by Elsie Walker
This past Halloween, the Rev. Tim Clarkson of Union Hill Presbyterian dressed up as Mr. Rogers and visited the church’s pre-school. The pastor’s demeanor is so like Rogers’ that one person commented as to how anyone would realize that he was dressing up. (By the way, Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister.) Clarkson’s spirit is an example of that found at the Denville Church, where loving outreach and concern for others abounds. When asked how they feel the community views their church, some congregation members noted that most people who know the church see it as a place with a congregation that cares about people. The church has a warm, caring way; it is where people know they can share their joys and concerns and the church will respond and support them.
Recently, Maryann Cuneo, Denville; Patty Bevacqua, Denville; Jill Head, Rockaway Township; Amy Clarkson, Somerville; Kathi Meyer, Denville; Billy O’Keefe, Denville, Jen Berk, Denville, Rev. Clarkson (current Pastor), Somerville; and the Rev. James D’Angelo (retired) of Lawrenceville, Georgia shared about the church’s history and life at Union Hill Presbyterian Church.
The church’s history reaches back over two hundred years. Cuneo, Billy O’Keefe, and D’Angelo, along the church website, gave information on its roots. The church started in 1816. It began as an outreach of the Rockaway Presbyterian Church and was a Sunday School for all ages in what is now known as the Union Hill area; then it began worshipping as a congregation. The congregation met in what was then the Union school building and took the name Union Hill Chapel. The congregation got its own building when a chapel was constructed in 1897, at its current location, on property purchased and provided by the Casterline family. For many years, the church did not have its own pastor, but area pastors would lead services there following worship at their own churches. Later, students from Princeton Theological Seminary provided the service. Things changed in the 1950s. The congregation was organized as a Presbyterian church and a manse was build to house pastors. In 1957, the church had its first installed pastor, the Rev. Theodore Blunk. The 1970s saw a significant addition to the church’s facilities. Thanks to a generous donation from the Cosmans, a social hall was constructed on the property. Today, that building houses a preschool, church coffee hour, administrative office, and space where Scout groups meet and special events are held. Looking back at its history, the pastor who served the longest was D’Angelo. A newer addition to that history is its current pastor, Clarkson, who has been serving as Covenant Supply Pastor since October 2017.
The ministry is a second career for Clarkson.” After nearly 25 years as a clinical social worker, primarily with youth and families in therapeutic foster care and at a special education school, I sensed a call to ministry,” he said. Attending New Brunswick Theological Seminary part time, while working full time, being a husband and raising a family of three, Clarkson finished his studies in six years, graduating in 2016. In addition to serving at Union Hill Presbyterian, he also a part time chaplain for a hospice agency serving people in the areas of Hunterdon, Somerset, and Middlesex Counties. When asked about what it means for him to be a pastor, Clarkson quipped that there wouldn’t be space enough in one article to capture it. Some thoughts he shared are, “Drawing from 1 John in scripture, this is love: that God first loved us, so, then, we are meant to love one another. The teachings from Deuteronomy remind me that there is no separation between loving God and being mindful of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner – the vulnerable – among us. In other words, God is all about love, so we are meant to be about responding to that sense of God’s love in, between, and among us by loving one another. Whether it is in the preparation and delivery of a sermon, sharing fellowship with the congregation, bringing people together in a broader sense like the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, teaching a confirmation class, or carrying on the ministry of fellow Presbyterian Mr. Rogers through time spent with the children of the church and preschool, being pastor is a joy……”
That joy is evident in Sunday worship ,which starts at 10am, during which nursery care is provided. Clarkson characterizes the worship style as blended, with both contemporary and traditional hymns. The service starts off with “the 10 o’clock news”, announcements of what’s happening within the church and community. Adults and youth take part as readers or in leading parts of worship. The church has a choir, under the direction of Music Director, June Kibe. Kibe also plays a variety of instruments, including organ, piano, flute, and marimba. In addition, adding a layer to the hymns and songs sung in worship are instrumentals who play guitar and djembe drum. There is a children’s time about 20 minutes into the service where the children and youth gather up front for a message from the pastor, after which they are dismissed to their Sunday School classes. Communion is celebrated monthly and a few times a year, there is a “Family Fellowship Worship” service. During the latter, the Sunday School teachers and their students present a topic; this year’s focus will be the Ten Commandments. A coffee hour is held after worship in Cosman Hall, the Christian Education Building.
Speaking of Christian Education, the church offers Sunday School, Vacation Bible School. and Adult Spiritual Development. Held after the children’s message, there is a Sunday School class for younger children and another for youth through middle school age. Classes include a scripture lesson, a time for questions and answers, and a craft or activity. A confirmation class is offered every other year, and there were five students confirmed this year. In addition, Vacation Bible School (VBS) is held during the summer for children in the church and community. This past summer, the church offered the week long VBS titled, “Shipwrecked” with the theme: God’s love is there at all times. As part of the VBS program, the children participating had a local missions challenge: they raised $200 to purchase school supplies for youth in the community for the approaching school year. In addition to the education opportunities for children, the church offers Adult Spiritual Development through book studies, such as the recent one of Diana Butler Bass’s Grateful, and through revisiting topics typically covered during youth in confirmation class.
The church also has a pre-school. The Union Hill Church Preschool is a nondenominational preschool serving ages 2-1/2 through age 6 with a preschool curriculum is based on the Creative Curriculum. Congregation members shared that the pre-school provides a loving nurturing environment for learning and growing, a place where the teachers are focused on the whole child. Details about programs can be found at Unionhillchurchpreschool.org
Outreach is an important part of this church. In addition to the VBS mission project, the church touches the local community and beyond in many ways. On Sundays, members bring non-perishable food items to church, which are then given to the Denville Social Service Food Pantry. Groups of church members visit sand sing for those at facilities such as the Oaks Healthcare Center and Morris View. The church has a Drop In Center in which various recovery groups meet every evening and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops meet in its Cosman Hall. At Christmas, the church contributes to a variety of holiday gift drives including Operation Christmas Child and Toys for Tots. The former is a project of Samaritan’s Purse through which items packed in shoebox-size boxes are given to children in orphanages and impoverished areas in a variety of countries. For many of these children, they do not know what Christmas is. The boxes contain information on the nativity and toys and hygiene items. It may be the only time these children receive a gift at Christmas. This year, Union Hill put together 65 Christmas boxes for Operation Christmas Child. Members also collect toys that a proud Marine veteran in the congregation delivers to Toys for Tots every year. In addition, the church’s youth group is repeating its last year’s “Elf Run” project, helping to make Christmas merry for a young family nearby. The youth group’s dedicated leader is Debbie Tomkins
Several times a year, Union Hill holds an “Open Mic Night of Entertainment” with a free will offering or admission benefiting a particular cause. Open to the community, people are welcome to come up to the mic and share their musical talents. Clarkson has been known to get into the act, and shared that he’s spontaneously added “impersonations of John Lennon and Bob Dylan into my acts on our open mic night events.” An open mic night last month benefitted those going to the Appalachian Service Project (ASP) in 2019. The ASP is a home repair project which helps people in one of the poorest areas of our country. This past summer the church sent six people (four adults and two adolescents) to West Virginia, where they helped make homes safer, drier, and warmer for the residents, while also getting to know those they were helping. Among those who went were Amy Clarkson, Kathi Meyer and Jen Berk. Each of those shared a little about her experience.
“There are so many needs and so many things in the news that I’d like to do something about. It can get overwhelming or discouraging, thinking there will always be more to do than any one person can do. Going to ASP was a practical, real way of doing something to improve the circumstances of people,” said Clarkson.
Berk describes it as, “a life changing event for those that participate whether you are the one serving or the recipient. A great program for all ages.”
“While we certainly participated in plenty of work at the worksites, I like the quote from the ASP website, describing ASP as ‘relationship building with a little construction work on the side,’ “ said Meyer.
The life of Union Hill Presbyterian Church is a caring, active one, and it is clear that Rev. Clarkson finds joy in every minute of being its pastor. Reflecting once more on what it means for him to be a pastor, he shared, “Being a pastor gives me the opportunity every day to sense, be, and share an alternative to the dark, tense, conflicted news we see everywhere. Someone much brighter than I once said it this way: ‘There is one true joy in life, to love and be loved.’ As pastor, I get to be a part of that which is good and hopeful, positive. What matters in life is love and compassion, here and now, in the very midst of the living of these days. Being pastor is a wonderful, blessed opportunity to share the journey of life with the truly amazing people and circumstances I encounter, as God leads me.”
Union Hill Presbyterian Church
427 Franklin Road
Sunday worship at 10am