In this prosperous community, which for centuries has been a destination for visitors drawn to healing mineral springs, thoroughbred racing, gambling and other indulgences, a historic parish is being guided by the Gospel of St. Matthew Chapter 25: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Bethesda Episcopal Church, founded in 1830, has embarked on a $8.5 million facility redevelopment project that promises to provide new supportive housing and healing resources for individuals and families in need. At the same time, Bethesda is also searching for a new permanent Rector for the first time in 50 years, a dual-track process of renewal that has gained force in the congregation with each milestone reached.
“Bethesda is part of a historic community, and we uphold traditions of liturgy and mission. We are also finding that our renewal commitment has inspired others in the community to join with us,” said The Very Reverend Marshall J. Vang, interim rector. “Our congregation and lay leaders have identified a need that we are uniquely able to help meet.”
Located in the downtown core and being one of the most important historic structures in the city’s National Register historic district, Bethesda is surrounded by a vibrant real estate market that unfortunately, but predictably, has left behind many who need shelter and supportive housing: victims of domestic violence, military veterans, persons suffering from substance use disorders or mental illness, and race track workers, mainly Latino, who require a place to recover from injuries or other disabilities. The new annex will be able to accommodate more than 40 people at any one time.
“The obvious outcomes of gentrification are easy to see,” said Senior Warden Darren Miller. “But behind the scenes, there is displacement, as rents rise, and people are forced farther away from jobs, health care, bus lines and other resources. Bethesda’s central location is ideal to help meet these needs. Scripture tells us we are responsible to help the poor, the homeless, and all those in need. The Good Samaritan, for instance, loved his neighbor as himself and actively helped the distressed man by the roadside. Jesus instructs us to do the same.” (Luke 10:25-37).
While re-making its facilities and searching for a new Rector at the same time are no small undertakings, Bethesda’s clergy, lay leadership, Wardens and Vestry, are meeting the challenge. “We hope that our process of renewal will inspire a new leader suited to our goals,” said Kate Berheide, junior warden and professor of sociology at Skidmore College, who is heading the rector search committee. The parish web site is at www.bethesdachurch.org.
Dean Vang, interim rector and former Dean of the Cathedral of All Saints, Albany, has led the parish through the challenges of disposing of legacy properties that had served well in past decades but were not suitably designed for a 21st Century mission.
On the facility front, renewal began with Bethesda’s recognition in 2013 of the increased market value of its own properties. In 2014, the parish sold its 19th Century rectory and parish house, both located across a busy street from the church, with the aim of building a new parish house adjacent to the church building. A new rectory has since been acquired. Meanwhile, proceeds from the sales, along with a successful congregational capital campaign, have allowed Bethesda to develop plans for an architecturally distinguished annex to the church (John G. Waite Associates, Architects) that is in the tradition of the 19th Century Gothic revival that inspired Richard Upjohn, Bethesda’s original designer.
This year, as the housing mission was discerned and took shape, Bethesda entered into agreements with five local non-profit groups to provide housing support for their clients: Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST) which provides substance use counseling and health care coordination for 2,000 race track workers at New York tracks; Veterans and Community Housing Coalition, which works with homeless military veterans; Wellspring, which helps victims of domestic violence; Transitional Services Association, which works with people who have either substance use or mental health disabilities; and In Our Name Initiative, part of the Skidmore College Restorative Justice Project.
Then, to organize and lead the new mission, in September 2018, Bethesda’s Vestry voted to establish a separate non-profit corporation to manage the housing resource for the parish–Mercy House of Saratoga, Inc. The name Mercy House was derived from a translation of Bethesda in Aramaic to its meaning: House of Mercy.
The parish also affirmed to the city zoning authorities its rights under the U.S. Constitution. The nearly 4,000-word statement incorporates Biblical directives, the parish’s 190-year history and both New York and Federal court cases, plus quotations from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It may be found at http://bethesdachurch.org/
The new annex will comprise more than 20,000 square feet on four stories. The ground floor will be primarily parish space, a fellowship hall seating 200 with catering kitchen, offices, church school/meeting rooms, a music center and library. Above the first floor, three floors of one-bedroom and studio apartments, plus communal living space on the fourth floor will meet the needs of Bethesda’s housing partners with stable accommodations for more than 40 people year-round.
Meeting space for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
meetings will continue Bethesda’s 75-year history hosting of peer support groups. Also, Bethesda’s partners will be able to use space for counseling and one-on-one meetings to serve their clients.
The executive director of the area’s Veterans & Community Housing Coalition, Cheryl Hage-Perez, said “This partnership will create an opportunity for single, homeless, female Veterans with children to remain stably housed while receiving the support services they need….This project will provide the only services for this target population in our area.”
“Domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness in Saratoga County,” said Maggie Fronk, executive director of Wellspring. “Bethesda’s housing program will provide individuals and families much needed affordable housing with access to employment opportunities, public transportation and services,”
“One of the biggest struggles (in Saratoga County) has always been finding safe and affordable housing in the Saratoga Springs area that is also accessible to resources and services,” added Sybil Newell, executive director of Transitional Services Association, commenting on Bethesda’s central location.
Speaking of the unique needs of race track backstretch workers, who work in the stables, Paul Ruchames, head of Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), said, “The warm and nurturing physical and spiritual environment which Bethesda Episcopal Church plans to provide will be enormously helpful to the holistic healing which these workers need.”
The church will also host a part-time café based on a “pay what you are able” principle. The café, to be operated by In Our Name Initiative, will provide an opportunity for resident guests, congregation and wider community to engage and feel included in each other’s worlds.
As an example of parishes using their resources to best serve their community, Bethesda’s plans have received support from the Rev. Peter Cook, Executive Director of the New York State Council of Churches. He said, “Building housing is a great way for a church to further its mission to offer the Gospel to a hurting world and be an agent of change in their communities. The Bethesda Episcopal Church is seeking to build marvelous new facility which will provide transitional shelter along with other spaces for supportive and community activities. We invite investment in this worthy project.”
Bethesda’s plans fit perfectly into the history of its community. The local mineral springs were a healing destination for Native Americans even before the European arrival in the late 18th Century. The early 19th Century settlers named the parish for the healing miracle in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 5:1-16. The large altar window, installed more than a century ago, beautifully captures the image of Jesus healing at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, surrounded by those seeking his touch and love.
“Every day, members of our congregation walk the same sidewalks alongside those in need. Now we are moving forward with a viable plan to serve them and invite them into our spiritual home,” said Senior Warden Miller. “Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger, and it is exciting to be embarked on a whole-parish effort to bring the Gospel alive in our community.”
The parish and Mercy House look forward to a “community-facing” phase of capital fundraising in the coming months. The goal is $3.5 million. Total cost of the building is estimated at about $8.5 million.
“Our regular members divided along predictable lines of those seeking and others resisting change, as we decided to sell the old properties” said Dean Vang. “It has been a blessing how the congregation has united as God has shown us a mission grounded in scripture, tradition and practicality.”