BATH TWP.: Montrose Zion United Methodist Church has been through some changes in the past 17 months.
The once all-white, male-led congregation now has a female pastor, a black music director and members who are white, black, Asian and Latino.
“Change can be difficult, and we lost some people because of it,” said Howard Harris Jr., Montrose Zion’s music director. “As disappointing as that was, we are finding new opportunities to grow and make the church community more diverse.”
On Sunday, Harris will direct a cantata, called “Hope of the Broken World,” at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. as part of the church’s advent celebration. The choir will perform a variety of musical selections, including traditional, contemporary and gospel, and will be accompanied by piano, violin and bass. The cantata will also be performed at 9 a.m. Dec. 22 at Copley United Methodist Church, 1518 S. Cleveland-Massillon Road.
The Copley church and Montrose Zion, at 565 N. Cleveland-Massillon Road, are among four United Methodist congregations that make up the Tree of Life Community. The regional ministry also includes Akron First United Methodist Church in downtown and Christ United Methodist Church in West Akron.
The Rev. Elizabeth Hadler said Montrose Zion strives to accept people where they are and encourages them to grow in their relationship with God. When she arrived at the church in July 2011 — as the congregation’s first female pastor — there were about 375 people worshipping at the church on Sundays. That number has fallen to about 275 people who attend the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services.
“People were scampering away when I got here. More people left because I am a woman than because Howard is African-American,” Hadler said. “When we began rebuilding our congregation, we thought it was important to become more diverse. Within a year, we have become more diverse in age, gender, race and music. We are more reflective of the world.”
Connecting through music
The two services offered at the church are designed to meet the needs of a variety of worshippers. The early service is traditional. It features a choir, historic hymns and primarily piano and organ music. The later, contemporary service includes a praise team, contemporary Christian music and a variety of musicians playing instruments.
A special children’s church begins at 11 a.m. on Sundays, and Sunday School is offered at 10 a.m. Nursery services are available.
In addition to the choir and praise team, the music ministry includes an Angelus Bell Choir, Bell Crier’s Ensemble, Salt & Light Worship Team and Small Instrument Ensemble.
Harris, 27, said the goal of the music ministry is to connect people to God. Because different people are touched by different musical styles, he said, it is important to include a variety of genres. He is shaping the ministry to include everything from classical to jazz. Since taking charge of the music ministry in April, the five-member praise team and six-member choir have grown to include 25 people.
In developing the music ministry, Harris — a classically trained pianist raised in the Baptist tradition — has recruited local musicians and composers to help with the effort. Among those recruits are Tom DeFrange and Joseph J. Hunter III.
DeFrange, who grew up in the Catholic church, plays guitar and has directed choirs for 35 years. He said his personal commitment to diversity was the primary reason for coming on board about a month ago.
“Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week. This church has the potential to break that trend,” said DeFrange, 65, of Akron. “We have a group of people who work in different kinds of musical languages that have come together for a common cause, that opens the door to all kinds of possibilities.”
As a composer, DeFrange has written more than 400 songs. Three of those, ranging from traditional to calypso, will be performed during the cantata.
Like DeFrange, Hunter, 56, of Bath Township, is also a composer whose music can be characterized as gospel-jazz fusion. The Cleveland native grew up in the Baptist church and plays piano, keyboard, clarinet, oboe and saxophone.
“One of the things that I like about the music ministry here is that everyone is versatile and willing to do whatever it takes to make it work,” Hunter said. “The bottom line is we’re here to draw souls to Christ, and we can be an example of how people of different backgrounds can come together and benefit the kingdom.”
Harris said he is hopeful that the spirit of cooperation in the music ministry flows beyond the Montrose congregation and into the greater community. He called music the perfect tool to bring people together because “you don’t have to use words. You just play good music.”
“I’m not here because it’s a job. I’m here because God called me here. I’m not afraid to step into new places and let God use me,” Harris said. “One of the things that I hope people see when they look at our diverse music ministry is that we’re stronger together than we are apart.”
For more information about Montrose Zion, go to www.mzumc.org or call 330-665-9817.
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org