Religions and Spirituality

Church is "Anchor of Hope" for Local Businesses

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Members of the Westfield business community gather on a downtown sidewalk for a short service with the Rev. Paul Pritsch (center in black). To Rev. Pritsch’s left are George and Mona Aydin, and to his right are Allison Johnson, the director of Christian education at the school, and church members J.T. Bokoske and his mother JoAnne Bokoske.
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If you happen to be walking on Quimby Street in Westfield between 6:30 and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 20, you will see the Rev. Paul Kritsch of Redeemer Lutheran Church hosting a service in front of the Robert Treat Deli, thanks to the generosity of Greg Kasich, one of the owners of the deli. Services are held at this location twice a month, an outgrowth of what began as a desire to connect with the community and has turned into a full-fledged outreach called Anchor of Hope.

The sidewalk service is the most recent addition to what began in the summer of 2009 as an outreach to community business owners who were suffering financial losses due to the economic crisis that hit the country in 2008. Rev. Kritsch realized that the business community of Westfield was hurting from both a financial and psychological perspective, and he wanted to find a way to help them, so he turned to prayer. He asked his Bible study group to join him on a weekly walk through the town following their Tuesday morning meeting, and consider ways they could use prayer to help.

Soon the group members were stopping to talk to people, and then the pastor suggested they go in pairs to visit local businesses and offer prayer, an occupation that caused them to be regarded with some suspicion. “At first they thought we were asking for donations,” the pastor said of the business owners and their employees. But donations were not the point. Instead, the walkers asked, “Is there anyone we can be lifting in prayer for you?”

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Since they began two years ago, about 60 businesses got on board as regular “customers” of the prayer walkers. Relationships have developed to the degree that business owners are prepared for their visitors. “They have requests ready now,” said Edna McClure, team leader of the Anchor of Hope.

McClure said she has developed relationships with people who wouldn’t speak of their difficulties at all at first, but have found it comforting to speak to someone who isn’t family, with whom they can share their concerns without worrying other family members. “In these times, we need this more than ever,” she said.

Finding a way to serve the community is not a new idea at Redeemer, but times are hard. “With the economic condition what it was, we saw and heard a lot of people losing hope,” Rev. Kritsch said. What the walkers wanted to do was give people a sense of caring and hope that was lacking, to raise their spirits.

The business owners and workers have been remarkably accepting of the outreach, with only one incident in which they were turned down. The religion of the recipient is of no consequence, and the group has received requests from people of various religious backgrounds. “Whether you are a believer or not doesn’t matter,” said Gerard Verdugo, owner of the Gallery, an art gallery located right next to Robert Treat. He is not religious, but he enjoys the visits and the prayer.

Verdugo said he often has visitors who ask for donations. “I don’t mind,” he said. He would buy the raffle tickets or donate to whatever cause was laid before him, so he would have been okay with making a donation to Redeemer, and was a bit surprised when that wasn’t on the prayer walkers’ agenda. “They asked if I wanted them to pray for something,” he remembers, “and that was something not usual—nothing that happened before.”

Business owner Mona Aydin goes to the Church of Virgin Mary of Paramus, an Assyrian Orthodox Catholic church, but she agrees with Verdugo that it doesn’t matter what faith you practice. She and her husband George are the owners of Robert Anthony Jewelers on East Broad Street, and they enjoy it when the walkers visit their store. They also like attending the Tuesday evening service. “It’s interesting to have this for the business owners,” Aydin said. “You need to have faith because the economy is not helping.”

In addition, Aydin said, it’s friendly and she believes that it is natural to feel better when people talk to each other. “It’s healthy; they ask about family, they know my kids, and it’s just like how you feel better when you talk to other people.”

The Aydins were not skeptical when the walkers first approached them with the offer to pray with them. “We are religious people; we go to church every Sunday, so it’s familiar for us, and our priest would do the same thing. He would go to people’s houses and pray.”

That was not the case for Verdugo, who was born in Ecuador and grew up in Spain and France. He is not a man given to religious activity, and is not a person who prayed, though his wife Mary Ann, a nurse in pediatric oncology, is religious. “I didn’t do these things before,” he explained, “but I began to get interested.”

The walkers look forward to Tuesdays, visiting the friends they have made over the last several years, but the first visit was a little intimidating for walker Bill Donoch. “You never know how people are going to take it when you approach them,” Donoch said, “but we just go out with a Christian mindset and see if we can lift up these people and their fellow business partners in prayer.”

Donoch hasn’t run into anyone who was rude or unkind. “There are people who don’t practice any religion and there are people who practice other religions,” he said. “They’ve all been very nice. Sometimes people are a little cold initially, but they warm up. Who wouldn’t want people to pray for them, unless they’re atheists? So basically we are really welcomed and people look forward to our visits.”

It has been personally successful for Donoch, who is partnered with McClure. “I feel gratified now,” he said. It is particularly satisfying for him to know he is missed during those times he is away. “Every once in a while I go away, and when I come back, I find people have been looking for me, asking where I’ve been and how I am.”

The only thing Donoch would like to see change is an increase in the number of available walkers. There are about eight walkers now, including Rev. Pritsch, and there are many businesses the small group just can’t get to, Donoch said.

Westfield is a vibrant community, the downtown bustling with people getting ice cream, taking a walk, or dining al fresco. As Rev. Kritsch speaks in his gentle voice to those in attendance at the deli service, normal downtown life goes on all around him--people pass by with their children, a guitarist at the restaurant adjoining the deli quietly sings some familiar Bob Dylan tunes, someone walks his dog. It’s a peaceful half hour.

The popularity of the group is obvious: it has grown from a stroll through town to visiting upwards of 60 businesses, a church service two nights a month, and visits from other churches to see what the group is doing. The Tuesday services will now include activities to keep children occupied while their parents enjoy worship. Alison Johnson, the church’s director of Christian education, will be on hand to keep little ones busy.

Verdugo isn’t able to attend the Tuesday evening services often as he spends so much time in New York on business, but he has come to be comfortable with the prayer and attends services when he can. He also donates his space for the communion portion of the evening service. “I’m not religious,” he said, “but the energy that is there—it’s something hard to put a name to, hard to define, but it’s something that gives you peace.”

Rev. Kritsch never expected such a response. “What we have been doing is being prayerful and following Jesus,” he said. “He has twists and turns.”

Some of those twists and turns include getting to know people that have been acquaintances for several years, but are now friends. It also includes much longer workdays than the pastor already faced. His Tuesdays are dedicated to Anchor of Hope, but that’s fine with him.

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