By KATHY CHANG
METUCHEN — With the ever-changing diversity of the area, the Reformed Church of Metuchen, under the leadership of the Rev. Peter Sanfilippo, is meeting the challenges to become a multicultural church.
“It will take time,” said Sanfilippo, who began serving as pastor six years ago. “Some will gravitate towards that and some will not.”
Sanfilippo said they are slowly moving away from what the Reformed Church of Metuchen has historically been — a monolithic, white Protestant church, which has been in place for more than 130 years.
The church building is located at 150 Lake Ave. Sanfilippo said the original building burned down, and the current building has been in place for over 80 years.
“Our emphasis is trying to become a multicultural church,” he said, adding that it is important to be cognizant of the diverse transformation that the Metuchen and Edison communities have gone through.
“What I tell the church’s board, which is called our consistory, is if we do not see what we see at a Costco, a Home Depot or out on the street at the Reformed Church, we have a problem,” he said.
Sanfilippo said three years ago they began holding events not only for their congregation, but for the outside community.
“With our community events, we want to expose ourselves to the outside community, our neighbors … it’s not just to come to worship,” he said. “It’s important as pastor to know who our neighbors are … it’s important for me to recognize, acknowledge and welcome the community.”
He said it is important to note that 90 percent of the 40-60 children who attend their special events are not worshippers at the church.
“Ideally, we would like for them to come worship with us on Sunday; however, that is not our sole, primary purpose,” said Sanfilippo. “We are servants, as with any institution, to the community.”
The events include a fall pumpkin night, an Advent/Christmas workshop and vacation bible school.
This year instead of an Advent/Christmas workshop, the church is hosting an International Christmas Festival on Dec. 18 where people can sample different forms of music and food following its church service. The event will also include the church’s annual tree lighting.
For the events, Sanfilippo said he travels to different farms in Allentown to pick up pumpkins for the fall pumpkin night as well as the Christmas tree.
“I load everything in my truck,” he said.
He said his wife paints the different displays that are featured outside the church.
Andrea Orlando of Metuchen said that her family learned about the Reformed Church of Metuchen when her oldest daughter attended Edgar Child Care Center, which is housed in the church.
“Our daughter is now 18 years old,” she said. “We have been members of the church for 16 years. We attended one of the services and really liked the congregants. I liked that it was not so big as I was accustomed to when I was growing up in Long Island [New York] with huge congregations where you feel somewhat alienated a little bit.”
At the Reformed Church of Metuchen, Orlando said there is a sense of community.
“Everyone is so friendly,” she said adding that the congregation has been part of their family ever since they started attending the church.
Orlando said what she loves about living in Middlesex County is the fact that it has the most ethnicities in the county.
“I don’t have to travel,” she said. “I can go to Oak Tree Road [in Edison and Woodbridge] and feel like I’m in India. I can go to parts of Edison and feel like I’m in Korea or China. It’s great that our congregation reflects that diversity.”
Sanfilippo said their congregation has seen a rise in the Indonesian population from the Avenel section of Woodbridge.
“Half of our church board is Indonesian,” he said. “We learned to integrate their culture and music into our worship, and they have helped us accelerate the changes that are happening.”
With that rise, there has been an increase in their youth congregation. Sanfilippo said they are working on forming a youth worship group on Friday evenings.
Sanfilippo said becoming a multicultural church is a work in progress, including the songs and music that are played during worship.
“To be welcoming, one needs to give up power,” he said. “The challenge is retaining the thread of tradition without becoming static and dead. I am tasked with developing a lens that is a multicultural lens that equally reflects the different traditions around the world even though we may not have all ethnicities [in our congregation].”
Sanfilippo said different types of music genres including gospel, contemporary, jazz, folk songs and classical are added with the traditional hymns. Also, the church is moving away from the traditional robe choir.
“We value all traditions, but we are no longer only tradition,” he said.
Sanfilippo said it is important for the leadership of the church to not force the congregation to adapt [to the monolithic ways of the past], but to work with them on retaining their culture and to figure out what is best as one community.
“The Indonesians worship two to three hours,” he said. “A pastor has emerged out of the community and worship is spoken and sung in their language.”
The church is also home to an Asian-Indian congregation.
Orlando, who said she is Latina, said to see the diversity in the congregation is wonderful.
“We are all part of one congregation,” she said. “We have started a worship service that is in English and Indonesian, which is super cool. I don’t speak Indonesian, but I feel the spirit.”
Another event coming up at the church includes a “Burn the Bird Black Friday Zumbathon,” which is organized by Orlando. It will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 25.
“I have been doing Zumbathons for eight years now and this is the second one I have organized,” she said adding that not only is the Zumbathon a joyful, fun and healthy outlet, it is also raising money for a good cause.
The event will raise funds for capital improvements for the church.
“The building [is 80 plus years old] and things fall apart,” she said. “The money raised last year helped us with the new section of roof, and this year we hope to repair the upper stairs of the sanctuary.”
Orlando said the church is a beautiful part of the borough, which faces Tommy’s Pond.
“We want to keep it beautiful,” she said.
The Reformed Church of Metuchen is located at 150 Lake Avenue. For more information, visit http://www.rcmetuchen.org/.