Riverside-Salem history

miki soos logoA history prepared in 2007 by Wayne I. Alt

In 1892, when Black Rock was a cow pasture and people went to Strawberry Island for swimming, 13 families discussed starting a church. The church would include an English-speaking service and be called German Evangelical Salem of North Buffalo. At that time these members also applied for membership in the Evangelical Synod of North America. In May of 1892, it was resolved to purchase a lot on the corner of Calumet Place and Garfield Street in the Riverside-Black Rock area of Buffalo.

Work was started on the 17th of May, and on the 11th of September, 1892, the church was dedicated. In January, 1893, the first annual congregational meeting was held, and the Rev. Kohler of Girard, PA was given the call to become its first pastor. From 1896 to 1920, Riverside-Salem had six pastors who served the congregation.

In May 1922, Riverside-Salem called the Rev. Herman Hahn as pastor. Through the ministry of Hahn, Salem experienced some rich activism in Christian Social Action. A graduate of Eden Seminary, Hahn continued to preach about justice issues. He was involved in the defense of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, ran for political office (local and statewide), and spoke at many rallies on behalf of labor. He also brought many speakers to the church, including economist and Presbyterian minister Scott Nearing, Mexican labor leader Roberto Haberman, Tom Mooney (labor leader), Willard Uphaus (Executive Director of Religion-Labor Foundation), and Norman Thomas.

In the Hahn years, Riverside-Salem held nightly meetings to benefit unemployed Buffalo men and women. The church also provided a food kitchen at this same time. Hahn served as a member of the social service commission both for the Western District of the Evangelical Synod and also for the New York State Commission. Hahn also had a radio show for a year.

In 1938, the church purchased property on West River Road on Grand Island. During those years many of the men were out of work, and because of their fondness for Rev. Hahn, they built a small cottage for him. In future years it was used as a retreat center, day camp (which was started by Rev. Alan Peabody), and presently serves as an environmental chapel for the congregation.

On Feb. 10, 1957, Riverside-Salem Church was nearly destroyed by fire. Through the help of the members and friends, the congregation rebuilt the church and added an educational Sunday school wing. From 1949-1960, Riverside-Salem continued its ministry of Christian Social Action with two profound pastors, Rev. Alan Peabody and Rev. Robert Adams. In l959, Rev. Mary Lou Bischmann, the only woman pastor in Buffalo at the time, shared the pulpit with Adams in a yoked parish setting with Trinity U.C.C. Sheridan Park.

In 1962, Rev. James Hakes became minister through 1966. In l967, Rev. Herman Cole became pastor. Cole brought to Riverside-Salem another dynamic ministry of social action to our small congregation. While serving the church, he also was part of the philosophy faculty at Buffalo State College. During the fall of 1967, he ran for the Buffalo Common Council as an independent candidate. He continued a ministry of peace and justice as the Vietnam War started to get into full swing.

From 1968 to1971, Riverside-Salem was a lot less active than before. In 1967, many people in Western New York became disillusioned with their churches’ positions on the Vietnam War. Some of those disillusioned created a chapter of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. In 1971, the Rev. Ken Sherman initiated the concept of reactivating the Riverside-Salem congregation. The church became active, and one of its programs was the Western New York Peace Center. The Peace Center eventually became independent. From the early 60s to the present, the congregation, although small, has always had a core of people involved in a social action ministry. Some of the issues that the church members and pastors have been involved with are: Farm workers (Cesar Chavez visited the church to plant a peace tree), prison reform (worked to gain educational programs in prisons and against the death penalty), integration (worked closely with the Wilmington l0 in their prison release), negotiated peace during the Cold War (started a chapter of the U.S./Soviet Friendship Committee), supported environmental issues (participated in relocation of Love Canal residents and cleaning area dumpsites), promoted Native American programs (Indigenous Women’s Initiatives). Through its entire history, Riverside-Salem has consistently taken a stand against war and in pacifist training of young men. Because of this stand and the training, many young men made the commitment to be conscientious objectors.

In the spring of 1980, the congregation sold its property in the Riverside-Black Rock section of Buffalo and relocated at its environmental chapel, where it remains today. The congregation added a new wing with a modern kitchen to the existing building. Since the 80s, under the leadership of Pastors Almut Nothnagle and Shirley Chan and Jon & Cathy Rieley-Goddard (the present co-pastors), Riverside-Salem has remained steadfast to its objectives of the integrity of creation, justice, and peace throughout the community and the world by working with progressive organizations, churches and groups. At this chapel site, the congregation installed a labyrinth, a nature trail, and a peace pole to serve as a center for peace in future generations.

Over the years members of the church have been involved in leadership positions within the denomination (U.C.C.). From the late 60’s to the present, Riverside-Salem has introduced United Church of Christ resolutions and proposals on the local, state, and national levels, on a broad spectrum of justice and peace issues. Riverside-Salem became the second UCC church in the nation to become Open & Affirming (after Riverside Church in NYC). In 2004, the church also joined the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination. Members have been involved with Church World Service, Church Women United, Network of Religious Communities, Interfaith Peace Network, VIVE, Love Canal Ecumenical Taskforce and the Western New York Peace Center.

The Environmental Chapel is located on the West River of Grand Island and is open to other congregations who might want to use it as a retreat site.


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