By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
A few months ago, Enid’s First Presbyterian Church went through a painful split with more than 100 parishioners voting to leave the church. Later, the pastor also left.
On Sunday, the church installed Rev. Andrew Long, the man the congregation hopes will be its leader and healer for many years.
Long moved to Enid in August. He said the first few times he visited, the temperature rose to more than 100 degrees.
“I’m originally from Baltimore, and it doesn’t get quite that hot, but we have a lot of humidity,” Long said.
Among the things that stood out to him include how in touch everyone is with their family heritage and their roots. He said the people are very rooted in their history and very confident in who they are and who their families are.
“You don’t see that on the East Coast, because they move a lot,” Long said. “Coming to Enid as a pastor, it’s wonderful to hear family stories. Any congregant can go back to great-great grandparents who were in the land run. It gives people a great sense of identity.”
Long said another thing that impressed him about Enid is Christian belief and faith is a part of life for people who live here. Long said everything else comes from that.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said.
Members of the Presbyterian search committee are impressed with Long and think they have found an outstanding individual.
“He’s amazing. We really got lucky,” said Christianne Chase, member of First Presbyterian Church search committee. “He’s a young guy, fresh out of Princeton Seminary. He could have gone anywhere, but he felt really drawn to our church when he heard about what we’ve been through in the last year.”
Chase said Long told Presbytery officials he spent three years in seminary to not preside over the status quo. She said it is almost like a new church development, because there is a difference in the congregation that has not been there for a while.
“We’re such a different congregation than we were a year ago,” Chase said. “In that sense, it’s a great opportunity for a young pastor.”
Long sees the hurt feelings among church members as the biggest challenge facing it. He said the split resulted in divided families and friends. The challenge as a new pastor has been meeting to discuss the hurt feelings as a way to get through the reconciliation process.
“It’s difficult, because people are talking about one of the most hurtful events they’ve been through,” Long said. “Even in the past few months, there has been so much growth, spiritually, through the process. The congregation has grown closer to each other, and living the gospel message to love God and love your neighbor.”
The church has been without a pastor since Nov. 1, 2011, and Chase said the intervening time has been educational and a good experience, because everyone had to “step up and take responsibility.”
Church members were responsible for keeping the doors open, making sure there was a guest pastor every Sunday, and various other activities continued as usual.
“We never missed a beat on Saturday manna. [With] the tutoring program and with half as many members, it’s hard to keep those programs up,” Chase said.
There is a reason splits are happening, not just in the Presbyterian Church, but others as well.
“Somewhere along the line, we, as American Christians, lost our ability to talk to each other,” Long said. “We have forgotten or given up having conversations. When we sit face-to-face with another person, we get to hear them clearly and understand. It’s the only way understanding happens.”
People on different sides of an issue, when they talk, even if they are still in disagreement, see others as individuals created by God. When looking at the future of church splits, Long sees grim times ahead.
“But God is doing something in this we don’t know about,” he said. “God promised to never leave us, no matter what happened. God is using this for his purpose.”
In some ways, there are advantages from church splits. Long said there now are two Presbyterian churches in Enid. That creates a dual presence of people who believe in the doctrines of faith, even if they are on two sides of an issue, and even though it came about in an unnecessary way, he said.
Search committee member Dick Autry said the committee wanted to look for new ideas and were hoping to find a younger person.
“We wanted to put the church in the direction of open hearts and open minds,” Autry said. “It’s a new idea, and we got him. The church is alive, it’s very exciting here now. He is a very bright and very talented young man.”
Long said the congregation is ready to start moving in a different direction in a way that does not turn its back on its history.
“There are no ill feelings in our congregation towards those who left, and the invitation is always open [for them] to come back and see it,” Long said. “In many ways, it is the same church it has been for 119 years, but there is a newness here that is representative of God’s spirit.”