There have been lots and lots of studies done to explain the decline of volunteerism in the last few decades, attributing it to things like the breakdown of the family, increased mobility, growth of the suburbs, etc. One area that is rarely mentioned is the decrease in church membership. In previous generations, church life was the generator of a great number of community activities.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. These early settlers were escaping religious persecution in England, which to the Pilgrims was much more than just Sunday morning worship. In fact, it may surprise many that in America the first schools for children, the first universities, the first hospitals, the first mental institutions, and the first prisons were all birthed out from the church. The reason that prisons were called “penitentiaries” was because these institutions were designed to make the law offender “penitent.”
Lycoming County is fortunate that the churches are still a source of active volunteerism in a wide variety of areas. The key networking agency is the United Churches of Lycoming County. Formed in 1946 out of the Williamsport Ministerium, it was designed to bring clergy and laity together to serve the city and adjoining area. Next year it will be celebrating its seventy-fifth year of existence, and it has grown to involve a vast variety of community services.
Since 1991, the director has been Gwen Bernstein, who has continually expanded the fantastic work of United Churches of Lycoming County, and it has been staggering. They have outreaches to the colleges, the prisons, and a food pantry for those who have trouble making ends meet. In 1988, United Churches began the ministry of Shepherd of the Streets to provide spiritual and material help to those confronting fear, hunger, homelessness, unemployability or other difficulties. In 1989, United Churches began the Interfaith Hospitality Network that has developed today into Family Promise, an organization designed to help families cope with temporary housing problems. Forty years ago, United Churches began the hospital chaplaincy program and fully funded the chaplain. Suicide Prevention HelpLine all started at United Churches of Lycoming County.
Gwen Bernstein has been the guiding force behind all this work. And she does not just administrate these programs, which is more than a full-time job in itself, she is also an active participant as well. An original program that United Churches initiated back in 1946 was holding church services for nursing homes. Today, they provide 600 services a year to the dozen nursing homes of Lycoming County, and Beth not only coordinates the schedule but also conducts five services a month herself.
Obviously, Beth and the work of United Churches could use more help. Already between 500 to 1000 volunteers are utilized for the vast array of United Churches involvements, but more are always needed. Those interested could visit a nursing home, write an editorial, donate some time to help out the food pantry or at the Shepherd of the Street office, and even golfers could help greatly by getting a four-some together for the annual fund-raiser golf tournament at White Deer Golf Course on September 25th. More information about any of these opportunities can be found at the website: uclc.org or by calling Rev. Gwen N. Bernstein, Executive Director or Mrs. Patty Gohrs, Administrative Assistant at 570-322-1110.