SCRANTON, Pa. — Paint and dust flew as an 11-member team from Coweeta Baptist Church in Franklin worked five days to help a new Baptist congregation ready a new building for worship.
Hemisphere Church‘s new storefront building was still not complete when the tired Coweeta crew headed homeward Aug. 1, but “We are far ahead of our schedule because of this team’s work,” said Hemisphere pastor and church planter Michael “Sunny” Sunseri.
Crystal Norton and Kristin Hooper suspended the usual teen concerns over chipped nails and imperfect hair as they joined Coweeta pastor and team leader Davis Hooper and other team members in rolling paint onto the future sanctuary’s walls.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Coweeta member B.L. Cannon looked much younger than his 82 years as he pulled old wires from a wall to prepare it for new drywall. “I’m just having a big time. Anything we can do to help other people, that’s what I’m here for,” Cannon said.
Sending out mission teams has become routine for Coweeta over the years, Hooper said. “I’ve been so glad that North Carolina Baptist Men have started these partnerships. It gives us a chance to not only send our money through the Cooperative Program but also to go out and work on some hands-on missions. We do a lot of local missions,” Hooper said.
“But this gets us out and gives our youth, especially, a flavor of different cultures in different parts of the world and what’s going on, rather than just our little niche of the world,” he said.
“This will be my church!” said happy Hemisphere Church member Raietta Garramone, who came to work on the building. “I think they are absolutely fantastic. I’ve never seen people work as hard as they do,” she said of the Coweeta team.
“It’s a humbling experience to watch these people give up their time to sweat for the Lord in a place where they will never see the fruit of their labor till one day in heaven. I appreciate them so much. I can’t wait till it’s my turn to give in this fashion. I really appreciate these people very much,” said Debra Ross, one of the 12 charter members of Hemisphere Church when it started two years ago. Ross joined the Coweeta team in painting the sanctuary walls.
Originally the Coweeta team was going to work in a local park, but just ahead of their arrival, Hemisphere Church members were able to lease a storefront building in northern Scranton, a few blocks from their original meeting place. That first meeting place has become too small as the church membership has grown into the 20s, with 10 more people headed to church membership.
A building’s drywall and paint are a small step in Sunseri’s vision of starting a multicultural congregation to reach out to Scranton’s increasingly diverse ethnic groups. Scranton’s African American population has increased by 25 percent in recent years, while Hispanics have grown by 75 percent, Sunseri said. Already Hemisphere’s membership includes half a dozen different language/cultural groups, including Sunseri’s wife, Marichelle, who came from the Philippines when she was two.
The newcomers are changing the city, whose population is 93 percent Roman Catholic, he said. Sunseri, who grew up as a Catholic in Ohio, was 27 years old before a pastor showed him in the Bible that salvation depends on God’s grace and not personal works.
“It was a total surprise to realize that it’s not something I can earn or deserve, but it’s something that Christ gave as a gift and by faith you accept that. And the good deeds that you do are because you love Jesus and have a relationship with Him, not because you have a religion. That’s news to people in this area,” Sunseri said.
After he completed his university studies, Sunseri worked 10 years as a financial planner; after he and his wife became followers of Christ, a call to Christian service followed in 1995. They moved to Scranton so Sunseri could attend the Baptist Bible Seminary in nearby Clarks Summit.
Sunseri already sees similar churches being planted around eastern Pennsylvania. He said the church is grateful that another North Carolina Baptist team will come soon to work more on the new building. “I’m beginning to understand the accent,” he said with a laugh.