Pastor takes different path

The Sunnyside Reformed Church hosts monthly cultuaral events as a community-building exercise. Photo courtesy Arlen G. Margetson
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A pastor in western Queens turns his church into a community event space once every month, usually for a musical concert. But this past Saturday the Sunnyside Reformed Church hosted something different.

“Freedom Summer,”a documentary film about the Freedom Riders 1964 fight for civil rights in Mississippi, had its East Coast premier at the church.

The film’s Emmy Award-winning director, Stanley Nelson, screened the movie for the crowd of a hundred and fielded questions for an hour afterward.

How did such a high profile film, which made its debut at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and will air on PBS in June, end up at the Sunnyside Reformed Church?

The director, grew up with the church’s pastor, Neil Margetson.

“We’ve known each other since we were kids. We’re best friends for life,” Margetson said.

The event was free and open to the public, something the church does on a monthly basis. Normally the Sunnyside Reformed Church hosts concerts from big band to Chicago-style blues.

“We’ve had everything from classical music to cowboy jazz. One of these days I’m going to get a real rock-’n’-roll band to come in here and blow the roof off,” Margetson said.

His church is a 100-year-old building known as the “Little Church on the Corner,” at 47th Street and Skillman Avenue. His congregation is small, too, with 40 regulars and another 40 “faithful friends.”

Margetson likes to have the monthly events as a form of community-building.

“It’s good to get to know your neighbors, to get out and socialize. It has happened that visitors have joined the congregation, but that’s not the point. We’re trying to model Christ here and I don’t remember reading anywhere that he was counting heads,” he said.

Saturday marked a milestone for Margetson as well.

“That was my five-year anniversary here at the church,” he said. “Before starting here I had only been to Queens maybe 10 times my entire life, didn’t really have any reason.”

Born and raised in Manhattan, Margetson was a professional musician following college.

“I was a guitarist, a keyboardist, a singer and composer, but alcohol kind of wrecked everything,” he said.

Margetson gave up music for academia, getting an anthropology degree from Columbia University and working for the city trying to help solve the homeless problem. Then he spent 17 years doing data-based statistics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“The whole time I was a 12-stepper and that’s how I found my way to Jesus. I grew up in a house without a Bible, never went to church. When I decided I was going to seminary, I heard a voice, but I didn’t have a Bible,” Margetson said.

After nine years of seminary and three years of denominational requirements, he had his license, which meant he could apply for a ministry job.

“Everyone told me it was going to be a long wait, but this is the first church that gave me an interview and I got the job. When I saw what they were paying, I said ‘This is not going to work,’ but I realized God was talking to me so I couldn’t say no,” Margetson said.

He took early retirement from Sloan-Kettering with a small pension at age 57 and settled in as pastor of the Little Church on the Corner.

Margetson just finished a stint as president of the Reformed Churches of Queens.

“The diversity is amazing. Of the 29 churches in the association 14 were Korean and several more are African-American. Great experience. They wanted me to take over the state association, but my wife and congregation put their foot down,” he said.

Margetson is already planning the next events: Vince Anderson March 22 and Carol Sudhalter and her Astoria Big Band May 24.

No word on the rock-’n’-roll concert yet.

“I’ve got eight years to get that done. I’ve got mandatory retirement at 70,” he said.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4538

Posted 12:00 am, March 2, 2014
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Reader feedback

Dorothy Crews Herzberg from California says:
Hi Neil
Your mother Annie and I were cousins! Her father Al Lesser and my mother Julia Lesser Crews were brother and sister. I only just learned Annie died two years ago. I got an email from Steve Lesser.
He said Arlen was getting married in India! Will she be living there??
I'm sending you a letter.
March 25, 2016, 1:48 pm

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