Plymouth Church celebrates 175 years in Brooklyn Heights with vibrant Harvest Dinner
"We are all connected, we need each other, and you can't do it alone."
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Roughly 175 guests, dressed in “smart casual,” gathered at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights Saturday night for the church’s much-anticipated 175th Anniversary Harvest Dinner.
It was an evening of delicious food, fun and faith, but the overwhelming themes were community and history.
Before the hors d’oeuvres, Beth Fleisher, co-chair of the Harvest Dinner with Caroline Koster, gave the Brooklyn Eagle a peek at the 22 homemade apple pies baked by church members.
“We hold a Mrs. Beecher’s Apple Pie Contest because the Reverend Beecher wrote rhapsodic things about apple pie,” said Fleisher. “Who doesn’t like apple pie at a Harvest Dinner? Especially since Henry Ward was bonkers over apple pie.”
Founded in 1847, Plymouth was known as Brooklyn’s “Grand Central Depot” of the Underground Railroad. The church’s founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, staged mock slave auctions where the congregation bought and freed slaves. Abe Lincoln sat in pew 89; a piece of Plymouth Rock perches in a niche in the Arcade. Members of the History Committee have been researching Plymouth’s past all year in honor of the church’s Dodransbicentennial (175th) year.
But despite its designation as a National Historic Landmark, “We are very, very proud that our church is not a museum, Fleisher said. “Even though we have this fantastic history, we are a very lively, very active community. We are a community of faith, a community of service, a community of joy and a community of love. And we like nothing more than to come together and celebrate together.”
This is the first Harvest Dinner the church has held in three years, “Which makes it even more special. And it’s a wildly special one because it’s our 175th anniversary,” Fleisher said.
“We are proud of our history, and at a time when not everybody is proud of what might have happened 175 years ago,” co-chair Koster said. “Plymouth Church’s 21 [founding] abolitionists came to form this place out of an anti-slavery belief and a belief in love and humanity, and we are very proud of that. But the thing that gives us hope for 175 more years is our glorious commitment to service, faith, joy and love.”
There’s a new generation coming in, Koster added. “One of my favorite things is when we have a traffic jam in the front of the church when all the little kids are making their way to Sunday school … It feels like the greatest problem in the world.”
“We are all connected”
“I go to Plymouth Church because of the people, the community and the quality of goodness and kindness. That is the key,” said Grace Faison, a sixth-generation Heights resident. At age 98, Faison has been an active member of Plymouth Church for 72 years.
“I have a mantra: We are all connected, we need each other, and you can’t do it alone,” Faison said. “People care about each other at this church, that’s the message I want to get out.”
Valerie Louzonis is the co-chair of the Dodransbicentennial Committee with Jim Waechter. The celebration is about “coming together,” Louzonis said. “We have former members, people who have moved away, young children — we have the entire community of Plymouth, past, present and future.”
Alex Bernath and her husband Josh have two young children. One has graduated Plymouth Church preschool, and one still attends. “Our biggest foundational teaching for our kids is based on love and kindness and respect for other people, and I think that this church really exemplifies this, and the school does too,” she said.
“Plymouth Church has always been the place that has served as the town hall for the Brooklyn Heights community,” Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who grew up in Brooklyn Heights, said. “No matter whatever the issue of the day, it’s at Plymouth that we come together as a community to tackle it, whether it was the BQE a couple of years ago, or presidents coming to speak here in years past.”
“I love it because it’s so vibrant,” said Soossan Salmassi, who joined the Plymouth congregation four years ago after attending another church. “I never knew you could go to church and sit through the whole service and be so happy and joyful.”
Plymouth’s commitment to social justice continues
Rev. Dr. Brett Younger has been leading Plymouth as senior minister for six years. Previously serving in Atlanta, he arrived with his wife Carol along with a distinctly southern intonation and an infectious sense of humor.
“I’m told I have an accent quite frequently,” he laughed.
“The most important thing about this church is that we are living out of a great story, the story of Christ’s that calls us to work for justice, the story that made us work for abolition, the story that made us work for civil rights, and we hope to grow in our faith and get better at it every day,” Rev. Younger said.
The church’s historical commitment to social justice continues, he said. “We have an anti-trafficking group called the New Abolitionist, which picks up on that theme of abolition that’s been such a good part of our history; we have a racial justice group that works for justice issues.”
History Committee member Philip Dempsey is writing the story of Plymouth rescuing [an enslaved girl] Rose Ward Hunt, “And I would say that’s one of the most significant stories of Plymouth,” he said.
Interim Minister of Music Raymond Trapp, who joined Plymouth on Nov. 1 (former Music Minister Bruce Oelschlager retired) helped entertain as part of a trio playing jazz and show tunes.
“The most important thing I’ve learned about this church so far is how welcoming they are,” Trapp told the Eagle. “It’s been amazing. My children [Ava is 12 and Matthew is 7] spoke about the warmth of the church and that really meant a lot, sincerely.”
He added, “The church has an amazing choral repertoire so I’m definitely embracing that and building on it.”
Music and hors d’oeuvres
The party started with wine and a glorious spread of hors d’oeuvres put together by Starr McFlarin Clancy. Some of the highlights of the dinner included herb-marinated pork loin, stuffed acorn squash, Brussels sprouts and corn pudding.
Koster led a toast expressing gratitude to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Mrs. Beecher, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Jackie Robinson and other figures who have featured in the church’s history. The toast also honored Professor Donald Othmer and his wife, Mildred, who left millions to Plymouth as part of an enormous bequest in 1999. “Their generosity continues to support the church,” Koster said.
After dinner, the hard-fought apple pie contest (organized by Kimberly Kim) progressed with much tongue in cheek commentary by judges Rev. Younger and Jeff Bollerman.
“Now many of you have asked, why did Jeff and Brett get to be the judges?,” Rev. Younger said. “I’m not someone who knows how to cook. But you don’t need someone who knows how to cook. You need someone who knows how to eat.”
“We’ve been through a huge public health disaster, we’ve been through many crises, and you really get to know you’re a senior minister when you’ve been through the white-hot fiery crucible of a pie eating contest,” Bollerman said. The event was followed by a spirited sing-along.
Claude Scales, editor of the Brooklyn Heights Blog and his wife Martha Foley attended the evening as guests of Sadie Horton, co-chair of the Racial Justice Committee. “My daughter doesn’t understand why we don’t sell our apartment in Brooklyn Heights and move to a bigger place in the New Jersey suburbs. I told her I’d rather die,” he said.
Volunteers for this event were too numerous to list. Some of their names include Jona Brisske and her team, who transformed the Reception Room and gym, created centerpieces, and oversaw the event’s design; Becky Lewis who created the artwork; Molly Anna Martinez and Amy Anderson, Plymouth’s executive administrator and communications director respectively, who wrangled details. Spencer Harrington sourced the wine and Tony Kleckner organized bar service.
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment