Maner Tyson, a country boy from rural North Carolina who could not speak or pray in front of others, remembers himself as the “least likely person to be chosen to be a pastor or to live in a city.”
God, it seems, had a different opinion. Tyson has been the pastor for 33 years of Waterbury Baptist Ministries in Connecticut.
‘Time of my life’
After seminary, Beulah Peoples, the late director of mission ministries and the Woman’s Missionary Union, from 1985 to 1997 for the Baptist Churches of New England —with whom Tyson still affiliates — appointed him to a position with the Western Connecticut Baptist Association. After conducting a study of four cities, Peoples, Tyson, and the associational leaders decided to start an urban ministry in Waterbury, and he was eventually invited to lead that endeavor.
He started in the summer of 1991 by organizing two weeks of Vacation Bible School in a vacant lot. Visiting mission teams from the Carolinas served with him, and the following year Tyson returned to the same lot on Saturdays for a children’s ministry he called “The Son Fun Club.” The small group of children eventually became “the core group” from which Tyson, who was at that time 31, launched Waterbury Baptist.
“God chose me, not because of my strengths, but because of my weaknesses, and my willingness to be used by him,” he said. “God calls us not to be successful but to be obedient,” even when talking with just one person on a street corner. “I’m just riding God’s rollercoaster and having a great time.”
“I’m having the time of my life,” he added. “After 33 years I’m still loving what I do. I have such a great God, who has empowered me to do the ministry that I do. When you’re trying to do what the Lord wants you to do, one of the benefits is joy that comes in your heart — not happiness — but joy. It’s cost me a lot. I’ve had some tough times, but I never lost the joy that God gave me to be his minister.”
He serves the people of a working-class city of 114,000 residents that is midway between Boston and New York, a place once known as the center of the American brass industry.
Tyson started the street ministry and church there “to bring hope to Waterbury and empower others to minister back in their own community.”
Secret to success
When someone meets Tyson on the street, they soon discover that community engagement is the secret to his method of church health and hospitality is central to his style of evangelism.
Juneteenth, the newest national holiday that commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned that the Civil War had ended and that they were truly emancipated, is just the latest example of Waterbury Baptist’s hospitality in action — or, as their sign says, they are: “Sharing Hope That Lasts.” “We thought this day of freedom should be a great outreach to the community, so we celebrated it for the first time this year,” said Tyson.
On June 19 he and church volunteers set up games on the front lawn and a table where children colored patriotic pictures that illustrated freedom.
A deejay from the church played jazz music while others passed out gospel literature about the freedom possible in Christ. Inside, Waterbury Baptist held a community art gallery featuring paintings, quilts, crochet items, and a handmade wicker basket.
A giant Juneteenth flag was displayed since, as the pastor commented, “It was a day to remember the freedom we can have in Christ. It was a great day to celebrate!” They even rolled out their own hot dog cart in front of the rented church facility, a chapel on the lower level of First Congregational Church. They gave away 150 hot dogs which are a regular feature of Waterbury Baptist’s outreach ministries.
On Sunday mornings they gather for worship in the rented space of First Congregational Church at 222 West Main Street.
These days, after the COVID-19 global pandemic, between 40 and 50 people attend worship. They are a multicultural mix of Italians, French, Southerners, New England “Yankees,” Jamaicans, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Trinidadians and people from other cultures. Some are poor and some middle class; everyone regardless of background or life circumstance is invited and made to feel welcomed.
“The people are the stained-glass windows in our church,” said Tyson. “Each one has their own story, and they love giving grace to each other.”
They also meet on Friday nights for “Operation Nicodemus,” humorously called “Nick at Night” after the cable television channel.
Named for the Pharisee who met secretly with Jesus at night (John 3), the Waterbury gathering is a place for people to pray together, talk about spiritual matters, and encourage one another. Hot dogs are served at the evening meetings.
Tyson identifies and serves the residents of two very different Waterburys, which he calls the “day city” and the “night city.” Friday nights are for those who are not evident earlier in the day.
Several times a year, Waterbury Baptist gathers upstairs in the host church’s gym for “Breakfast with the King,” a “worship family style” ministry where they join together for a shared meal at tables in groups of nine. Before the food is brought to the tables, they sing hymns, offer praises for God’s blessing, share their prayer concerns, and otherwise get to know people in a way they would not on most Sundays.
For those who live alone or feel isolated in the city, this ministry can be especially meaningful. Tyson concludes the gatherings with an encouraging sermon while the food is being consumed.
For three weeks this summer they have hosted outdoor “Terrific Tuesday” concerts featuring local musicians that perform songs that range widely from 50’s rock to Latino beat to “James Taylor-like” folk music.
At these outreach events they distribute Bibles and, once again, serve hot dogs. People who are very different from one another sit together on the same lawn. “We treat them nice,” said the pastor, who hopes that their experience will encourage them to check out the church on a Sunday morning.
Each summer for two weeks the church invites mission teams from the South to hold a Vacation Bible School, and Waterbury Baptist members have formed a team that, he said, “ministers to the mission team.” They serve meals and write devotionals for the visiting team. On the final night each week, they hold a commissioning service to inspire the visiting team members “to go back home and get involved in ministry.”
Every Friday for many years, Tyson and volunteers minister to some 200 families by distributing food and clothing. Some of the volunteers are not part of the church except for their service in the food pantry.
“We like non-Christians working alongside Christians in the hope that the ‘Good News’ in the Christian’s life will communicate to those who don’t know Christ, and they will come to know Jesus as their Savior.”
‘Welcome to our front porch’
Since their facility is on a busy downtown street, women from the church take turns, two at a time, to sit in rocking chairs out on the sidewalk.
When people walk by, they are invited to sit in a third rocking chair, tell their stories and, if they are willing, pray together and listen to the church members’ life stories and faith journeys. A sign nearby says, “Welcome to our front porch!”
“I think churches have to be very creative in the way they present the Gospel and show that Christians are real people who need Christ. We use whatever means God gives us. The Great Commission (Matt 28:16—20) calls us to leave our church building and to be the church out in the community.”