Joy Unspeakable

Outreach, Revival, and Racial Integration in Steelton, Pa.

By Richard Cline

My name is Richard Cline. At almost 99, I may be the last living person who served at the beginning of Sharon Mennonite Church in Steelton. Myers Street, a mission church for white people, began in Steelton in 1935. Concerned also for black children, the mission decided to follow Bible school with a separate Bible school for the black children. Some of the teachers followed Bible school with home visitations. My wife, Ethel, was one of the teachers.

At that time, segregation was a way of life for our nation. Because unemployment was very high for black people, many were moving north for work. Jobs were available at Bethlehem Steel plant in Steelton.

When Clarence Ebersole was asked to continue the outreach in Steelton, he asked Ethel and me to help. At first we refused. But a short time later when our church, Elizabethtown Mennonite, decided to take the Steelton colored mission as its mission project and asked us to help, we felt it was God’s call. We knew where God wanted us. Sharon Mennonite Church began in 1952.

When children came to church, we then visited their homes and invited the family to church. Eventually we held adult Bible studies in homes. It was a shock to come from our farm life to the city and see what life was like for black people. We were confronted with terrible poverty. Children were poorly dressed, furnishings simple, and buildings in bad condition. We sat on the outside stoop, only a few feet from the street and visited with the family.

Our first place of worship was a little store front owned by Mrs. Finkelstein, a Jewish widow. It was all we could do to get our little group of children and workers inside the room. For a small group of 14-year-old boys, I used my car as a classroom. Tyrone, one of the boys, showed promise of becoming a success in life, but much was against him. The family was living in real poverty. Tyrone had a paper route and used his money to buy clothes. He didn’t want to bring his two little half-sisters to Sunday
School because they were so poorly dressed. One day when Tyrone arrived home from delivering papers, his mother called him to her bedroom. As he stepped through the door, she shot him and then herself. That tragedy still hurts me today.

Each summer we took the youth to a meeting at one of the larger churches. Lancaster Mennonite Conference sponsored the meeting to bring together the black youth from various inner city mission outreaches. It was a day to spend time with other Christian kids, make new friends, worship together, eat together, and have a good time. During the day, the kids were divided into groups and told to put together a skit based on Scripture. On the way home that night, one boy said his group had used Proverbs 25:24, “It is better to dwell in the corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house.”

As attendance increased, the Mission Board bought a building on the corner of Main and Frances Streets. It had a large room for services and basement classrooms. The Mission Board supplied the pulpit and pews. After much scrubbing to remove wax and ground-in dirt, we had a clean floor.

For our two-week Bible school, we had space for classes in the basement, a yard for recess time, and a large space to meet together for singing and story time. Ella Mae Murphy, a wonderful storyteller, one year told the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, using a flannel board. The kids looked forward to the next day and another chapter of Christian’s journey to the Celestial City.

Although Sharon Church was officially named in 1955, it never had its own pastor or deacon. Bishop Clarence Lutz and Walter Keener, Jr., both ministers from Elizabethtown Mennonite, shared the preaching. Others who served through the years included the Lester Ebersole family, the Merle Miller family, Ella Mae Murphy and family, Ruth Hossler, and Esther Westenberger and later, the Martin Longenecker family.

In 1956, we decided it was time for revival meetings. J. Clair Shenk was the speaker. Several goals were identified. Round-the-clock prayer would begin several days before the meetings. People would be invited to accept Christ, and Christians would be asked to recommit themselves to the Lord. Anyone was welcome to ask for prayer for healing. A space in the basement would be used for one-on-one counseling.

The services and the invitations were kept simple. The only innovation was time set aside for testimonies. The first evening or two no one responded, but the shyness soon disappeared, and people began to speak up. There was a sense of special joy.

Some people testified that after a first visit they said, “I won’t go again.” However, the next evening, they would be back. Something was drawing them. Not only did they not stay home, they also did not stay in their seats. They responded to the invitations. After counseling, they all had such joy. Burdens were lifted, people set free, and a few were healed.

We learned some things. We learned to expect God to answer prayer and not be surprised by how and when. God doesn’t always do things the same way.

An 18-year old young adult responded to an invitation. During the testimony time, he jumped to his feet with a look of surprise and shouted, “It’s gone, it’s gone.” A woman who had a terrible sore throat was healed.

After the service, some of us would spend a little time together along with those who had been counseled. The joy was so special we just wanted to be together. When someone began a song of praise, all joined in. The joy had to come out, singing turned into praise, and praise into adoration. It was no longer just singing, but such an outpouring of adoration to God, which can’t be described. Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory!

One man who came to the basement every evening was a happy Christian. One night, he was so full of joy he could hardly contain himself. I can close my eyes today and still see and hear him as he clapped his hands and said over and over, “Oh this is heaven, this is heaven, this is heaven!” No one really wanted to leave and go home.

The Lord touched us all. Only eternity will reveal the answers to prayer and the spiritual and physical results of those two weeks. Only a couple of us are still alive who experienced those days as adults. How I wish again to see God come down and walk with us and again experience that joy!

Dorothy Brown and her five children attended the church for a number of years. She was saved during the 1956 revival meetings. Dorothy was widowed at a young age. Her boys were educated at the Milton Hershey School. Today, Dorothy lives in Columbus, Ohio, and still loves the Lord.

Annie Brown, Dorothy’s sister-in-law, was one of the early converts. One Sunday morning, Bishop Lutz baptized Annie and a few other people. Deacon Frank Hertzler was holding the basin of water. When the water was put onto Annie’s head, she cried out in joy, clapped her hands, and then raised them over her head, almost knocking the basin of water out of Brother Hertzler’s hands. It took a while till Annie stopped praising the Lord and Brother Lutz was able to baptize the other people. I can still see it and hear it in my mind after sixty years.

Annie was a woman of prayer. She prayed simply and God answered. One morning her neighbor’s car wouldn’t start. He tried everything. Annie touched his car and prayed for the car to start because the man needed to go to work. When he tried again, it started! Annie’s daughter, Cherry, still attends Steelton Mennonite Church with her husband, Robert Lewis, and some extended family members.

What was known as west side Steelton was not a large area, maybe three or four blocks wide and six or seven long. The White Mission and Black Mission (Sharon Church) were only one block apart diagonally.

After our revival meetings, we began to feel that God could not be pleased with two Mennonite churches a block apart, not worshipping together because of race. Should we integrate? We made the issue a matter of concerted prayer. After about a year, a vote was taken to integrate. It failed miserably. Some of the workers at the white mission feared some of their people would stop attending church if black people attended also. We waited a year and then voted again. The second vote was unanimous to integrate. No one stopped attending because of integration. In 1963, the integration of the two churches made news in the Harrisburg area.

Through the years I have questioned why things happened the way they did. For example, after our amazing revival meetings, Sharon Mennonite simply did not grow and prosper. Why? One possible
answer is that the revival set in motion the process of breaking down racial segregation. Steelton already had an established Mennonite church. There remained no good reason for brothers and sisters in the Lord and from the same church group to worship separately simply because of racial differences. I believe the work of Sharon Mennonite Church was to bring white and black together in
Steelton and, eventually, in Mennonite churches more broadly.

For more information regarding Sharon Church, see In Service, Lord, For Thee: the Story of Elizabethtown Mennonite Church, the First 100 years, 1905-2005. Pages 70, 74, 75.

Richard Cline lives independently in his home of 64 years and
faithfully attends Steelton Mennonite church. He continues to be
a role model for his five children, his grand children and his great grand children.