Old Stone Church in Cleveland, Ohio has been meeting on Public Square in the heart of downtown Cleveland since 1820. Incorporated as the First Presbyterian Society in 1827, its first permanent building was dedicated in 1834. The church has maintained its place as “a symbol of spiritual leadership, community involvement and stability in the heart of the city.” The church’s mission statement speaks to their calling to presence and action in their urban setting, “Loving Christ, Serving City – spiritually, culturally, socially – since 1820.”

“Geographically, we are in the heart of the city. We can’t take this lightly,” explains Old Stone’s pastor, Rev. Dr. R. Mark Giuliano. “Our call is to nurture the city’s spiritual heart as well. We are interested in working toward the over-all well-being of the city.”

Indeed, the central location of the church facilitates its connections with the city. Like many large industrial cities, Cleveland has seen its share of boom and bust. Old Stone withstood these same highs and lows with their neighbors. In 2008, Forbes magazine declared Cleveland one of the poorest cities in the nation. In 2010, it was labeled the fastest dying city in the U.S. The church’s goal has been to open its doors to invite the city in and to be engaged with the needs of its neighbors.

Hands-On Engagement Each week, the church offers a Friday Social Services/Food Pantry program, giving out food and offering connections to needed social services to people who stop in. They also collect and distribute toiletries and clothing through their Love Your Neighbor ministry.

Community Lectures and Forums The congregation launched their spring Hope for the City symposium, an annual luncheon series, which lifts up challenges and opportunities through engaging discussions by community leaders as well as national experts in architecture, economic development, public transportation, and more. Church members are involved in planning and coordinating these annual events that welcome community leaders, politicians and local business leaders for engaging discussion.

Local Social Activism Rev. Mark sees his role as one of helping the church and its members to feel engaged and empowered to be in ministry in the city. To this end, church members participate in marches and gatherings on the Public Square: holding the PFLAG breakfast on Cleveland PRIDE day, sponsoring and walking in the Cleveland NAMI walk, and hosting Woman’s March Rallies each January.

Opening Doors In recent years, the city of Cleveland has come alive with new downtown development, an increase in downtown residents and neighborhood amenities. It has become a walking/biking city. With their downtown location, the church opens its doors to such community meetings as the Downtown Cleveland Residents Association and Public Square Redevelopment. It hosted meetings of security planning teams as the city prepared for the 2016 Republican National Convention. In recent summers, in partnership with the local YMCA, it welcomes children to a Summer Urban Camp. With its rich history, art, and architecture, the church is open to the public for self-guided as well as docent-led historical tours. The Gallery at Old Stone is a ministry of the congregation which showcases new and recent works from a wealth of local, regional, and international artists. Art shows and musical events bring people through the doors to encounter the hospitality of the church.

Vision for Involvement The congregation’s Urban Wellness and Mission team offers one-time grants to members seeking to be involved in local projects addressing hunger, housing, and educational needs, thus supporting new efforts to be engaged in the Cleveland community. As the church approaches its Bicentennial celebration, they anticipate raising funds to install a sprinkler system and ensuring code compliance in their building with a vision of opening a school in cooperation with the Cleveland Metro School District.

Rev. Mark credits the church Session and congregation with the vision and encouragement they give him to be involved in leadership within the city. He has served on the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and on the city’s Historic Gateway Neighborhood corporation. He and the church helped to found the Downtown Cleveland Residents Association, which brings together representatives from downtown residential buildings and neighborhoods to address needs and growth of their urban community. He feels that his involvement with the local community paves the way for strengthened relationships between the church and the city.

Mark’s advice for churches looking to be involved in the life of their local community is to use “every opportunity to find your voice at the table with other civic leaders.” Go to local civic events. Attend community forums and council meetings. Make the presence of the church known with the leaders of the community. “If they don’t invite you to their table, reach out and invite them to yours,” he advises. “I don’t know any civic or city leader who wouldn’t respond positively to an invitation to meet for coffee or for lunch to discuss the needs of the city.”

“Let people know that you – with your faith and spirituality – are working for the well-being of your community just as a local business person or council person is.” This is your connection – you and other community leaders have the well-being of your city at the heart of your work together. “Take your place, find your voice in your community.”

“We need pastors [and church leaders] leading the church into the world, in the world, and for the world, crossing lines like nobody’s business!”

For more information about the Old Stone Church, see their website: www.oldstonechurch.org. Email: info@oldstonechurch.org

Beth Herrinton-Hodge

Beth Herrinton-Hodge is a long-time APCE member, Certified Christian Educator and Teaching Elder who serves on the Advocate Ministry Team. She directs the Academic Support Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and lives in Shelbyville, KY with her husband and two teen children.