By Rebecca Warner
Point Park News Service
As Pastor Wilmer J. Olszewski recalls the tragic death of a little boy who was found dead in a septic tank in 2009 in his area, his eyes become glassy with tears.
A small-town preacher, Olszewski has learned that every tragedy, every event that occurs in his community is highly personal – and often results in people turning to him for support.
Tragedy Strikes Hookstown
Olszewski learned that ministry lesson shortly after leaving a large suburban Pittsburgh church for Hookstown in Beaver County, where leading a church goes much further than Sunday services.
“Under my leadership…the church took a major stride to administer the family,” he said.
Olszewski is not alone.
He, along with Pastor Jefferson Ellis and Pastor Nathan Weller, went from working at big city churches to small communities where everyone knows everyone and word travels fast – places where it’s not long before the whole town knows something and things get put into movement to help those who need help.
All three pastors said they have learned they are needed as catalysts when anything, good or bad, happens.
So, when a 4-year-old boy went missing just minutes away from the Hookstown Free Methodist Church, the community rushed together.
Olszewski, 53, who preaches at the church, not only brought his 100 parishioners together for prayers, but helped form search parties and provided support in anyway he could.
“It had a great impact on me personally, as well as the church,” he said.
When the boy was found dead at the bottom of a septic tank, the small community found itself barraged by news vans and reporters. From being off the map to the highlight of breaking news stories, Olszewski said he found himself in a very unfamiliar situation.
“We’re pretty much a quiet community. No one rustles anyone’s feathers; we don’t get out in the media too much, and all of the sudden there are media trucks from Pittsburgh,” he said.
But he took his position as a leader in his community, and urged his parishioners to come together to help the grieving family.
“We [the church] became a core of the community because the incident happened only a mile and a half away from our vicinity,” he said.
To make matters worse, suspicions were spreading like wildfire about how the boy ended up in the bottom of the septic tank. His father was taken into custody by police who called the parent “a person of interest” although no formal charges were ever filed.
Olszewski said he believes that the small-town mentality made it easier for his church to come together and help.
“In a suburban or rural area such as this it’s (the coming together of people) going to happen more because people are looking for a center,” he said.
A former preacher at a bigger suburban church in Penn Hills, Olszewski said he doubts his previous church would have made quite the same effort.
He acknowledges the people who attended his church at Penn Hills and those who attend his church in Hookstown face many of the same problems. However, he believes the impact made by his congregation in Hookstown is something unique and unmatched by any efforts his former church could have made.
Ellis, 45, came from Washington, Pa., and has been preaching at the Hanover Presbyterian Church in Hanover, Pa., in Beaver County for about three years. His small church of 70 to 80 parishioners have helped each other through good times and bad times, too.
He said it isn’t unusual after someone dies for the church’s deacons set up either a lunch or supper in their memory. If someone needs work done on their house or around their house, the church is willing to get people together to help out. No task is too big or too small, too happy or too catastrophic to receive help from the church.
Having previously preached at a much larger church on the outskirts of Washington, Pa., Ellis said he immediately noticed a big difference in how his small community church operated than his former church.
“Most people here, at this location, are related, so they’ve known each other most of or their whole life,” he said. “You don’t usually see that in a bigger church. The good thing I’ve seen is their willingness to help out and do things.”
But his congregation doesn’t need a tragedy to come together and help.
Ellis said that one parishioner comes by to trim the bushes around the church. Younger worshipers work on the church’s website, keeping it up to date. During the summer, some of those who attend his services will bring him fruit and vegetables they grew.
“It’s not unusual to come by and see someone working on something, because they know that it needs done,” he said. “At the bigger church that I came from they actually hired someone to do stuff like that.”
Ellis’ church also offers services for those in the community struggling economically, providing special, free dinners once a month that can attract anywhere from six to 20 families.
“We also have what we call a ‘Good Samaritan Fund’ to help people out,” he said. “We’ve helped with gas, electric bills, things like that.”
Even the Hanover Presbyterian Church’s secretary has been helped immensely by the church, even though she attends a different church.
Anita Halstead, 45, was informed by doctors four years ago that she had a tumor that required surgery to remove it. Being well known by those who attended the church she worked at, she immediately received help.
“The moral support I got from the congregation was a big help,” she said.
Halstead said she has also witnessed others being helped by the church she works for, though she explained not everything results in some well-planned event.
She recalled a woman who was in a bad car accident, rendering her wheelchair bound. The church got together and helped prepare her house making it as wheelchair accessible as possible.
“If it’s announced at the pulpit on a Sunday, we’ll help out either financially or somehow without it actually being made into some sort of event,” she said. “I don’t think you would have that if you were in a larger [community].”
Both Ellis and Halstead agreed that in a larger community, there would simply not be the same level of personal support that their small church can provide.
Ellis is also quick to point out another big difference between life in his small town as opposed to life in his former town: emergency sirens.
“At my former church, there’d be so many fire sirens and police sirens…that you’d almost ignore it,” he said. “Now [in Hanover] when you hear them, you’re like ‘Okay, what happened?’”
It’s All About Vision and Dedication
Just like Olszewski and Ellis, Weller, 29, also came from a large church only to find himself at a much smaller church.
While Weller said he only became a pastor in July, 2011, he worked as an intern at New Hope Reformation Church in Powell, Ohio and Good Samaritan Reformed Church in nearby Gahanna, Ohio in the northern suburbs of Columbus.
Now, he finds himself at the Mill Creek United Presbyterian Church in Greene Twp., Pa., located south of Beaver.
He said the big difference he’s noticed with working at a small-town church has been getting to know people on a personal level.
“New Hope has around 400 people on Sunday divided into two services,” he said. “I usually assisted or led worship at one service and taught Sunday school during the other. So lots of people knew who I was but I didn’t know who they were.”
Other than this change, he says he hasn’t seen much difference in his short time at his church: small town churches don’t necessarily have more impact on the community than big city churches.
“I thought that would be the case when I moved out here, but statistically the amount of unchurched persons in this area is relatively exactly the same as that in major urban centers,” he added.
Weller also believes that the resources available to those in big cities make giving back and providing much easier than for those in small communities, citing one particular program called Mission of Mercy he was a part of at a former church.
“On a nearly daily basis, we assisted individuals with lots of different needs –utility bills, rent, groceries, gasoline, school supplies, even vehicles on several occasions were donated to us from members of the church to give to people in need,” he said.
While he has witnessed greater achievements of ministry in larger churches, he does believe that small town churches can have just a great an impact.
“The impact a church has really comes down to two things: vision and dedication,” he said. “If there is a clearly defined vision for what the church should be doing and people dedicated to that vision they can have an impact no matter where the church is located.”