Movie Ministry Connects Generations in Small Town New York

First Presbyterian Church of Ogdensburg is seeking to expand its welcome and serve its community by converting a room into a theater.

By Patrick David Heery 

Picture a cozy room with blackout curtains over the windows, a 75-inch Samsung smart TV, a popcorn popper, and the bright lights of a movie. Adults are relaxing in recliners, while children, piled on comfy sacs, giggle. No, this isn’t a private room in a commercial theater. It’s church.

About a year ago, and with the help of an Innovation Grant from the Synod of the Northeast, First Presbyterian Church of Ogdensburg, New York converted a room in its building into a versatile movie theater, as part of an ongoing effort to better serve its community and reach new people.

“We have quite a few people in the congregation, especially among the younger generation, who work on Sunday mornings,” says Laurena Will, FPC’s pastor. “We wanted to offer them and their friends a meaningful spiritual experience that fits with their life. We wanted to reimagine church for today’s world.”

Will first got the idea to start a film ministry while attending a workshop about movies and spirituality. But the idea took shape when she began to think about her community.

Ogdensburg doesn’t have a movie theater. Like so many other communities in Central and Upstate New York, Ogdensburg—once a thriving port city on the St. Lawrence River—has, over the last several decades, seen its population decline and its poverty rates rise. In this small city, with a population of 11,128 as of the 2010 census, jobs are hard to come by. The major employers are the city’s school, hospital, and two prisons. After the state gutted the city’s St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center of its inpatient services, Ogdensburg was hit with a homeless and vulnerable population of people with mental illness. The city’s nearby bridge to Canada has also flooded the city with drugs.

Hospitality in such a community means access to resources. “We are the only church that I know of that has a Planned Parenthood clinic in its facility,” Will says. In addition to that clinic, the church offers a free lunch every Saturday, green space for people to relax, and a number of other services, including a new movie theater.

The film showings present the church with an opportunity to invite newcomers, engage families, and host conversations about spiritual topics following the movie. Members host movie nights by selecting a film and bringing snacks.

What makes these movie nights so special, Will says, is that they are truly intergenerational. “Last winter, we were watching Elf, this silly Christmas movie,” she says. “As I stood in the back, making popcorn, I noticed something. Multiple kids were piled on each comfy sac. And in one of the recliners, there was a woman, 75 years old, who recently had lost her husband and has been feeling lonely. They were all laughing and giggling and having fun together. Now, those children come to church and say hi to her. This ministry, I realized, gives people family.”

Still in its infancy, the theater has mostly drawn current members. However, the church is exploring how to attract other people in the community—a task made difficult by the fact that they can’t legally advertise the name of the movies they’re playing. But already, the theater has proven itself useful on multiple fronts.

Last Advent, the church hosted Sunday matinees as an opportunity to watch Christmas movies and then go caroling. This coming winter, the church will begin hosting movie nights on Fridays. One night each month will be adults only; another will specifically be for families.

The church has also used the space for its weekly Word and Wine discussion group, vacation Bible school, and Sunday school. And they’re allowing people to sign out the space for kids’ birthday parties and other festivities.

With about 170 members, and economically diverse, FPC strives to be an open and welcoming congregation. People with mental illness wander in and out of services and are mostly embraced by the other members. In fact, a sizeable number of FPC members work professionally with this population already.

The church has also become a gathering place for disaffected Catholics (the city is 95 percent Catholic, according to Will) who have been hurt by the Catholic Church or are frustrated with some of its policies but still value its liturgical and theological traditions. They’ve been allowed to bring their traditions with them and have blended seamlessly into the congregation, Will says.

FPC is also trying to go back to a time when churches weren’t locked. “Some people are nervous about it,” she says. “But we want this church to be open.”

But what Will takes particular pride in is the church’s approach to children and families—which in part is what birthed the theater idea to begin with. She describes a visit by Shannon Vance-Ocampo, transitional presbyter for Albany Presbytery. “She left with tears in her eyes, saying she had never felt so alive,” Will says. “It was Children’s Day in worship, and I think she was shocked that there were children running around the sanctuary barefoot, putting up artwork on the walls, and no one was having a heart attack.”

Will remembers one Easter Sunday when a visitor’s two-year-old daughter spent the whole service dancing in front of the church. “No one cared,” she says. “We loved it! We still call her the ‘little girl who danced.’ ” When the daughter got sick, members of the church rallied and brought food, games, and company.

“Two years later, that child’s mother, now an active part of the church family, stood up during “joys and concerns” and said, “I have found a home here. You are more of a family to me than perhaps even my biological family at times, and I am so grateful to you all.”

This ministry of hospitality seems to be working. Approximately 1/3 of the congregation is under the age of 50—an enviable statistic for any Presbyterian congregation. And in the nine years that Will has pastored the church, they have seen membership growth every year except one.

Will attributes that growth to the church’s desire to reach out to its community. “It’s all about people,” says Will, who first experienced her call to ministry when she was just six years old. “I remember I was sitting on the floor in my family’s dining room, staring up at a picture of Christ on the cross surrounded by people weeping at his feet. That’s when I heard God say, ‘Teach my people to love each other.’ I said, ‘I can do that.’ ”

After 25 years of ministry, Will is just as excited as she was on her first day: “I love ministry, and I love people, and I think they need to be free to love each other. And if a movie theater helps us do that, all the better!”