Pastor Karen Helping to Push Trenton Forward

Mixing politics and religion may put people of all persuasions on thin ice: directly endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit is improper. But people of faith nonetheless see the need to engage with the world and serve as prophetic voices on the issues of the day, in the tradition of Martin Luther King and others. In the wake of the 2017 inauguration, the government declared its new ban on Muslims entering the country. Within days, resistance popped up all over the country, with legal teams and concerned citizens crowding into airports to assist Muslims seeking entry. Trenton’s City Hall hosted a rally led by Westminster Presbyterian Pastor Karen Hernández-Granzen along with an imam and several rabbis and other pastors. One speaker read the 1940s poem “First They Came,” by the German pastor Martin Niemöller, and its meaning rang all too true. rang all too true.

Shortly after the rally at City Hall, Pastor Karen started a Trenton area chapter of Indivisible, the nationwide grassroots organization that worked to maintain the values of social justice that were suddenly under attack. The chapter wanted to identify itself as connected with the Trenton area, but not exclusively Trenton, so it branded itself with the area code: “Indivisible (609).” This particular Indivisible chapter has a diverse membership that includes a number of members from Westminster Presbyterian and other area churches.

In June of 2021, Westminster held a service commemorating the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting. The service stood in contrast to the bigotry displayed in some religious groups and was in part a statement to the LGBTQ community that they have a loving home in the church.

Many know Pastor Karen for her progressive stands on social justice issues, but this is only one dimension of her work. She traces her call to the ministry to her father, the Rev. Jose Belen Hernández, a Pentecostal pastor who “was ahead of his time.” He died when Karen was a young child but had a lasting impact on her life. In a reflection on her life, she writes about losing interest in church for a period in her adolescence: “I imagined God patiently awaiting God’s prodigal daughter to return home.” Rev. Jose Hernández had worked to help his congregation build economic solvency through micro-businesses so that they could in turn contribute more effectively to their communities. “He left me a legacy in his belief that church was not just about Sundays. It’s important to us that our members do well in society and are active in improving the world around them.” 26 years ago, Westminster was seeking a new minister to work with its growing Latiné population, and Pastor Karen, a self-described “Newyorrican,” was just the right fit. (Latiné, Karen informs, is the current and accepted term that the community has originated to identify itself.)

Tracking down Pastor Karen for this article was a challenge, as her congregation’s needs understandably took precedence: several parish members had either just died or were in hospice. A large part of her commitment is to ensure quality education, so she has over the years made Westminster’s facilities available to a number of programs for children. Early on, the church opened a Head Start program and over the years began other programs for children. Most recently, in 2020, Westminster officially adopted the Trenton Music Makers After School Program, which uses space in the church building. The church hosts an English as a Second Language program for people of all ages. Westminster and its pastor are also active in Healing Communities, a ministry to “returning citizens” — an outreach program for formerly incarcerated individuals working to get a new start in the community. Westminster works with Isles, Inc., the City of Trenton, Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian Church, and other partners to provide microloans for ex-offenders to help advance their small businesses. Altogether, Westminster is a multicultural, inclusive community that provides various kinds of support for immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, ex-offenders, and other marginalized or underserved populations.

Asked about her take on the city of Trenton, Pastor Karen is cautiously optimistic, noting that the last year has seen an uptick in the city’s population: bucking the trend, more people are moving in than moving out. Distressing though it is, violent crime is hardly unique to Trenton — it is widespread among American cities. Departing slightly from progressive orthodoxy, the pastor notes that there is “good in some gentrification,” citing the success of Roebling Lofts. We agree that the city needs balanced economic development, that Roebling Lofts has re-purposed unused industrial space and put nobody out of a home, and that there need to be urban options like this to compete with the suburbs. Regarding the country as a whole, Pastor Karen is hopeful that the new federal investments in infrastructure will have a widespread positive impact for millions of Americans: “We’re going from cutting programs to supporting them.”

Decades ago, the Latiné population of Trenton was almost entirely Puerto Rican; today there is a broad mix of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan, and other backgrounds. Pastor Karen and her church have welcomed the “gifts and challenges of the growing community. We look to find ways to bring us together and work in unison.”

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