GET TO KNOW RBCC
Churches in Ministry Together
The mission of Reading Berks Conference of Churches is to connect, equip and mobilize in the name of Jesus.
to explore our history & community ministries
CHURCHES IN MINISTRY TOGETHER
Expressing Faith, Unity and Service
within the Body of Christ since 1947
Reading Berks Conference of Churches serves the cooperative interests of the Body of Christ in Berks County. As a unifying organization for the Christian churches of the county, we engage in activities to connect, learn, and minister to the community, giving witness to the value of what can be accomplished when churches are united in one spirit and working together.
“Why?” is a simple, yet powerful question that can drive an idea to reality or stop it in its tracks. An idea in the mid 1940s was to bring together the Christian churches of Greater Reading. Why? Throughout the history of the Church there has been a holy struggle to actively respond to the prayer of Jesus, that we, as His followers would be one. Not simply one like a sports team, or a group with a common goal. One, as Jesus and God the Father are one. This is given account in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, verses 20-26. Jesus prayed, “I do not pray for these alone (the first disciples), but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in me, and I in You; that they also may be in Us, that the world may believe that you sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it. That the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
This is the true foundation of the establishment of Reading Berks Conference of Churches, founded as Greater Reading Council of Churches. It is this “why” that has driven generations to continue the mission. Our work has been a testimony to the dedication and Holy Spirit-filled drive of united individuals, allowing God to carry out miracles in Reading and Berks County. You see, in a world of large personalities filled with human drive and agendas, it is a miracle when we lay down our own thoughts and ideas at the foot of the cross of Christ. When we seek to be one around this same Jesus, we display God in an attractive way to the world around us through our actions and interactions. Simple, yet complicated by human nature; thus, revealing the miracle that occurs when we truly act as one. We invite you to seek to find yourself in the story that is the history of the Body of Christ at work.
1947 - 1973
In 1947, the nation was rebounding from WWII. The City of Reading had over 100,000 residents. Some of these residents, along with others from around Berks County, representing members of several churches of various denominations, purposed to band together as the united Body of Christ for a stronger community.
On January 28, 1947, the Greater Reading Council of Churches was born.
The organization was inspired through the Albright College School of Theology. Its first executive director was Rev. Mervin Heller, who served for 27 years, from 1947 to 1974. He is referred to and acknowledged as executive director, but his title at that time was actually executive secretary. Rev. Heller formed many valuable relationships within the faith community of Reading and Berks County. Through these relationships, a number of initiatives were carried out during his tenure.
In the 1948 annual report of the organization, Dr. J.A. Heck, the first board president, issued this challenge, “Persons in the churches often ask, somewhat skeptically, What are we getting out of the Council? This is an irrelevant way of putting this question. This Council is organized to “get something out of the churches.” I have no reference to money. We are saying to the Protestant Churches of Reading, one and all, let’s get together and give to this community and its citizens the spiritual values of our common Christian heritage. We must give, each to the other, to strengthen our own life experiences. We must multiply our power by working together. We must give everything possible to this community, to make our community more Christian and to reach the unreached majority of our citizens for Christ and His Church and the ever-coming Kingdom of our God.” Dr. Heck emphasized the commitment to the foundation of the establishment of the Council. He served as Council President for two years, passing the baton to Rev. Horace S. Mann in 1949.
The Council worked to further the cause of Christ through unity and service in a variety of areas. The ministries of the Council at this time were carried out through commissions. The commissions included Sunday School, Weekday Church School, Vacation Church Schools, Leadership Education, Youth Work, Evangelism, Social Action and Public Relations.
The establishment of “Church School” on weekdays at 3:45pm for students of grades 4, 5, and 6 was a primary focus, and major initiative, at the establishment of the Council. At its peak, over 1,600 students learned about God and the Bible through 27 churches led by over 50 volunteer teachers. Vacation Bible School was also coordinated and led by Greater Reading Council of Churches. In 1950, 2000 children attended VBS through 22 church locations. One year later, 2500 students attended through 25 host churches. The Council also launched “Operation Concern” to boost enrollment in church Sunday School programs. This was a friendly contest among the Churches of Reading and Berks County. Many congregations increased their Sunday School attendance significantly. The oneness of these efforts attracted people to participate.
Youth were also a key focus of the Council. Yearly youth rallies were held at Bynden Wood Day Camp. In 1957 the theme of the rally was “Consider Your Call”. 300 youth attended!
The Commission on Evangelism brought people together in a variety of ways. A yearly showing of the movie “King of Kings” was coordinated during Holy Week. This continued for many years. For a number of years, five simultaneous prayer gatherings were held in Reading near the start of the year. These were hosted by a variety of Christian churches. In 1952, chaplaincy was established at Berks Heim, which included the coordination of weekly church services at the facility. Chaplaincy at Berks Heim continues to this day through Reading Berks Conference of Churches. A Christian Rally coordinated by the Commission on Evangelism was held in September of 1954 and attended by 2000 people.
Social Action was the focus of another Commission established in 1947. Housing, Unemployment, Alcohol & Narcotics, Crime, Broken Homes and Racial & Cultural Understanding were areas addressed by this Commission. One key relationship was with the Reading & Vicinity Ministerial Association (RVMA), which is also still very strong today. RVMA brings together the African American pastors and church leaders of Greater Reading. Their longstanding history has continually crossed paths with Reading Berks Conference of Churches.
Public Relations was also the focus of a commission. Religious newscasts were regularly held on local radio stations, WEEU and WHUM. As many as 90 broadcasts each year shared the gospel. This commission also aided and publicized the longstanding Easter Dawn Service atop Mt. Penn. This yearly service, is the second longest standing Easter Dawn Service in the country. Only Mount Rubidoux in Riverside, California is older, established in 1909. The Rev. J. Franklin Cropp, a pastor at Reading’s First Baptist Church in 1914 who formerly served in California, came up with the idea to do something similar on Mount Penn. Since 1914 this has been a tradition in Reading. RBCC has played an active role in planning and advertising this service throughout our history.
Rev. Heller participated in many community activities as a representative of Greater Reading Council of Churches. One of these was the “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign throughout the 1950’s. The More Reverent Observance Committee of Reading and Berks County and Montgomery County led the charge to promote the celebration of the birthday of Jesus Christ, keeping Jesus as the central figure of Christmas.
In the early 1960’s, Reading was notorious for illegal gambling. Rev. Heller met regularly with Mayor John Kubacki as the Council joined the effort to chase organized crime out of the City. In this courageous stand, Rev. Heller and the Council consistently supported police and called for racketeers to leave Reading. The Council’s active stand against illegal gambling is documented within the pages of “When the Rackets Reigned”, a book written by Ed Taggert. Ed was hired by the Reading Times in 1956 and was assigned to the police beat. His witness of the crime in Reading at this time ultimately inspired his book.
Greater Reading Council of Churches was very active in ministry during the turbulent 1960’s, coordinating a civil rights prayer service. The Council, under Rev. Heller’s leadership was at the forefront of civil rights. They truly lived out “love your neighbor” and being one as the Body of Christ. In 1963, the Council established an Interreligious Committee on Race, providing an effective medium for communication among the races of our community. This committee helped to either correct or create conditions conducive to racial understanding and justice by bringing together leadership of almost every segment of our community, including business, labor, industry, education, major religious faiths, government along with representatives of minority racial groups.
In the heat of the civil rights movement in the 60’s Rev. Heller held great friendships with the African American community of Reading. One example of this was his friendship with Rev. James J. McCracken, pastor of St. James Chapel. As the congregation of St. James Chapel acquired a new building for their congregation in February of 1966, they all marched from the old building to the new, down 9th Street in Reading. Rev. Heller marched right beside his friend and the congregation, present to support and welcome them to their new building.
Relationships of the Greater Reading Council of Churches have continually extended to other faith communities. When the Jewish Temple, Oheb Sholom, was bombed in 1969, the Council joined other groups to condemn the action in an open letter to the community, shared in the Reading newspaper. The letter urged the immediate commitment to stamp out the sickness in our community and bring about the necessary changes to live out the human values we profess.
Many wonderful volunteer leaders supported the Council during Rev. Heller’s time of leadership. Stepping into roles of leadership is an act of faith. Rev. Harold D. Flood spoke to this in his 1963 President’s report. “At first I hesitated to accept the nomination for the presidency, for, while I realized that it would be a privilege to serve in this office, I knew also that it would be a great responsibility. But I accepted – not because of any self-confidence on my part, but because I knew that I could depend on many other dedicated churchmen who would stand with me and would help me carry on this work. I accepted, also, because I knew that whenever we undertake any task of Christian service we can be confident of the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we do our best to fulfill that task.”
1963 was the year the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast was established. The name was changed to the RBCC Prayer Breakfast in 2014.
Surrender to the guidance of the Holy Spirit has been key in the successes of the Council/Conference of Churches. In August of 1974, as Rev. Mervin Heller resigned his position, the Board of Directors sought this guidance in selecting the next Executive Director of the organization. Rev. Heller continued to work in the community until his death in June of 1989.
More installments of our history will be added soon. Please check back for new segments. Coming next…the tenure of Rev Earl W. Allen 1974-1985.
What We Do
The vision of Reading Berks Conference of Churches is to see unity in the Body of Christ in Reading and Berks County come to fullness through growing relationships and consistent visible action.
There is great strength in our unity. It can change our neighborhoods, cities, county, state, country and even the world! We invite you to live the potential of Jesus’ prayer of unity, right here in Berks County! Contact us to find out how you can make a difference and take an active role in working together.