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Messiah church’s goals include more social, artistic events

Messiah church's goals include more social, artistic events

SCHENECTADY – Musicians, singers, poetry slam enthusiasts, playwrights, filmmakers, dance troupes, and artists will soon have a new platform for their talents – at Messiah Lutheran Church’s community center on Curry Road in a working-class neighborhood.

The vibrant, diverse congregation managed to raise almost half a million dollars to upgrade the church on Guilderland Avenue to be handicapped accessible, adding an elevator and more parking. This once-struggling church aims to offer the community free mental health counseling in addition to space for local artists to show work.

The Rev. Dustin Wright, who has been candid with his congregation about his own struggles with depression, sees a crucial role for houses of worship in supporting a community’s mental health. And he grasps the therapeutic value art can provide. Currently, Messiah offers Zentangle, a combination of Zen and drawing that helped a congregant navigate rehab. Messiah also hosts three 12-step programs. Wright hopes to offer free services for people wrestling with depression, anxiety and grieving – if he can find enough certified therapists to volunteer.

“As a pastor, I have some training in counseling but the need goes beyond that,” Wright said. “I’ve spent three hours cold calling therapists. I Googled to find one that a member of my congregation can afford. Not everyone has insurance covering mental health.”

Wright encountered the problem personally as a teen. His eighth-grade yearbook christened him one half of the school’s cutest couple. Yet by freshman year, he was so plagued by social anxiety that he missed three months of school.

“It was scary; the roller-coaster manic highs and deep lows,” Wright said. “Then I saw an MTV special about depression. I realized that might be me.”

He told his mother, who tried for months to find a counselor she could afford for him. Wright’s pastor came to the rescue by helping Wright become part of a community. The pastor organized small social events for teens with common interests and invited Wright. Now, as a pastor himself, Wright observes how creative groups like Messiah’s crafting and makers class become supportive communities. Messiah hosts an array of events and classes at Trinity Community Center. The congregation and Wright felt it was important to have a social center close to – but separate from – the church.

“Some people have had damaging experiences in organized religion,” he explained. “Trinity Center helps us serve and welcome neighbors and others who might not feel comfortable in a church.”

Messiah has become well-known for welcoming students, people of all income levels and members of the LGBTQ+ community. And the congregation has been unwavering in its generosity. Congregants produce bumper crops of vegetables in the church garden each summer and give it away via a produce pantry.

Shortly before pandemic lockdowns began, in February 2020, Messiah was shocked to hear the cost of making its church accessible to the disabled would be double what was projected. Like most houses of worship, Messiah endured “lockdowns, way too many Zoom meets and no in-person activities for over a year,” Wright says. Yet Messiah launched a mostly virtual capital appeal campaign called “A Place at the Table for Everyone.” The goal was $570,000. In two years, the congregation has raised $483,274, or 85 percent. Donations are still coming.

The money will pay for installing an elevator, a handicapped-accessible bathroom and a library with study areas. 

The architects are John Fry and Jaclyn Tyler of Nexus Creative Designs and the general contractor is Wade Coton of Manchester Homes, LLC.

The project will include building a new main entrance that allows visitors and congregants to gather and mingle, two new all-gender restroom stalls, the transformation of the church narthex or antechamber into a community art gallery and better lighting in the parking lot. Construction is expected to begin in July and be completed by Thanksgiving.

Dave Barnett, co-chair of the A Place at the Table for Everyone Campaign said in a statement, “I am so appreciative of the time and talent support from the congregation members for the Capital Campaign effort and for the generosity of our members and friends towards meeting our goal.”

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, Trinity hosts a free ice cream social (Stewart’s is donating ice cream) and a bluegrass concert by Midnight Anthem open to all. It’s a chance to wish Wright well before he gets married next week and heads off to his honeymoon.