to which he gave long hours far
beyond his pay. His standards of excellence and dedication in every aspect of his service to our church
were an example to a great many of us, as we were growing up and long after.
This congregation has been a center for milestones in the lives of many people over the years: in
baptisms, weddings, and last goodbyes in this life; in understanding our faith through Bible studies,
classes, evening study series, Zoom sessions, and especially in recent years, some remarkably creative
sermon presentations; in fellowship through shared serving, projects, social gatherings, and mutual
support in many ways. The lay people of this congregation have, all along, taken on tremendous
responsibilities in all phases of our church’s ministries. Ever since those Trustees mortgaged their own
homes to help to build this building, the laity here has traditionally been not only allowed, but
encouraged and enabled, to carry on the work of the Kingdom in this place.
In leading us through all of these years, our pastors have had all kinds of backgrounds, training, and
talents. They chose to use them to serve God in full-time ministry - although for at least the one who
told us about it, he started out with a very reluctant surrender! But the lay people in our congregation
have had even more widely varying backgrounds, abilities, and experiences. They’ve been educators,
factory workers, tradespeople, homemakers, artists, sales personnel, musicians, medical
professionals… you name it! And each one has had a home here, with experiences to share and to
explore, both well-known and innovative ways to worship, familiar and novel areas in which to serve,
time-honored and eye-opening ideas to offer and consider. We’re glad each one of you has come.
Once again, welcome home