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Revitalised Salem United marks 150 years of service in Islington

Leaders reflect, look ahead with community-centred mission

Published:Friday | December 8, 2023 | 12:08 AMAsha Wilks/Gleaner Writer
Reverend Wendell McKoy (left), pastor of the Salem United Church in Islington, St Mary; May Elizabeth Neil (centre), life elder; and caretaker David Thompson in front of the church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Reverend Wendell McKoy (left), pastor of the Salem United Church in Islington, St Mary; May Elizabeth Neil (centre), life elder; and caretaker David Thompson in front of the church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Elder May Elizabeth Neil, longest-attending member of the Salem United Church in Islington, St Mary.
Elder May Elizabeth Neil, longest-attending member of the Salem United Church in Islington, St Mary.
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The evangelistic mission of the Salem United Church and its role in uplifting the residents of Islington, St Mary, have contributed to its longevity with 150 years of ministry to the local populace.

Head pastor Reverend Wendell McKoy, who has led the church for 10 years, recently told The Gleaner of his strong belief in human development and the utilisation of grass-roots methods of winning souls and encouraging those low in spirits.

McKoy recalled being eager to carry out the concepts he had for the church’s future growth and transformation when he first assumed the role of pastor.

The former Rastafarian, who was not at first a believer in Christ but was baptised after having a personal encounter with Him, stated that his baptism and subsequent life transformation were indicative of God’s ability to do “some extraordinary stuff”.

This, McKoy explained, led him to join Salem United with a burning desire to revitalise the church’s operations and order of service.

The rural church was initially plagued by a lacklustre worship style and a high rate of congregational migration, but according to McKoy, after following the Holy Spirit’s leading to implement various worship and ministry styles, they have experienced tremendous growth in the last decade, particularly in terms of attracting more youth.

“When I came into the community, this church wasn’t one of the most vibrant anymore, [but] we saw endless possibilities. We came and started some prayers and met with the board and the congregation and said that we’re gonna work together and we’re gonna do some great things, and to God be the glory, we have been able to do some great things ever since,” he said.

BELIEF IN SELF ACHIEVED

McKoy said that empowerment workshops, awarding students for their academic achievements, community outreach through a soup kitchen that serves residents and shut-ins, and “on-the-street” worship services have aided tremendously in the effort.

“One of the things that we’ve been able to do is to get persons to believe in themselves,” he said, noting that more congregants have become integrated into church life and ministry.

The church now has a membership of at least 55 people, who are dedicated to going to Sunday worship services weekly.

Community engagement, he said, was crucial to the church’s success.

“The church is birthed out of the community because without the community, we don’t have a church. So we’re always looking at new ways to engage the community,” he said.

The pastor told The Gleaner that his ultimate objective is to leave the church in better shape than when he arrived and that he would be working to prepare others to carry on the church’s heritage even after his tenure ends.

Salem United, McKoy said, serves as the “mother church” for two congregations: Heywood Hall United Church in Port Maria and Zion Hill United Church in Islington. Altogether, the three institutions are referred to as the Salem Charge of United Churches.

The church, he said, has established three schools in the area: Islington Basic School, Nutfield Basic School, and Water Valley Primary School.

May Elizabeth Neil, an elder and one of the church’s longest-serving members, expressed hope, telling The Gleaner that she believed that it would carry on with its current work, remain a dynamic part of the community, and keep up its evangelistic efforts. That combination, she added, would carry the church far.

The 86-year-old has been worshipping at Salem United for six decades, under the leadership of 10 pastors.

Of McKoy’s many predecessors, she could best immediately recall Reverend Henry Ward, who, despite not being one of the church’s founders, is thought to have been one of its most influential leaders.

“I opened a little school at my home. I was living in Friendship Mountain, and there wasn’t any school there ... and a lot of children came on. The Reverend Ward came in ‘cause he saw the school and he saw that it was going good for the community. So he came in and he went to the Ministry [of Education} to get the school recognised, and the school was recognised in 1942,” she said, recalling one of many instances Ward assisted the community.

Over the years, Neil has been very active in church, singing soprano in the choir, as president of the women’s fellowship, and being treasurer for more than 40 years.

She recalled that her parents were instrumental in the bringing of stones to help build the church in 1873.

“I always try to give my best, you know, and I always like to serve, and so whenever they call on me to serve, I always [do so],” she said.

On December 17, the church will have its anniversary service under the theme ‘Reignited For The Journey Ahead’.

asha.wilks@gleanerjm.com