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Predominantly African American church, synagogue, and Religious Society of Friends share rejuvenated Pottstown space

Through an inspired combination of interfaith connection and good will, what was once a burden has become a welcoming sanctuary for an unlikely coalition. A building, on 8 grassy Montgomery County acres, has been transformed into an ecumenical house of worship for a predominantly African American church, a synagogue, and the Religious Society of Friends.

The three congregations emerged from their own bouts with the wilderness in the same place, an L-shaped synagogue next to a golf course in Pottstown.

The deteriorating building, once a thriving destination, had become a hardship for its shrinking band of congregants.  The roof leaked, the plumbing often failed, and the furnace worked ... sometimes.

But through an inspired combination of interfaith connection and goodwill, what was once a burden has become a welcoming sanctuary for an unlikely coalition.

The building, on eight grassy Montgomery County acres, has been transformed into an ecumenical house of worship for a predominantly African American church, a synagogue, and the Religious Society of Friends.

Bethel Community Church of Pottstown, Congregation Hesed Shel Emet (Mercy and Truth), and the Pottstown Area Friends Worship Group are sharing the building in a collaboration that requires a juggling of worship schedules, bible studies, bar mitzvahs, and silent meetings.

"It's a marriage of the best kind," said the Rev. Vernon Ross Jr., pastor and founder of Bethel Community Church.

The 250-member congregation is the new owner of the house of worship on leafy Keim Street. Bethel shares its sanctuaries, classrooms, offices and social hall in what could be described as the happy ending of a wilderness story with three chapters. Two congregations were searching for a new home, and another was looking for peace of mind.

The 125-year-old Mercy and Truth congregation erected the building as a synagogue in 1962. The then-thriving congregation was home to 150 families. High Holiday services in its half-moon-shaped sanctuary were packed; its Hebrew School, bustling.

But as Jews became more assimilated, and the synagogue's youth left -- mostly never to return -- Mercy and Truth's membership declined, said Rabbi Ira Flax. The building deteriorated and the 60 or so remaining families struggled to maintain it.

"The first thing that goes is the painting. Some days the lights might be out. A faucet might not be working, a toilet in a stall might not work," and leaks were everywhere, Flax said.

Five miles away, the 15-member Friends Worship Group, had met for five years at the Fellowship Farm, a retreat center in New Hanover Township. Convener Henry Beck had started the worship group with his wife five years earlier when the couple moved to Pottstown and discovered that there was no Friends group nearby. Founding a new group would be like restarting a tradition, Beck thought, because John Potts, the town's founder, was a Quaker.

But when Fellowship Farm, a center once visited by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., went up for sale in 2016, the worship group began searching for its new meeting place.

Nearby, Bethel Community Church had begun its own sojourn in March 2015 when members voted to leave Bethel A.M.E. Church, in Pottstown, to start an independent nondenominational congregation.

Founded in 1871, the A.M.E. church is the oldest black church in Pottstown and part of the oldest independent black denomination in the United States. The congregation, located on Beech Street, had 14 members when Ross became its pastor in 2000, the minister said.

But as community outreach expanded, membership grew. By 2014, Bethel A.M.E. had 200 members. But congregants were increasingly dissatisfied with the denomination over issues of strategic planning that included turning over tens of thousands of their tithes as dues to the national A.M.E. Church, Ross said.

Members voted to leave by a vote of 140-2-1.

"We began planning our exodus," Ross said, not knowing where the church would end up. Then Ross got a call from Amy Wolf, a member of Mercy and Truth.

Wolf had heard about the church's dilemma from her father-in-law, Jack, an attorney who had worked with Bethel A.M.E. during a failed attempt to build a new church.

The call was the start of a two-year process that would lead to a real estate swap. In May 2015, the former A.M.E. congregation, newly named Bethel Community Church, moved to the synagogue as a tenant of Mercy and Truth's. A year later, Bethel purchased the building from the synagogue for $700,000, and Mercy and Truth became the tenant.

"Pastor Ross and his congregation have been a godsend," Flax said.

Bethel began cleaning up the building, fixing the roof, and making repairs.

"We bought this place because we want to expand our ministry, bring kids from Pottstown in the church so they won't hang on the streets, and provide for the larger community," Ross said.

Five months after the deal to buy the building was finalized, the Friends worship group called to see if there was room for one more. The members began holding their services in the building's library in November 2016.

The three congregations have managed to coexist by keeping the lines of communication open, posting each congregation's schedule on a bulletin board, and being mindful of each congregation's traditions.

The Friends group meets in the library, down a hallway away from a near-soundproof main sanctuary where Bethel gathers at the same time for a service that features a gospel choir, keyboard players, and a drummer.

"We worship in silence and its very important to us," Beck said. "We've never heard a thing."

The same evidently is true when the synagogue meets on Saturday in the complex's smaller downstairs sanctuary, while the church choir rehearses upstairs at the same time.

The congregations also stay connected by occasionally sharing worship and special events.

Bethel and Mercy and Truth held a joint vigil after the shooting at church in Charleston, S.C. Ross has participated in a Passover seder. Flax has taught at Sunday school at the church. Last Sunday, the three congregations celebrated Bethel Community's second anniversary at a morning service with guest speaker Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP.

The building still sports symbols of the Jewish faith, such as the eternal light and stained-glass windows that illustrate the Jewish holidays. But the gift shop where Mercy and Truth once sold Judaica now displays African American-inspired religious figurines. Christian crosses dot the building. One of two kosher kitchens is no longer kosher.

"It's the nature of change," Flax said. "You've got to make it yours. But the church has gone out their way to make us feel loved and not abandoned. It's such a blessing."