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Small New Jersey churches gain strength and diversity in union

One Hope Church posed for a group photograph at its Dec. 5 unification service in Absecon, N.J. Submitted photo

ABSECON, N.J. (BP) – Pastor Buff McNickle describes himself as “just a white guy” born in Alabama. He and his wife Cissy, Cuban American, are parents to three adopted African American children, and Sunday his multiethnic congregation became one with a Filipino American church.

One Hope Church co-pastor Buff McNickle with his wife Cissy, their three children and Santa. Submitted photo

Grace Falls Church, a congregation of about 30 worshippers McNickle has pastored since 2013, and One Hope Church, a 45-member church Filipino American pastor Robert F. Trice replanted in 2019, are now one.

“We just really have an incredible tapestry of people,” McNickle said. “It’s been a true blessing to see God just bring our hearts together. We wanted to have a multicultural, multiethnic church. And we did a little bit, but now we truly are that.”

Trice said both churches have contributed valuable expertise and wisdom to the partnership.

“Even though One Hope Church had more people than Grace Falls Church, we believe that they had some resources in terms of people and skills that can contribute to helping us make our ministry more well-rounded, more able to minister to the needs of the people in our community,” he said.

“Mainly it’s the vision of Pastor Buff, because Pastor Buff loves to reach out to people in the community, regardless, and our Filipino congregation, for the most part, we wanted to reach out to Filipinos. And he was instrumental in opening the eyes of our church to see not it’s not just about the Filipino church, that God put us here to be a light to everyone, not just to a particular group of people. We saw that and we embraced that. And we said if they would welcome us, then we would definitely welcome then as well.”

Peter Yanes, executive director of Asian American relations and mobilization at the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, is a friend to both pastors and preached the unification sermon.

“Seeing firsthand how two churches with different beginnings, backgrounds and cultures come together for the sake of the Gospel is what a Great Commission cooperation should look like,” Yanes said. “The Gospel will defy our differences and unite us with the singleness of purpose of wanting to see everyone come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Our mission comes first over anything else.”

One Hope Church co-pastor Robert Trice, second from left, led the congregation in worship at its unification service of One Hope Church and Grace Falls Church in Absecon, N.J. YouTube screen capture

Both pastors see the union as a solution for smaller churches struggling to survive. Grace Falls’ membership had dwindled as McNickle battled a rare form of endocrine carcinoma during the COVID-19 pandemic. At its height under McNickle’s leadership, the church had about 65 members.

“Churches that now are struggling to survive, they don’t have to do that,” McNickle said. “They have to open up their minds and open up their hearts to really understand what partnership in the Gospel is all about.”

Yanes was instrumental in the early lives of both churches, beginning when he was a North American Mission Board catalytic language missionary and church planting catalyst with the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey (BRN). He helped the pastors connect after Trice arrived at One Hope in 2019, when the Filipino church was renting worship space at an American Legion building.

McNickle invited One Hope to share space in Grace Falls’ sanctuary, with one service at 9:30 and the other a couple hours later. The partnership worked well. Then came Buff’s cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments that prevented him from preaching. Those Sundays, the churches would combine their worship with Trice preaching.

Neither church had been holding online worship, but when the COVID-19 pandemic halted onsite gatherings, One Hope had an information technology professional in its membership with the expertise to produce online worship. The churches began cooperating in ministry beyond the pulpit.

The partnership led to talk of a merger, but merging would have been cumbersome for One Hope as a recent replant.

“Grace Falls has been so gracious, in that they decided to just disband Grace Falls and join One Hope,” Trice said, “to make the process simpler. We are blessed tremendously with the graciousness of Grace Falls in being willing to do that.”

The new One Hope Church has about 70 worshipers from America, the Philippines, Liberia and Egypt.

Trice sees a partnership built on mutual respect and love.

“When two churches come together, they have to be like meeting in the middle, as they say,” Trice said. “And our partnership with Pastor Buff is also a tremendous blessing to me personally, because I’ve had negative experiences with working with other pastors in terms of trying to come together. Someone would inadvertently want to be in charge. They’d be a vying for – excuse the term – power.

“But in terms of Pastor Buff, he has a servant’s heart. He willingly said, ‘You’re going to be the pastor. You’re going to be my pastor and I’m going to be willing to serve with you and under you.’ And that is a tremendously humbling experience, seeing a pastor be willing to do that.”

McNickle is also employed part-time at the BRN as director of compassion ministry and network development. McNickle sees kingdom benefits in the partnership he shares with Trice.

“I think us coming together is going to enable us not to survive, but thrive. And it’s really going to stretch us and grow us,” McNickle said. “And I think that other churches need to look around and see where they can develop partnerships. It’s like I said Sunday. What we do in here speaks volumes into our community, and our ability to come together in a unified heartbeat of people from all different places and backgrounds and socioeconomics. Our willingness to put aside any agendas for the Kingdom of God speaks volumes to our community.”

At the unification service, Trice celebrated God’s grace in bringing together the congregations.

“Bottom line, it’s just one church,” Trice said at the celebration. “We may have had Grace Falls and One Hope Church; but we recognize, you may call it by whatever stripe. It is the church of Jesus Christ. And as the church of Jesus Christ, we have a mission to fulfill.”