The 95th anniversary celebration continues at First Presbyterian Church in Daytona Beach, marked by a visit from a child of the church, who ministered in Hong Kong for 16 years.
The Rev. Marybeth Asher-Lawson, who grew up at FPC, will be the speaker at Sunday morning service, Sept. 16, and lead programs that night and the next for a worship and learning experience titled “Two Nights Together.”
“We are very excited about inviting back a daughter of the church, who is one of the many people who have grown up here over the years and have gone on to pastoral ministries,” said the Rev. Bill Anderson, FPC pastor. “And with the years she has spent serving in international churches abroad, she brings a wealth of experience and perspective that we look forward to sharing.”
“We are very proud of Marybeth,” said attorney Jay D. Bond, her former Sunday School teacher. “Marybeth will be preaching on the Book of Jonah,” he said, “an apt topic about God’s servant in a foreign land, although unlike Jonah,” he added lightly, “Marybeth was in that foreign land willingly, and her mode of travel was much more comfortable.”
Marybeth, 58, was born at Halifax Hospital, the daughter of the late Bud Asher, former Daytona Beach mayor. She graduated in 1978 from Spruce Creek High School. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin, and graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., where she met her husband, Scott, now also a pastor. “Both of us served in churches in Philadelphia,” said Marybeth, and while there, the couple adopted a daughter, Grace, from China. “Never knowing,” she said, “that we would return to Asia for a long time, and serve in Hong Kong for 16 years.”
Far and Away
This life-changing decision came about when Scott was called to serve an international, interdenominational church there. Their mission in Hong Kong was not to convert, but to serve a community comprised in large part of expats from all over the world. “Over our 16 years there, I served three International churches,” she said. “English was our main service language, but we had people, at the last church, from every continent. “
Is there religious freedom in Communist China? “Hong Kong has different sorts of freedoms than mainland China does,” she said. “Under British rule, and for the 20 years since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong still enjoys religious freedom. I’ve been back for two years now, I am praying the religious freedoms I experienced will continue.”
What is the predominant religion in Hong Kong? Multi-faith diversity could be the answer. It’s difficult to determine, because Folk Religions are not always considered religions by practitioners, who may view them as cultural rather than religious expressions. Of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people, 82.8 percent practice Chinese folk religion, Buddhism and Taoism, are non-religious. About 6.5 percent practice Protestantism, and 5.2 percent Catholicism. During British rule, traditional Chinese religions were discouraged, in favor of Christianity. Since the handover, there has been a rise in Buddhist and Chinese folk religions, although diversity and tolerance are the primary religious markers in Hong Kong, according to Pew Research and other reports.
An Expat Life
There were no Presbyterian churches in Hong Kong. “My last church in Hong Kong was the Methodist International Church,” said Marybeth, “serving there for five years as the associate pastor, providing pastoral care, a combination of spiritual direction and counseling.”
Most of the Chinese members were internationalized Chinese who had studied or worked abroad and had a global sensitivity and world view. About half who attended services were expats, including a large number of Filipino women, away from their families and working in Hong Kong as domestics.
“Conversion was not my task, but I preached regularly and taught regularly. We welcomed and shared the good news of the Bible, and became a community for people displaced from their own homeland communities, for whatever reason.”
Home Again at FPC
In her three program messages here, she will explore “God’s Grace for the 21st Century Church,” a topic of concern in what she describes as a post-Christian era in the western world. Even though the United States is more religious than other industrialized western nations, a Pew Research study confirms lower church affiliation and participation in the U.S. than in decades past.
A study released in 2015 reported that the number of U.S. adults who say they pray every day, attend religious services regularly and consider religion to be very important in their lives have ticked down by small, but statistically significant margins, about two percent in seven years. A growing share of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, about 23 percent .
While demographics are changing, churches are as well. Despite its 95-year history, FPC is young at heart. In its self-description, FPC is “a racially and economically diverse congregation that revels in making room for all who would follow Jesus Christ. It is both unconventionally traditional and beautifully eclectic.”
Said Pastor Bill: “One of the things we are most proud of as we reflect back on the first 95 years is that we have birthed eight other congregations, the most recent of which is the Putnam Memorial Presbyterian church, the Hungarian congregation which continues to share our facility.”
Upcoming events: Completion of the chapel renovation, a Java and Jazz September get-together, a dinner cruise in October, and the start of another historic year.
While here, Marybeth will meet with her former Sunday School teacher, Jay Bond, as well as Sunday School and Youth Group classmates from the 1970s and 1980s. Also on the agenda, visits with mother, Becky Montgomery, and stepfather, Bob Montgomery, long-time members of First Presbyterian Church, and a visit with stepmother, Dawn Asher.
Since returning to the U.S. two years ago, the couple has settled in North Carolina, where Marybeth serves as pastor of Springwood Presbyterian Church in Burlington, N.C. Her husband, Scott, serves the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church in Saxapahaw, N.C. Their home is located between the two churches. Their daughter, Grace, is a student at Cornell University.
Marybeth said, “First Presbyterian has nurtured pastors and church educators throughout the years, people taught by faithful people, and we later went into the ministry, and the church continues outreach to children and youth in their area.
“This is who this church is, and I am simply an example of the kind of ministry they have done over the years.”