Pastor Karen Hernandez-Granzen is the welcoming face of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Greenwood Avenue in Trenton.
Celebrating her 25th year as the church’s spiritual leader—and dealing with an unprecedented crisis—she is standing in one of her community rooms to talk about a legacy, changes, and challenges of the church in Trenton’s Wilbur section.
In many ways what she has to say touches many urban and suburban churches.
“We’re an intercultural and an affirming interfaith community,” she says.
Quickly moving beyond the generalization of the statement, she says, “To be intercultural means we’re a multicultural congregation. We include black gospel music, Hispanic music, and African music every Sunday. By affirming we’re a church that invites and includes the LGBT community. While some churches celebrate Black History Month, Hispanic History Month, Women’s History Month, we make sure we incorporate this every Sunday. We’re Presbyterian so there are the traditional Eurocentric hymns.”
The path from a congregation rooted to a white Protestant religion born in the British Isles and shaped by Euro-centric attitudes to one led by a Latina made pragmatic sense.
“The church made a decision in the early 1980s when it was primarily a vintage congregation that it needed to change the complexion of the congregation to look like the diverse community Trenton had become,” says Hernandez-Granzen.
“This transformation took decades,” she adds. “And that’s pretty typical of mainline worshipping communities. This radical transformation into a cultural community takes much patience.”
To illustrate the transformation, Hernandez-Granzen says when she took stewardship of the church founded in 1898, the congregation was 90 percent white. Now, she says, “We are 60 or so percent African American, 30 percent Euro, and 7 percent Hispanic.”
While the congregation has 100 registered members (others come and go as the spirit moves), Hernandez-Granzen says that it works to connect the Trenton neighborhood and the greater area.
“I feel that our church is a vital church because we don’t just look at the number of people on a Sunday morning but see our church as a community center,” she says. “One of the strengths of our worshipping community is we have since the 1990s actively created deep relations to the arts community, police department, Princeton University, Princeton Theological Society, and Rider University.”
Westminster sees part of its ministry through programming. “We have a Get Set after school program. We have an ESL school that we’ll kick start again in the fall. We’re now the new home of the Trenton Music Makers. We’re a healing community station—what that means is that we’ve been trained to support those who are currently incarcerated and those who are returning citizens. And we’re the home of the Beracah Apostolic Church—a congregation of eight different Latin American countries.”
Hernandez-Granzen says Westminster’s budget is slightly over $200,000 and supports one-full time individual (her), one part-time assistant (Trenton native Crystal Jordan), and when not on quarantine restrictions, another part-time church employee and two part time program coordinators.
One important source of support comes from Westminster’s religious partners: Nassau, Dutch Neck, Ewing, and Lawrenceville Presbyterian churches.
The after-school program that enrolled 30 children, prior to the quarantine, has a low-cost tuition and also partners support to make sure “our students are reading at grade level,” she says.
“The sustainability of this church starts with our members,” she says. “Although they are of the low income bracket, they give with their time and volunteering. So there is a lot of hands-on involvement.”
Self-defined as a person who loves “partnering with people with different backgrounds to work creatively to address the issues of the day,” Hernandez-Granzen also says she’s a Nuyorican—a New Yorker born to Puerto Rican parents.
“I was born in New York: Brooklyn, Sunset Park, Bay Ridge. I went to Fort Hamilton High School. I got an associate in accounting from New York City Community College–City Tech.
“My dad was a (full time) Pentecostal pastor in the mid-1960s. He left his legacy. He understood the church’s mission wasn’t just about service and Bible studies.”
She says it was also about getting loans to support its member and help integrate members into the community.
“My mother was a prayer warrior,” she continues. “(My father) died when he was 45, and she had to raise 11 kids at home. The church and social security support.”
Hernandez-Granzen then matter-of-factly says, “I became a rebellious teenager. And what brought me back to the church fold was an after-school tutoring and mentoring program in Brooklyn, New York. That work got me off the streets.
“The pastor didn’t pressure me to go to church, but by being involved with the after-school program and working with senior citizens and gang members, I became eventually a worshiper of that church.” It was First Hispanic Reform Church of America.
Hernandez-Granzen says she had the opportunity and interest in going to California and lived in Los Angeles for eight years. She got her undergraduate degree, in business administration, from Cal Tech.
She says she also served in a church for six years and got involved with youth programs at Los Ranchos Presbyterian.
It was then that she says she found her unexpected calling.
“Even though I worked with youth as a youth director, I never saw myself as a potential pastor until (Pastor) Hector Delgado asked me when I was in California if I had ever thought of the ordained ministry.
“I didn’t see myself as a female pastor because I had never met one. Even though I got an accounting and business degree and was still actively was involved with the church, I never saw that my future profession was to be a minister of the word and sacrament. I thought, ‘Why not?’ and realized that this was God’s call for my life. I was in my twenties at the time.”
Soon McCormick Theological and Seminary in Chicago was her next stop. “It had a Hispanic program. I would be able to study with Hispanic scholars in Spanish, and it had an urban emphasis. Los Ranchos Presbyterian (in Los Angeles) provided a scholarship and the seminary did too.
“I went from being a Pentecostal to part of the reformed denomination and then Presbyterian because I started as youth director and joined the church.”
Then Trenton called.
“I was studying for my ordination exam in Chicago,” Hernandez-Granzen says, “And I got a church information form and read about this church, about it being a vintage congregation that knew it needed to change its complexion. And I felt this overwhelming love for this congregation sight unseen.”
Hernandez-Granzen’s sense that she was called to this church was deepened when a former pastor of Westminster served with Hernandez-Granzen on a national committee, thought it was a good match, and sent her church info.
She then met the Rev. Patti Daley, the liaison between Nassau and Westminster Presbyterians, at a national committee on urban ministry in Chicago.
“I prayed the old guard would get to see the fruit of their ministry before they died,” Hernandez-Granzen says when she was appointed to the church. “They did. There are really only two that are here. They still have ownership.”
There was another event in Chicago that changed her life. She met her husband, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church Elizabeth and an associate professor in New Brunswick theological seminary teaching Christian ethics and theology.
The meeting happened five months into my pastorate when Hernandez-Granzen attended a meeting with others pastoring churches in transition and had to find a place to sit. There was an empty seat and someone at the table called for Michael Granzen, her future husband, to join them.
“That was the first time we ate together,” she says.
“He is of Irish, Scottish, and German decent. And he is the first white man I dated,” she says.
After initially living in the Trenton and Ewing area, the couple now lives in Princeton with their two daughters, Mikaella and Olivia, both in their 20s.
“We moved to Princeton for the girls to study at the public school,” she says. “A few people in the congregation didn’t appreciate it. But it was the best public school for our children.”
She says the move also helped her strengthen relationships that have already existed, including engaging Princeton University as a community partner. She is also a Princeton Township Civil Rights Commissioner.
Hernandez-Granzen then turns to the topic of the vital yet semantically tricky support from outside the city. “Often suburban-urban partnerships are not always helpful. It’s mostly charity given to the poor urban church. Even though Westminster is receiving financial support, we partner together.”
In addition to programs at the church, Hernandez-Granzen mentions two important community partner programs off the church’s grounds. The first is Bethany House of Hospitality. Located in the Bethany Presbyterian Church parsonage on Hamilton Avenue, the program provides low cost housing for young adults employed in jobs that benefit the city through various programs, ranging from Trenton gardening projects to low cost legal services. And, the second, in 1998, Westminster started a mission in the Dominican Republic and helped build a school for over 400 children, pre-k to 12.
Thinking ahead, she says, Trenton’s fastest growing population is Hispanics, and Westminster is working to adjust the after-school program to meet the needs of such students. Other noticeable populations include Haitians and others of African descent.
Looking at Westminster’s transformation and her accomplishment, Hernandez-Granzen says
“Across the nation, churches that are intercultural are small. Martin Luther King said that the most segregated time in the United States is at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings. The fact is that Westminster is intercultural is rare.”
Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1140 Greenwood Avenue, Trenton.