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Keeping the Faith: First Congregational Church

The United Church of Christ has historically taken bold stands on controversial issues.
The United Church of Christ has historically taken bold stands on controversial issues. That includes ordaining its first black pastor, 100 years before the Civil War, allowing a female pastor 100 years before the feminist movement and an openly gay minister back in the early 1970s.

It's 10 a.m. Sunday morning at the corner of Front and Main streets in Binghamton. Pastor Arthur Suggs has been leading this congregation for the past six years. Originally, he was in the world of physics. He has two degrees from Perdue University. But, he ended up falling in love with theology, which spurred a new career path. His background is also the reason for his passion for dialogue about science and religion.

"I see overlap taking place in so many ways and I also see very unnecessary conflict where the two can be very complimentary and very helpful to each other in the evolutionary sense, in the physics sense, in the cosmology sense in the psychological sense over and over again. That's what I want to promote," said Suggs

After service he gave a lecture on physics and religion. Pastor Suggs is also interested in interfaith discussions.

One of the church's long-standing members is David Agard. He was baptized here 72 years ago.

"I was very influenced by Don Finley, who was a minister here, when I was in high school. Don was a great, brilliant guy, wonderful preacher and influenced me a great deal. He was a gentleman, had good manners and made sure I did and the rest of the boys here did," said Agard.

Back in those days, Agard walked to church. Although First Congregational has always drawn people from other towns.

"When Stanley Gamble was here, and that's who WSKG is named after by the way, was one of the ministers here, we had 700 people in church every Sunday, standing room only. It was huge. We didn't need to do any outreach, the people were here. That was in the 50s. Then people drifted away, as they have in most protestant denominations. Recently, within the past year or two, we've begun to really move into trying to draw in local kids, local neighbors."

Pastor Suggs has also opened up the church for other groups to use, including the Binghamton Buddhist meditation group, Christian Scientists and other study groups. First Congregational is liberal.

"We voted unanimously to become an open and affirming church, meaning that being a gay or lesbian, actually the LGBTG, the spectrum on it, is actually welcome and celebrated here," said Suggs. "One of the consequences is that we are a tiny denomination, doing those kinds of things a century ahead of time makes enemies, for example. But we are rooted into the pilgrim kind of mentality of we're not going to be told what's what by some denominational hiearchy, so it's a congregational kind of setting."

Regardless of the thoughts of some churches, Suggs says the congregation is focused on serving Binghamton, including people from the Department of Social Services and the American Civic Association, agencies that the church is near.
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