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Feature Stories July 9, 2009  RSS feed

Church Story Is Something Special

Pastor, Members Keep The Faith At United Methodist
by Bill Mitchell

Sharing good food and company is part of the mid-week service of prayer and praise at the United Methodist Church of Glendale. Pastor Philip Hardt (third from left) is pictured with church members (from left) Dick Suppiger, Jim Breen, Lorraine Miller, Gloria Suppiger, Bob Miller, Hellen Block, Donna Kielb, Ruth Grebinger and Noel Grebinger. (photo: Bill Mitchell) Sharing good food and company is part of the mid-week service of prayer and praise at the United Methodist Church of Glendale. Pastor Philip Hardt (third from left) is pictured with church members (from left) Dick Suppiger, Jim Breen, Lorraine Miller, Gloria Suppiger, Bob Miller, Hellen Block, Donna Kielb, Ruth Grebinger and Noel Grebinger. (photo: Bill Mitchell) If churches are a neighborhood's spiritual beacons, Glendale continues to shine brightly, thanks to the lamps of faith and fellowship at houses of worship such as the United Methodist Church of Glendale.

The church, located at the southwest corner of Central Avenue and 66th Place, is like the neighborhood itself—an enduring place with a small-town feel.

It's not surprising, if one agrees that people, more than any physical structure, determine the character and value of their surroundings.

Leading the way at the United Methodist Church of Glendale is its pastor, Rev. Dr. Philip Hardt—better known as Pastor Phil.

He is a soft-spoken man with a gentle sense of humor whose physical build does not seem up to crashing into the boards of a hockey rink. So it's unlikely one would guess that of all the sports, ice hockey had been the pastor's game.

But as a youngster growing up in West Haven, Conn., he developed a passion for it and competed as a member of his high school's varsity team.

To such a degree, he admitted, that it kept him from seeing other things.

"I guess you could say that I was enjoying life, but I wasn't taking things too seriously," Reverend Hardt said.

With a partial athletic scholarship, he went on to college with the idea of playing hockey and soccer, but found it much tougher at the collegiate level.

A writer in New York City

One thing that did not dim was his attraction to New York City—a fascination since boyhood—and the dream to move to the city and make his way as a writer.

Convincing a friend to join him, the two left college and moved to Manhattan's Lower East Side. Unfortunately, reality replaced the dream—in disappointing fashion.

Less than four months later, the future minister returned to Connecticut, disheartened by the experience.

"I told my parents that I felt like a failure and they said, 'Don't be silly—you're too young to be a failure.'"

He returned to college, but realized soon enough that he had reached a point of desperation.

Reverend Hardt recalled, "I got down on my knees in the bedroom of my parents' house and I said, 'God, wherever you are and whoever you are, please come and help me.'"

Within two months, the answer to that plea appeared to come in the form of involvement in the youth group at his local church in West Haven.

Being active in the youth group eventually resulted in a trip back to New York City—this time, to attend Billy Graham's Crusade at Shea Stadium.

Admittedly, it didn't bring about an amazing transformation.

"There wasn't any flash of light," Hardt admitted.

But back at college, he developed a friendship with a fellow named Bruce who, he noticed, "spoke about Jesus as though he were a real person."

Bruce invited him to an informal get-together of some members of a non-denominational Christian fellowship, where Hardt was asked, "What do you believe in?"

In response, Hardt related some predictions of his future—given to him during his high school days. The seer had been a local restaurateur who served up images of astral projection and the psychic readings of Edgar Cayce. They were things that had made an impression on the teenaged Hardt.

But upon sharing those predictions with Bruce and the others, Hardt was presented with a simple explanation for the psychic's forecasts: "He knew these things because Satan had told him."

'A struggle within'

At that moment, Hardt suddenly felt "a struggle within"—a terrible turmoil that proceeded to bring him to a place where he could see what had been missing from his life and the opportunity to embrace it.

"I felt at peace," he said. "It was like I had been born again."

In truth, it was the beginning of a new life for him, as he set out on the path that would lead him to pursue his studies as a Methodist minister.

He applied and was accepted to divinity school at Yale. Upon graduating in 1986, he accepted his first assignment as an associate at a Methodist church in Windsor, Conn.

By 1990, he was back in New York, having entered Fordham University to begin work towards his doctorate, which he received in 1997.

"I would call home and my father would say, 'Is it done yet?" the pastor smiled, recalling the seven years he spent in obtaining his Ph.D.

The experience was an especially fruitful one, however, as he also spent time getting involved with the Methodist district and some of the churches in the Bronx.

It was during that time that he met his future wife, Veneeta. They married and Reverend Hardt continued his work in teaching and research.

Ironically, the Hardts were living in Manhattan—though miles away from where an aspiring writer had suffered disappointment and frustration, seemingly a lifetime ago—when Philip was presented with the opportunity to succeed the retiring Pastor David Stevens at the United Methodist Church of Glendale.

Reverend and Veneeta Hardt arrived at the parsonage on Central Avenue on July 1, 2006.

Began with a merger

For the church, July seems to be a month worth celebrating. Thirty-nine years ago this month, Pastor Howard Grant became the first minister of the newly established United Methodist Church of Glendale.

It had been formed from two Glendale houses of worship—the Christ Church of Glendale-United Methodist and the Glendale Evangelical United Brethren—that voted in favor of a merger in 1970.

Grant's pastorate would last 11 years, using the present structure on Central Avenue, previously known as the Glendale E.U.B. Church.

The building on 68th Place near Central Avenue that had housed Christ Church of Glendale-United Methodist was sold.

In the 1976 book, Our Community, It's History and People, written by Walter J. Hutter, Rev. John D. O'Halloran, Maureen Walthers and Philip P. Agusta and published by the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society, it is noted that the two churches in the merger represented "two strains of the evangelical tradition."

The former Christ Church was Methodist, "with English background," while Evangelical United Brethren reflected a "German background."

A German service, conducted by Erich Mueller, a German lay-speaker, would continue at United Methodist Church of Glendale until 1981, when it ended with Mueller's retirement.

A tradition of fellowship

While demographic shifts in a neighborhood figure to bring about certain changes, some things—like the enrichment that comes from sharing a meal and conversation—remain constant.

On Wednesday evenings, the pastor and church members meet for a mid-week service of prayer and praise—sharing food and fellowship.

A visitor who was welcomed to sit down with them was introduced by Pastor Phil to a group that included: Hellen Block; Jim Breen; Noel and Ruth Grebinger; Donna Kielb; Dick and Gloria Suppiger; and Bob and Lorraine Miller.

All are active in church affairs, serving as trustees or in some other capacity, such as chairing a committee, leading a group or—as in the case of Frank Auriemma, who is the church organist—providing a talent.

While not present when the visitor was on hand, among others who are similarly active in their church are Edna Gee, Henrietta Maier and Charles and Lorraine Gering.

United Methodist Church of Glendale hosts a Sunday School and was among the local churches that took part in the centennial edition of Ridgewood's Anniversary Day Parade on June 4.

The annual event, also known as Brooklyn-Queens Day, celebrates the 1816 opening of the first Sunday Schools on Long Island.

Afterwards, the Glendale church continued the celebration with its tradition of serving hot dogs, drinks and ice cream.

The United Methodist Church of Glendale—which is a member of the Queens Federation of Churches— also hosts adult bible study, choir and Girl Scouts, with plans for other programs under discussion or in the works.

A Vacation Bible School, open to all children in thr first through sixth grades will be held from Aug. 10 through 14, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. For information, call Gloria Suppiger at 1-718-358-7829.

Special events

Some church events, such as the annual Pancake and Country breakfasts, Chinese Auction Café and Fall Rummage Sale, serve the dual purpose of bringing people together while raising funds.

Special touches abound, as in last November's Sunday Worship Concert featuring a performance by Bill Cooper and Betty Kron, the musical duo known as Nightsong.

More recently, "The Praise and Worship team" from the United Methodist Church in New Fairfield, Conn. performed what was billed as a "Contempoirary Praise and Worship Service" on June 6. It marked a return visit for the group, who had performed at the United Methodist Church of Glendale last Sept. 20.

On June 28, the church welcomed the Women of Anchor House, a substance abuse program run by the United Methodist Church, who came to join church members in raising their voices in song and to provide inspiration through testimony.

To the visitor who attended a recent mid-week service and enjoyed the conversation—whether it meant hearing Bob Miller discuss the efforts in making needed renovations at the church; having Lorraine Miller provide the story behind each of its stained-glass windows; or enjoying Dick Suppiger's remembrances of his ballplaying days at Maurice Park— all of it seemed special, because of the people who make up the United Methodist Church of Glendale.

It also seemed to be the heart of the story that Pastor Phil had come to New York to write.