September 16, 2014
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THEN AND NOW
Hillsgrove Methodist Church: A church for the 21st century
Terry D'Amato Spencer

It is a vast understatement to say that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen significant and sometimes drastic changes in the village of Hillsgrove. The area has seen the phenomenal growth of T.F. Green Airport, a fast growing industrial complex and the building of modern hotels. While these developments have made themselves felt in a dramatic manner, the village has also been able to maintain a good measure of its charm as a 19th century mill village and a nice reminder of Warwick’s past.

Hillsgrove has been, often at the same time, a mill town, a suburban village and an urban commercial area. Through it all, Hillsgrove United Methodist Church, called “the little church with the big heart,” had continued to provide what Clarice Gothberg, chairperson of the Council of Ministries, near the turn of the century calls a “feeling of hominess.” She notes that many of the congregation hope there will be information at the airport and the train station, indicating that there is a chapel for travelers who wish to come to pray and worship. The appeal of the church extends far from the village itself as many people come from Coventry, Cranston and North Kingstown to worship in the little church.

To maintain the long traditions established by the church since its inception in the 19th century and put forth a truly meaningful religious entity in the 21st century proved to be a challenge for the present pastor, Duane Clinker, who came to Hillsgrove Church in 1999 as a successor to the Rev. Christina Laurie. Rev. Clinker noted that the church was thriving, but many felt that maintaining the status quo was not enough. Many of the church elders felt the same way and, in 2005, they decided to “risk everything to whether grow in size or start a new congregation to reach out to a larger ministry.” The very idea of change meant that the church would never again be the same, and it was difficult to abandon the nice feeling of clinging to the old traditions.

This feeling coincided with the general trend of a decline in urban churches. The Washington Park United Methodist Church has witnessed a serious loss of membership and would have to close unless a merger with a church with similar goals and ideals could take place. From a historical perspective, mergers were often very difficult and sometimes resulted in the demise of both churches and a great deal of bitterness. The decision to merge or not to merge had to be made quickly, and both church congregations voted unanimously to end the separate existences of Hillsgrove Church and Washington Park Church and create a new entity, the Open Table of Christ. The new church would have one pastor, one budget and multiple sites. Of course, there were problems. Neither of the churches was wealthy and it took all their assets to create a new model church that would be diverse, multiracial and open to many of the 21st century reforms that had captured the imagination of both congregations.

In addition, while Hillsgrove United Methodist Church owns the building on Kilvert St., its congregation voted to share the property with the Zion Korean United Methodist Church on a 50/50 basis. This decision led to improvements of church properties and allowed both congregations to extend their ministries in a number of ways. Once again, tradition gave way to practicality and a true spirituality to the benefit of all involved.

Open Table of Christ

While the work of creating the new church was the work of many members of both congregations, much of the success of the venture is due to the efforts and vision of Rev. Duane Clinker.

Rev. Clinker is an ordained Methodist minister and is now a probationary elder in the United Methodist Church. This dynamic leader brought a variety of experience with him when he became the pastor at Hillsgrove. This experience included a number of years as a steel worker and a union organizer. In the 1980s a personal crisis brought him to the point of examining his life and caused him to have a much stronger feeling of faith than he had ever experienced. At that time, he felt the “calling” to the ministry but found it difficult to accept the change and, as he says, “to come out of the closet as a Christian.” Once he did, he experienced a great joy and this feeling affects all who come in contact with him. After serving as a part-time pastor in Providence, he was given his first pastorate in Hillsgrove Church in 1999.

Once the merger of Washington Park and Hillsgrove became a reality and adopted the identity as the Open Table of Christ the question was which church building would best suit the new congregation. At first, it seemed that Hillsgrove would be the primary church, but as it sanctuary seats 100 and Washington Park can accommodate over 150, the Providence church was selected for a 9:30 morning worship service on Sundays and Hillsgrove opted to have a Sunday service at 4:30 p.m. The congregations of both churches come from areas throughout Rhode Island and the two services are able to accommodate those who would have great difficulty had only one service been offered. The Providence church has services in both Spanish and English and is well suited for an urban environment, while Hillsgrove can accommodate those in the village area and members who have to work Sunday mornings.

Rev. Clinker points out that Open Table of Christ is one church with two locations. He notes that there is a different feeling in each edifice, which helps to make parishioners feel at home and has greatly helped the rise in attendance. This concept of one church with two buildings and multiracial and multi-language congregations has been given a great deal of approval by the United Methodist bishop and elders. Historically, this concept is not very different from the time of early immigration in the mill villages, where various groups wanted their own religious building with services in their native language.

The Open Table of Christ continues to extend its community work as it has done over many decades and now also encompasses services in the area of health education, Bible studies and healing services along with continued support of self-help groups. The old 19th century Hillsgrove United Methodist Church continued to be a very valuable asset to Warwick and to Rhode Island.

The stories of Warwick’s Houses of Worship will be continued.


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