Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Struggling church gets a boost from new ministers

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
The Rev. Will Kenlaw and his wife, the Rev. Lydia Kenlaw, are planning to build up a small Rockville church and move it to eastern Montgomery County. The Kenlaws live in Burtonsville.
The fact that Will and Lydia Kenlaw’s two youngest daughters are named Faith and Grace says something about the couple.

Religion plays a big part in the lives of the Burtonsville residents, from leading Sunday school at Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Burtonsville to training for five years to become ministers.

Now the couple has taken their involvement a step further. In April, they left the church to which they have belonged for almost 20 years to give life to a small, struggling AME church in Rockville called New Birth.

‘‘It’s another level of surrendering ourselves to the Lord for service,” Will Kenlaw, 49, said.

New Birth had five members when Will and Lydia Kenlaw were asked to take over by a presiding regional elder with AME. Now, the church has 10, but that includes the Kenlaws’ four daughters.

‘‘We got one new member!” Will Kenlaw said, with a laugh.

The small congregation has been holding its services for three years in a classroom of a Montessori school housed at Crusader Lutheran Church, 1605 Veirs Mill Road, a ‘‘gracious” host to five other churches, Will Kenlaw said. New Birth previously held services at Twinbrook Baptist Church in Rockville.

The Kenlaws have not always been so spiritually ambitious. As they like to say, they ‘‘received a call” from God and were pushed into ordained ministry.

‘‘People had been telling me for years, ‘There’s a call in your life. Don’t you see it?’” Will Kenlaw said.

But he did not see it, at least until he began having dreams showing him on stage as a minister.

Several months later, Lydia Kenlaw, 47, said she had the same dreams and followed her husband into the time-consuming, five-year training to become an AME minister, which requires earning a master’s degree in divinity.

It took a huge leap of faith, the Kenlaws said. When Lydia Kenlaw went back to school for her degree, the family tapped into its savings and Will Kenlaw worked part-time as a business developer so at least one parent could be home with the children, he said.

Lydia Kenlaw said the weight of becoming a minister hit her during her service of ordainment.

‘‘I couldn’t ignore the challenge that God had placed before me to draw souls closer to God,” she said.

But drawing people close to God is what the Kenlaws do best, said Allen Chapel’s senior pastor, the Rev. Baron Young. The couple is skilled at evangelism, a tool that will be essential at their new church, he said.

‘‘New Birth is like a new franchise,” Young said. ‘‘When you’re trying to establish a new franchise, being able to reach out into the community and evangelize into the community is very important.”

The Kenlaws said the first step is to move the church to a different location, which will most likely be somewhere along Georgia Avenue to better suit the church’s demographics, which had dwindled in Rockville, Lydia Kenlaw said.

The rent at the church in Rockville is ‘‘incredibly reasonable,” Will Kenlaw said, and he is looking for another affordable church. He said there are four regional AME churches helping New Birth through volunteers and funds, but declined to comment on specific costs to run the ministry.

Martha Carter, a member of New Birth since 1994 and senior steward for the church, said she has seen its membership decline to the point of hopelessness.

‘‘I steadily feel that New Birth, at this point, should have closed,” Carter, 76, said.

But seeing the Kenlaws work so hard has started to change her mindset, she said. ‘‘They are eager to try to renew what needs to be renewed; they’re eager to just branch forth and try to make it work.”

Even though AME is open to everyone, the church focuses on the African American community because it was formed by former slaves who were not allowed to worship in the Methodist church, Will Kenlaw said.

The couple, which alternates preaching every Sunday, said they plan to help the church grow by emphasizing healing prayer, teaching and healthy living.

Being physically fit is an important part of being spiritually happy, Will Kenlaw said.

‘‘Nowadays folks are tying mind, body and spirit together,” Lydia Kenlaw said.

But you do not have to be spiritually savvy to join their church, Will Kenlaw stressed. ‘‘A lot of people are like, ‘Well, I can’t come to church until I get myself together,’” he said. ‘‘And the reality is, if you wait for that, you’ll be coming with seven people carrying you.”