Our First Half Century…And the Future – God Has in Store for Us
Westgate Baptist Church has its roots in a response to God’s calling 55 years ago –a challenge to meet both need and opportunity for a new Baptist church home beyond downtown Lancaster.
It began with a deliberate and prayerful process of discernment and research at First Baptist Church of Lancaster, which appointed and authorized a committee within its ranks to plan the founding of a mission church for people living outside the city.
The area chosen as having the greatest potential for growth was northwest of the city, and included East Hempfield Township, Rohrerstown and East Petersburg.
On September 20, 1964, a core group of 13 families from First Baptist stepped out in faith to form the new congregation, originally named The American Baptist Fellowship. Its early days were supported and guided by a steering committee comprised of staff from the then American Baptist Convention and Pennsylvania Baptist Convention, First Baptist pastor Joseph Faith, and five members each from First and the new congregation.
The steering committee “prayerfully undertook a year of preparation in which some sessions lasted past midnight,” Rev. Faith recalls. “Simultaneously initial efforts included door-to-door census in suburban areas to determine a receptive location for a new congregation.”
The new church held its first meetings at the Lancaster Poultry Center at Roseville Road and the then Route 230 bypass. The Rev. Joseph Faith led early morning Sunday services before ministering later at First.
Rev. Robert Bouder became full-time pastor in February 1965, bringing with him dynamic and enthusiastic leadership gifts. Later that year the first bylaws and constitution were approved and the name was changed to Westgate Baptist Church. Following the sale of the Poultry Center, the young congregation moved into a temporary site at Lancaster Theological Seminary in the city.
Growth and Relocations
With an eye on a future permanent home for Westgate, a six-acre parcel of property along Old Harrisburg Pike and Rohrerstown Road was purchased that December.
A charter enrollment period that extended from September 1965 to January 1966 ended with 43 persons signed on as charter members.* On January 25, 1966 Lancaster County Court officially recognized Westgate Baptist Church as an autonomous Baptist congregation. After a period of slow but steady growth, the church felt the need to find a new and more traditional home. The facilities of Trinity United Church of Christ on Main Street in East Petersburg were purchased, and in March of 1968 Westgate services began there. The next eight years saw an increase in membership from 50 to 225 and active and growing Sunday school participation and Junior and Senior High programs.
A New Building Campaign and a Permanent Home
Eager to move forward in securing a permanent home for Westgate, the church began a capital funds campaign in the fall of 1972 designed to provide new facilities on the six-acre site on Old Harrisburg Pike. A positive congregational vote in June 1975 cleared the way for construction to begin, and ground was broken two weeks later. Actual construction began in September.
During the following nine months work crews from within the Westgate family contributed countless hours in preparing the new structure, doing all the painting, laying of flooring and installing of ceilings.
At the same time members rejoiced in the reception of an extraordinary gift — a $75,000 Skinner pipe organ awarded the church by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Although numerous problems prevented the instrument from being put in use for a decade, volunteer efforts in restoration undertaken by Westgate members served to produce one of the church’s most distinctive and memorable collaborative projects.
As this period of transition culminated in America’s Bicentennial year, Westgate celebrated a new home and a new area of outreach. On June 6, 1976, a 12-year journey of faith, service, and trust in God’s provision was culminated when members and friends dedicated Westgate Baptist Church “to the glory of God and the wholeness of people in Christ.”
After more than a decade of shepherding the church, the Rev. Dr. Robert Bouder completed his ministry at Westgate. Over the next dozen years the pastoral leadership of the church was entrusted to two young ministers, initially to the Rev. Douglas Scott, and then to the Rev. Paul Martin. Under Rev. Martin, Westgate celebrated a dedication service for the new organ on Dec. 6, 1986. The Rev. George Claghorn brought wise and capable interim leadership during several periods of transition during these years.
Area growth in business and residential development that began in earlier decades continued in the 1970s and 1980s, and Westgate found itself well located amid the mall-and-apartment boom erupting outside the city of Lancaster.
The Rev. James Ritter began a seven-year ministry at Westgate in 1988, overseeing the creation of new multi-generational programs, and leading the church in discipleship endeavors.
Responsible stewardship—always a hallmark of the Westgate family—allowed for a mortgage-burning worship celebration in April 1992.
The spiritual and communal mettle of Westgate was tested in 1995 when conflicts within the church brought division, but God’s grace evidenced in the successive interim leadership of the Revs. Allen Short and Robert McGrath brought a sense of healing and encouragement.
When Westgate called as its next fulltime pastor the Rev. Leonard Lewis in 1996, members and friends took seriously the challenge to approach the third Christian millennium with an understanding that both opportunities and challenges would abound. Rev. Lewis brought his personal warmth and relational skills, and helped guide a faith community that recently had lost a substantial number of members back to a focus on mission and ministry.
Another period of testing occurred in 2004 when differences of opinion and perception and ensuing division again threatened Westgate’s stability and focus. Once again, however, God’s steadfast provision “strengthened the saints” to endure and move forward. Caring and sensitive interim leadership by the Revs. Robert McGrath and Edward Brainerd helped the faithful to remain focused on Christ-centered ministry and mission.
Late in 2005 Westgate called as its next pastor the Rev. Roy Johnsen, who had worked 20 years in prison ministry in addition to serving congregations in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. From the very beginning the church witnessed itself responding to new opportunities—and changing.
“On the day of our official installation, God did an amazing thing,” Rev. Johnsen recalls. “During the middle of the morning worship service, three Kenyans just happened to walk in through the door. Westgate already had a man from Togo and a couple from the Philippines. Moreover, beginning on that day in January 2006, the Lord began to bring internationals to us, and when they visited they were warmly welcomed with the love of Christ and continued to come. We were graced with peoples of India, Haitia, Egypt, Indonesia, and a Russia. We were becoming a church for all nations, and it was a God thing!”
When the church celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2009 it worked to launch a five-year vision of ministry and mission and a resulting action plan. Sponsorship of a refugee family was near the top of Westgate’s wish list, but a careful, and prayerful, accounting of resources was necessary prior to taking on the task. “We speculated that we might be able to do this in year 4 or 5, and, miraculously, in the second year of the plan we welcomed the family of Tha Lai,” Rev. Johnsen recalls. “We desired to be a blessing to this family, but we were the ones who were immeasurably blessed by their testimony of trust in the Lord and faithfulness in participation in the fellowship and ministry of Westgate.”
When Roy Johnsen retired in 2012, the church began a deliberate and prayerful search process and sought to secure an interim pastor who would maintain congregational health and unity in the transitional period. In the Rev. Grace Lawrence Shirk, Westgate gained much more than a gatekeeper. She began by telling the church family her goal was to hold us together, but her dynamic preaching and pastoral skills and commitment blessed Westgate in many other ways. As noted at an appreciation dinner at the end of her tenure, “She not only has held us together, she has inspired in us a desire to be the community of believers God desires, to see God’s word lived out in its many colors and dynamics, to share God’s love through Christ with all who come through the doors of this church.”
The history of Westgate Baptist Church continues now under the leadership of the Rev. Robert Zimmerman, who began his ministry in November 2013. Robert has served in a number of Pastoral positions over the past twenty five years in the greater Philadelphia area including, the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, First Baptist Church of Manayunk, and most recently the Prospect Hill and Ridley Park Baptist Churches (yoked ministry). He has also served in an institutional chaplaincy and recovery counseling context. A more complete bio is available on the website.
He places great value in “a vibrant community where there is a mutuality of respect, love and integrity nurtured between pastor and people.” Rev. Zimmerman has brought a commitment to invigorating and stimulating the experience of worship through dynamic preaching and music.
As Westgate enters its second half century, he has challenged his congregation to be partners in ministry and mission, to share individual gifts of leadership for the cause of a Christ-centered faith community, and to be open to new, engaging and exciting opportunities to make church in the 21st century relevant and life-changing for a needy society.
During Reverend Zimmerman’s first year of ministry a small group of American Baptist Refugee’s from Burma began attending services at Westgate. As their numbers grew they called Rev. Paw Lu Nkhum, M.Div. to be their pastoral leader. Shortly after his coming, they officially formed the Canaan Kachin Baptist Church, which meets each Sunday afternoon at Westgate. The two congregations occasionally gather together for shared work on the property, but for the most part function independently thought sharing in a spirit of warmth and cooperation. Both Reverend Zimmerman and Reverend Paw Lu Nhkum are Ordained American Baptist Pastors and enjoy a supportive friendship and collegiality.
Throughout its 50 years, Westgate Baptist Church, in both mountain and valley times, has sought to be faithful to the Gospel call for living and sharing the Word. It has sought to hear that Word proclaimed in stimulating preaching, celebrated in joyful song, and enacted in hospitality and mutual caring. At “mid-century” it continues to seek to be a source of spiritual growth within its walls and a witness as the face of Christ outside them.
In all that it has been and is now, in all ways that it seeks to embody Christian community, Westgate holds as its greatest blessing the steadfast love and provision of a loving heavenly Father. Indeed, as this church moves forward it trusts fully in the promise given Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare…to give you a future with hope.”—Rich Schramm
Moderator, Westgate Baptist Church
“From its inception the thought of a new American Baptist church in Lancaster County was challenging and seemingly overwhelming. …The prayerful sacrificial efforts of these original pioneers continue to bear fruit and provide encouragement to all who wholeheartedly serve the Lord in Westgate Baptist Church.”–The Rev. Joseph Faith, founding pastor
A Moment in Our History: Westgate members, without any experience in organ installation, worked together to successfully assemble and restore the 2,195 pipes and console of the Skinner instrument.
A Moment in Our History: The church budget in 1972 totaled $24,000, which included pastoral salary of $6,400 and an overall salary/benefit package of $12,673.
*Charter Members: Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin B. Adams Jr.; Rev. and Mrs. Robert W. Bouder; Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth F. Clark and Victor; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Davis, Gail and Sally Ann; Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Delano; Mrs. Janet Dickinson; Mr. and Mrs. William H. Dressler III; Mr. and Mrs. Glen Fadner Jr. and Glen III; Mr. and Mrs. Ira Ferris Jr.; Mr. and Mrs. Ira Ferris III; Mr. and Mrs. Frank H. Garren; Miss Ellen S. Greenly; Mrs. Mae W. Hellen; Mr. and Mrs. Randolph B. James; Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Keefer; Mr. and Mrs. Volker Kruhoeffer; Mr. and Mrs. Daniel W. Moyer Jr. and Harriet; Mr. and Mrs. Arthur F. McDonie; Mr. and Mrs. Richard Payton; Mr. and Mrs. Thomas J. Walton and Thomas Jr.