A blessing and a privilege

Arpino recalls ministry

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Pastor Denise Arpino has recently retired from Simpson-Temple United Parish.

When Lutheran Pastor Denise Arpino retired recently, it was a bittersweet moment.

Although she knew God was telling her to do so, she was leaving a church family that she had grown to know and love for two-thirds of her ministry life.

Arpino’s 20 years of service to Simpson-Temple United Parish is unique. Many pastors only serve a church a few years before moving on.

It was her third call after seminary and the third time that she filled the pulpit at a church that had never had a female minister. It was also a unique call in that she would preside over a congregation that was affiliated with both the Lutheran and Methodist denominations. In the 1970s, Simpson Methodist and Temple Lutheran churches merged with Methodist and Lutheran clergy altering as their pastors.

However, the members consider themselves one body and don’t differentiate between the two faith traditions.

“The people are very open-minded,” Arpino said. “We celebrate who we are as Lutherans and Methodists.”

Over the two decades, she has shared the joys and sorrows members have experienced, and they have been there for her as well.

“I have been blessed to walk with families from birth, to baptism, to first Communion, to youth group to confirmation,” she said, adding that she has performed some of their marriages. She even preached at a wedding that took place at the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

She has been with the members in difficult times, too, such as illness and death.

“We have stood hand in hand at the casket of loved ones whose deaths we mourned and lives we celebrated in the promise of resurrection through Jesus Christ for believers,” Arpino said.

In turn, she has shared her life with the parishioners. She noted that her children were able to grow up in one congregation with Isaiah being 5 and Sarah being 2 when she began her ministry at Simpson-Temple United Parish.

“This is their home church, their church family,” she said. “The congregation has walked alongside them, celebrating milestones, comforting them in times of sorrow and affirming in them their God-given gifts. They have been supportive, caring and loving to me and my children,” Arpino said.

She added that the people of the church were there for her and her family when Isaiah’s appendix ruptured, when Sarah sliced a nerve in her index finger and when Arpino battled Stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer.

“They have been right there with open hearts, hands outstretched — providing, praying, loving and encouraging,” Arpino said.

Not only have the congregation and the Arpino family been there for each other, they also have been a viable part of the community.

A few months before Arpino arrived at the church in 1997, Simpson-Temple United Parish held its first Love Feast. It began as a monthly free meal for the community and now is served two times a month with other congregations and faiths taking turns to prepare and serve the food in the church’s social hall.

Simpson-Temple is also known for its 9-11 Patriotic Musical Tributes that were held annually for 10 years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as the 15th anniversary.

Speakers for the event always had a direct connection to that tragic day when airplanes flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, as well as Flight 93 that crashed near Shanksville, averting what is believed to have been another attack on Washington.

“The tributes grew to such a size that we had to move them from the church to the high school auditorium,” Arpino said. Locally, they were supported by musicians, singers, dancers and area leaders.

“The tributes brought people together in a common commitment to be patriotic, but also to be kind, to be neighborly, to celebrate our freedom … to build community and unity,” she said.

Simpson-Temple also participated in the Sixth Ward Interfaith Ministries, playing an active role in the annual Thanksgiving service, Martin Luther King Day and diversity programs. Other community endeavors included being involved in the Advent of Christmas parade, Relay For Life, Light the Night and Winterfest as well as hosting strawberry festivals, World Vision’s 30-hour Famine challenges and vacation Bible schools.

In one of her more quiet community roles, Arpino served bereaving families by presiding at funeral services when they did not have a church affiliation in town.

“I was always blessed to do so, believing everyone is someone’s someone,” she said. “And to have the opportunity to walk alongside strangers in their time of sorrow, show compassion and share the Good News in Jesus with them was a blessing for me, and I prayed for them, as well.”

In addition to these outreaches and services, Arpino did a lot of behind-the-scenes work, attending meetings, assemblies and conferences for both the Allegheny Lutheran Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Susquehanna Conference, a Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. The bishops from both faith traditions visited a service at Simpson-Temple annually.

But through the years, the division between the two faiths has become less identifiable.

The church became federated in every aspect about 15 years ago, legally becoming one congregation accountable to two denominations.

And in 2008, full communion was established between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church.

The churches can now work and study together and celebrate Communion together — something Simpson-Temple United Parish had already been doing for almost four decades. A special service to celebrate the historic full Communion agreement was held Nov. 8, 2009, at Simpson-Temple with the presiding (national) bishop of the ELCA and bishop for the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church attending.

Members of the two congregations worshiping under one roof began in 1971 when Temple Lutheran Church was without a pastor. The Methodist pastor from Simpson, with approval from authorities in both faith traditions, agreed to lead services because the churches are next to each other. Simpson’s building was razed in the 1980s, but the merged congregation continues to use its Sunday school rooms and Temple’s sanctuary.

Another merger occurred in 2002 when St. Paul Lutheran Church closed and Simpson-Temple welcomed its members to the congregation.

Arpino’s care and concern for others have not gone unnoticed. In 2003, she received the Ecumenism Award from the Ecumenical Conference of Greater Altoona, and in 2006, she received Tribute to Women honors in the Nonprofit-Government category.

About being recognized she said: “Every award has lots and lots of people surrounding me. No reward is ever solely for me or because of me, but includes many who have shaped and influenced me, taught by their example, and been faithful disciples in my life.”

She also acknowledges the community with supporting her during her battle with cancer.

The strength to overcome what is often a fatal form of the disease came from God and the power of prayer, she said.

“God used the surgeon, the oncologist, my primary care physician, to be part of a healing miracle. I would not be alive today without them having used their gifts for medicine with such expertise.”

Prayers and support added to the healing process in her fight to live and to be there for her children who, at the time, were not adults.

“I literally felt on my body the prayers being prayed for me. Family, friends, this congregation, colleagues and people I did not know embraced me with an outpouring of love and support that often brought tears of humbleness,” she said.

As a way of giving back, she serves on the board for the Brian Morden Foundation. Its focus is to fund Ewing’s Sacroma and childhood cancer research, support patients, families and staff of pediatric oncology units and local children with cancer and fund a higher education scholarship.

Looking back on 30 years of ministry, Arpino said it has been a blessing and privilege to share life with people and to walk alongside them in all circumstances and situations.

Before coming to Simpson-Temple, she was an associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran in Juniata for 1¢ years, pastor of Trinity Lutheran in Sidman for five years and began her pastoral career at Sidman-Elton Lutheran Parish. She was also director of Christian education and youth ministries at First Lutheran Church in Monmouth, Ill., (her home state) before attending seminary at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg.

But through it all, Simpson-Temple has a special place in her heart.

Reflecting on her ministry there, she said: “We have grown spiritually, if not always numerically. I love the people of this parish.”