Volume 75, Number 17 | September 14 - 20, 2005

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Reverend Gordon Dragt, Middle Collegiate Church’s former pastor, has passed the torch to Reverend Jacqueline Lewis.

Pastor is breaking new ground at Middle Collegiate

By Albert Amateau

When the Reverend Jacqueline J. Lewis was officially installed as the new senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church last Sunday, she was no stranger to the congregation.

She had first come to the church on Second Ave. and E. Seventh St. in 2003 as a Ph.D. candidate at Drew University doing research for her dissertation on clergy serving multiracial, multicultural congregations.

“I really came to study Gordon [Reverend Gordon Dragt, who retires after 20 years at Middle Collegiate and 40 years in the ministry] to learn what it is in life that makes someone like Gordon able to say to everyone, with arms wide open, ‘Welcome,’” she told The Villager last week.

She recalled joining the Middle Collegiate staff in January 2004 as associate minister on Gordon’s invitation and then being chosen to succeed him. “It was a marvelous outcome of my journey to Middle and into the ministry,” she said, “Everything I’ve been doing brings me here.”

Her journey to the East Village church took some unusual turns. Jacqui, as her congregation and staff call her, will be the first African-American and the first woman to serve a Collegiate Church as senior minister.

She came to the ministry after eight years in the corporate world, working for Eastman Kodak in Rochester and in the San Francisco Bay Area in sales, marketing and human resources administration. She didn’t enter the ministry until she was 30, when she entered Princeton Theological Seminary.

“I really felt a calling when I was 14, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “My younger siblings say I’ve been their minister all their lives.” Born in Omaha on an Air Force base to parents who were both in the military, Lewis was raised with a sister and two brothers in a churchgoing family. Later in the Chicago area, she went to a Presbyterian Church where the organist, a prim white woman, taught classical music (“The Messiah”) and the pianist, a black musician, organized a Gospel choir.

“It made me see that children belong in church, the arts belong in church and church is where black, white — everyone belongs,” Lewis said. “It’s what I still believe and it’s what drew me to Middle Collegiate,” she added.

At Princeton, she took honors in pastoral theology, urban ministry and Christian concern for others. She also organized a Gospel choir for which she won a music prize; the choir still performs at the seminary. On graduation in 1992, Lewis became a youth minister to a cluster of three churches in Trenton, N.J., and later headed two congregations, one of which, the new multiracial, multicultural Imani Community Church and Center, she characterizes as “a little Middle Collegiate.”

In 1998, Lewis left Trenton to enter the graduate program at Drew University in Madison, N.J. While earning her doctorate, she served as assistant chaplain at Drew and then became a full-time senior consultant for the Alban Institute, a nondenominational consulting service, where she met her future husband.

“We were colleagues who became friends — and it turned into a romance,” she said of her husband, John Janka, a United Methodist minister who works as a consultant for the denomination. They married last year in May, the month that Jacqui received her Ph.D. in psychology and religion from Drew.

The Middle Collegiate staff helped her find her apartment on E. 12th St. just east of First Ave. “I wanted to live in the East Village and the apartment is just where we want to be,” she said.

The installation ceremony on Sunday, when Gordon Dragt charged his successor with the duties of Middle Collegiate Church, followed the 20-year-tradition of the church where the arts are an integral part of the liturgy. The ceremony included a dance performance and music by the Manhattan Brass Quintet, the Middle Church Choir and the Jerome Johnson East Village Gospel Choir. Dr. Arthur Calliandro, senior minister at Marble Collegiate Church, preached the sermon, and an ecumenical group of clergy and lay leaders from the Reformed Church of America, United Church of Christ and the Presbyteries of New Brunswick, N.J., and New York, presided.

Middle Collegiate, affiliated with the Reformed Church of America, traces its roots to April 16, 1628, when services were held in a barn in New Amsterdam and then moved north with the growth of New York. The present church building dates from 1891. Lewis’s portrait will soon join the gallery in the Middle Collegiate parlor — a new face among the white male ministers over the past 317 years.

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