An opportunity to minister to his own church brought a university hospital chaplain to Grace Presbyterian in Martins Ferry. Foreboding telephone calls from the Presbytery about a struggling church on the verge of closing prompted the Rev. William O. Webster Jr. and his wife, Linda, to say, "OK, we'll give this two years."
That was 25 years ago, and a church of 41 members looking for hope has transformed into a community of more than 250 that broadcasts Sunday services online (www.gracemf.org) to regular viewers in Florida and California, has a successful mission program in Zambia and runs youth programs, a legal clinic and a coffee house from a building next door now owned by the church. There is always a cup of coffee ready for a visitor.
Webster credits his members with the church's rise, "They don't take risks; they take challenges." He said that if someone talks about a problem down the street or in the community, he suggests they do something about it. But ask any of the congregation about Webster, known as "Reverend Bill," and the words, "awesome," "great," "we love him," "amazing" and "wonderful," flow.
T-L Photo/GLYNIS VALENTI
THE?Rev. Bill Webster conducts Sunday morning’s service at Grace Presbyterian Church in Martins Ferry. His leadership has increased membership, expanded community and mission programs and helped the congregation determine a vision for their church.
Webster and this church have a bond that began before he was born. Grace Presbyterian has been on the same site, the corner of Hanover and Fourth, since 1851. The original church, the first brick church in Martins Ferry, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, harboring escaped slaves on their way to Mount Pleasant, Flushing and freedom. The original building was razed in 1900 to make way for the present building, dedicated in 1901.
Webster is a descendant of the Waldensian settlers in Valdese, N.C. Long-persecuted for their pre-Reformation beliefs, the European Waldensians were eventually granted emancipation in 1848, and a group moved from the Italian Alps to North Carolina in the 1890s where their church entered the fold of the Presbyterian Church. Webster's grandfather became a Presbyterian minister and moved to New Jersey. Newly immigrated Italians at the time also faced discrimination, and banks were not approving loans for them. Webster's grandfather started a savings and loan that awarded loans and mortgages to Italians, allowing them to purchase homes and settle in their new land.
"Everybody has rights," Webster said. "We're all children of God." His grandparents' strong tie to community and sense of civil rights was a major influence in his life. Webster had a spirited youth, street racing fast cars and wanting to be a professional racer. He ended up going to college for urban studies, then English and was considering a tour in the Peace Corps when a friend encouraged him to try a mission assignment at a Navajo reservation in Arizona. "It was huge. There were 500 kids in Sunday school." This is where Webster met his wife, Linda, and he decided to attend a seminary in Pittsburgh for his master's degree in divinity.
He took a post with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital as chaplain to the organ donor unit and became involved with a groundbreaking program in psychological evaluations of transplant recipients. "What we found was that patients who had a strong faith in God, faith in their physician and family support had the highest survival rates," he said. Webster visited with patients and found out which if any of these were lacking, and helped the hospital address the issue.
Webster received an opportunity from the regional Presbytery to be the pastor at a church in a small town on the Ohio River. He and his wife decided it was time to take this step. After accepting the position at Grace Presbyterian, Webster says he got two telephone calls from Presbytery officials asking him about his decision. Both said, "You know this church is broke and getting ready to close, right?"
"Well, no," Webster answered warily.
"You're still coming to Grace, though, right?" both asked.
"Well, yes," he replied. "My wife must have seen me turn white while I was talking because she asked what was wrong. I told her about the new church, and we decided to stick it out for two years." They were expecting their second baby.
The Websters were up to the challenge. "You've got to go beyond the box," he explains. "We use the story of the Apostle Peter. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water, and He invited them to come with Him, Peter is the only one who followed. He sank, but at least he got out of the boat. That's what we say here. Get out of the boat. Have faith. Get involved in the ministry and the mission."
Webster sees this as one of his proudest accomplishments at Grace-empowering members to take on problems and solve them.
Parishioners cite Webster's "caring," "compassionate" nature as their example of a true Christian life. Grace's Family Ministries Coordinator Lisa Buckingham wrote, "He has learned to follow Christ's example so closely that it's his nature to think of others first and foremost, to do whatever is in his own power to love them in the way that God loves each of us. He draws people in simply by caring." He and the church have each been recipients of the Presbytery Synod of the Trinity Peacemaker awards.
His community is global. Buckingham described a typical local scenario, a trip to the post office, two blocks away. "I assumed he would be back in about 15 minutes. It was over an hour-and-a-half before he came back to the office. I asked what took him so long. Without a second thought, he explained that there were people out and about, and many of them wanted to chat or needed a little bit of counsel. This is how Bill operates. He is such a 'people person' who is so compassionate and caring for everyone around him that he literally can't go for a two-block walk without ministering to folks."
In Martins Ferry, Webster has served on the school board, served seven years as president of the Martins Ferry Ministerial Association and is an active member of the city's Architectural Zoning Committee, Economic Development Committee and Housing Committee and several festival and project committees. He was voted Martins Ferry's Citizen of the Year in 1999. Community groups and families use the church's facilities for meetings, fund-raisers and parties.
After his arrival in Ohio, an inmate at the penitentiary in Moundsville requested Webster's help with an anti-drug initiative for area schools. Groups of students met at the Delf Norona Museum across from the penitentiary where Webster and four inmates, all dressed in plain shirts and khaki pants, talked to the students about dangers of drugs and alcohol. Students watched the inmates march back across the street in shackles and were sometimes given a tour of the jail. Webster estimates that around 5,000 students from three states attended the presentations, and years later he heard two men at a restaurant discussing their trips to that program and how it had kept them away from drugs.
Church member Juliann Rohn added, "Spend half a day with Bill Webster and you will witness, firsthand, a life of radical hospitality. Bill and his wife, Linda, have hosted countless guests in their home. Pastors from Mexico, exchange students from Germany, college friends of their own three lively and creative children are only a few of the many folks who have been welcomed into the Webster household. This lifestyle of hospitality is also echoed in the life of the church that Webster pastors."
One of the German exchange students is now at The Ohio State University on a swimming scholarship and still considers the Webster house his home base, and several visitors have come from Africa. In 1990, as the Soviet Union crumbled, Grace Presbyterian took in members of the Bim Bom Circus of Moscow who became stranded here on their United States tour. Grace was the first church in the country to be host to a large group of Russians and assisted with fund-raising to help the troupe return home.
"It was a great opportunity for the kids," Webster said of all the cultural exchanges. "I figure if we can't go see the world, bring the world to us." The three Webster children are now adults. Sarah is an attorney in Pennsylvania; Rachel is a teacher at a school for autistic children in Youngstown; Matthew is a playwright and actor in New York City.
Webster would like to renovate space in the building next door into apartments for future visiting pastors and missionaries.
His contagious "can-do" spirit and the church motto, "Grace: where dress is casual and faith is serious," have inspired programs like "Grace 2 Go," a church service held at the Wayne L. Hays Tower; a pillowcase dress program and mission school in Zambia which recently purchased two sewing machines and several trees; Holy Grounds Coffee House on Thursday nights with live music; and one of three free legal clinics in the state.
He says his philosophy is basically "do unto others, live by the words of Christ." He enjoys seeing the changes that take place when people step up to issues and become empowered. His personal challenge has been multiple sclerosis. Diagnosed with MS in 1991, he has had to stop long distance running and hang gliding. However, he took up long distance cycling and is in training for his "century," a 100-mile day, later this year. "I want people to see that, even though it's a crippling disease, you don't have to BE crippled," he noted. "You might have to stop some things, but there are other things you can do. It's not the end."
The parishioners at Grace relay tales of compassion about this man, especially during times of illness and mourning. According to Rohn in Webster's office, "The door is almost always open. ... A comfortable chair is always available for those who need to share a joy or a sorrow, to sound off about a concern, or to try out a new idea."
And, as everyone points out, a fresh pot of coffee is always ready.
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