The corner of Linden Blvd. and Marne Place in St. Albans, New York, is both a monument to and model of what Christians working together in unity and harmony can achieve. The dramatic, beautiful structure that is St. Albans Congregational Church, connected by a passageway to the modern, imposing facility that is the Robert Ross Johnson Family Life Center was years in the making.
Founding Pastor, Rev. Robert Ross Johnson, a native of Spokane, Washington with a Master of Divinity degree from Colgate-Rochester, was the minister of the Nazarene Congregational Church in Brooklyn. In the early summer of 1953, he was informed by Mrs. Evelyn Jackson, who had just moved to St. Albans with her family, that her children and other children in the area were without the benefit of Sunday School. That conversation signaled the beginning of an idea that would culminate in the monument and model at the corner of Linden and Marne.
In the beginning, meetings were held where sometimes as few as ten interested persons attended. But Robert Ross Johnson had a vision and a commitment. When the New York City Congregational Church Association acknowledged the need for a community-centered fellowship, the Addisleigh Park section was decided to be the most productive location for a new Congregational Church. That small dedicated group of founders caused the vision to evolve into reality.
In 1954, the worship services were held in the Merrick Community Center, and in 1955, at the Linden Theater for more than two years. The church was incorporated in 1956, with a membership of 120 people. The Church School had 94 children, a choir, a youth program and scout troops. Groundbreaking for the church building in 1958, and it was completed in 1959.
Led by its activist pastor, the church became very visible during the Civil Rights struggles of the turbulent 1960's, and was a center for education and information on the issues. Local and national civil rights leaders addressed the congregation; members participated in protests, demonstrations, and marches. Parishioners traveled by bus caravan to the historic March on Washington in August of 1963.
During this time, the church's undercroft became a community center of sorts. Girl and Boy Scouts, the Addisleigh Civic Association, tutorial programs, Sunday Black Cultural Programs and, in 1966, the Head Start Program, all met or held events in this limited space. Before long, the discussions around erecting a multi-purpose building adjacent to the church became serious. The building fund project, ultimately presided over by Ruby Stroman and Margaret Griffin, allowed construction to begin. The Family Life Center opened in March 1987. The modern, multi-million dollar addition to the church and community offered a diversified array of services for youth and adults, and it provided a large assembly space for cultural, educational, civic and social use.
By 1990, program services were greatly expanded, effective and successful, largely accomplishing the church's vision and goal of "Service to God and Community."
Upon Rev. Johnson's announcement in 1989 that he would retire in eighteen months, a search committee was formed, and the church voted on September 30, 1990 to call Rev. Henry T. Simmons as Senior Minister.
A native of High Point, North Carolina, he received his undergraduate degree from North Carolina Central University, and the Master of Divinity Degree from Howard University. Rev. Simmons' broad background, experience, and phenomenal energy and effective leadership elevated the church to new heights. Known for his preaching, and his dynamic, powerful sermons, the sanctuary would fill to beyond capacity at each worship service. To accommodate the crowds, a second Sunday morning worship service was added just months after Rev. Simmons arrived. His masterful teaching increased interest, attendance and commitment to adult Bible study. His "Nine Point Vision" for the church included the need for more space to house growing ministries and programs. The RRJ Family Life Center was expanded in 2003 to include a third floor.
His vision has also given rise to a growing, faith-driven church, where membership has grown, and ministries have increased to serve members and the community. Exciting new initiatives and services supporting outreach and church needs are in place through active ministries and groups, including the Enriching Our Elders Ministry, and Because We Care Food Pantry. He also established the Saturday Jazz Communion Vespers each month.