100 years later, Liberty Church continues its legacy – The Daily Gazette

SCHENECTADY — When Liberty Church was founded in 1922, services were conducted entirely in Italian. Formed as the Italian Pentecostal Church by Pastor Felix Rizzo, members of the congregation sat on milk crates and wooden planks as they met on the first floor of Rizzo’s home.

Today, services include a full band playing modern music and take place in an 800-seat sanctuary equipped with webcasting equipment.

Yes, a lot has changed for the Albany Street Church – from its name to its location to the faces of its congregation. Yet for a facility that celebrates its 100th anniversary Friday at 6:30 p.m., with a memorial event that will feature a traveling museum to highlight the church’s history, many founding ideologies remain, even as the church continues to evolve. .

Liberty’s legacy lives on in part thanks to its senior pastor, Dennis Graham-Parker, who, like Rizzo, is an immigrant. Rizzo came from Italy. Graham-Parker grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and led a church in Kent, England, before coming to Liberty in 2017. He did not arrive in Schenectady with his wife, Wendy, a co-pastor , and two daughters by chance. When Graham-Parker was in his twenties, members of the Schenectady Church, then called Calvary Tabernacle, visited his church in South Africa on a mission trip. It began a lifelong connection and a handful of visits to Schenectady, including in 2010 to celebrate a wedding for two people who had met on that original mission trip in the early 2000s. Graham-Parker, today 48, is the church’s 14th pastor.

As Liberty celebrates 100 years, Graham-Parker said looking to the future is as important as remembering the past.

“A church will only survive if you pay attention to young people. Because if you don’t, you’re lost. I value tradition, and we [as a church] promote tradition. But tradition isn’t just about sticking to old things,” Graham-Parker said inside the modern shrine. A keyboard and drum set on stage, along with sound equipment in the middle of the benches, made the space look like a concert hall. “It makes our job difficult because while you want to be relevant, you also don’t want to compromise the core message. So you have to bring those two things together.

Dating back to 1922, Liberty Church, an Assemblies of God community, was previously called Calvary Tabernacle Church and moved from Strong Street to 1840 Albany St. in 1959. The church, with a current congregation of approximately 230 , completed an expansion and renovation in 2004, bringing the facility to 60,000 square feet and creating the new sanctuary. The original shrine, which still features wooden ceilings and arches, now also includes basketball hoops and has been transformed into a community gathering space.

Graham-Parker led the effort to change Liberty Church’s name in 2018, a move that represents modernization. For one, the change to Calvary Tabernacle was better for search engine results, since the old name competed with other places of worship of the same name in the area, Graham-Parker said. But “freedom” is also meant to connote modern thought.

“People these days don’t want to be locked into stuffy traditions, so the name conveys a bit more freedom,” Graham-Parker said.

Irma Martinez-Coyle, 41, who runs a homeschooling co-op in Liberty that gives more than 70 homeschooled children a chance to learn together once a week, has been with the church for about a year . She said she felt welcome from the start.

“I wanted a church that was a little more diverse for my family, and this church has the heart of the acceptance and diversity that we were looking for for our biracial family.”

Last year, the church conducted a diversity survey of its congregation and found that its membership was 56% white, 25% black, 10% Hispanic and 8% other.

Shannie Surujpaul, originally from Guyana, came to church with her two young children and her husband 13 years ago. They had attended another church in the area and were drawn to Liberty’s diversity.

“You should see him on Sunday,” said Surujpaul, 48, who is Liberty’s office manager and the self-proclaimed “bubbly” person greeting everyone before a service. “It’s such a diverse culture from all over the world.”

But even as Liberty celebrates the diversity brought by some of its newest members, on its 100th anniversary, it hasn’t lost sight of its tradition.

Surujpaul said Graham-Parker and his wife, Wendy, “they lead this church like giants, following others who have gone before them and not forgetting them.”

The oldest members of the church have been with the congregation for over 80 years and were members under Rizzo’s leadership. Rizzo retired in 1958. In 2020 the church said goodbye to member Yolanda Ricci, who at 102 was the longest serving member. Two current members in the 90s were the last to be married into the church by Rizzo.

The current number of congregations is far fewer than the more than 600 that attended the church ten years ago. Graham-Parker said Liberty will need to continue to attract new members by being an active part of the community to continue its mission. That’s why Graham-Parker said he’s proud the church hosts everything from co-op to community gatherings.

“Any opportunity to bring the community to our doorstep is fantastic,” Graham-Parker said. “It means we are heading in the right direction.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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Jerry B. Hatch