And thou shalt be called Hephzibah… For the Lord delighteth in thee.
It’s no secret that New York City can feel cold, confusing, and unwelcoming to newcomers. And that was true even before two years of COVID shutdowns and separations and ongoing fears caused by a global pandemic. But as the City cautiously begins to reopen in 2022, one turn-of-the-century guesthouse is flinging open its massive carved doors to welcome visitors with warmth and care and God’s love.
As they step inside Hephzibah House, guests may feel they have been transported into another era. Intricately carved oak and mahogany paneling, a winding staircase, bay windows, and massive fireplaces identify this converted 1891 single family brownstone as an architectural treasure in the heart of a modern metropolis. But a warm welcome and an invitation to coffee or tea from the cheery receptionist make visitors feel comfortable instantly.
And that is just how Penelope Morgan, director of this Christian guest house and ministry space, wants it to be. “When people are received with love and care, that care can be powerful and healing. And that’s what Hephzibah House is all about.”
The Hebrew word “Hephzibah” is found in Isaiah 62 and means “God’s delight.” And New York’s Hephzibah House ministry has been delighting countless individuals since 1893, blessing them with shelter and offering Bible studies and Christian outreach programs. The Hephzibah House and Training School for Christian Workers was originally created as a Bible training ministry for young women, and many who studied there went on to serve as missionaries all around the world. Later, Hephzibah House began to welcome missionaries and pastors and other out-of-town visitors who wanted to investigate local Christian outreach or education programs. Through the years, the ministry has changed locations a few times and altered its outreach programs to meet the needs of the day, at various times publishing periodicals and leaflets, offering Bible studies in Sing Sing prison, hosting retreats on a Massachusetts farm and in the house itself.
Today the Hephzibah House website declares it “exists to be a beacon of the Gospel and Christian hospitality in New York City.” Penelope, who began serving as Hephzibah House director in May 2021, has thought long and hard about how to fulfill that mission, especially in the age of COVID.
“There is a new need and new opportunity for hospitality,” she said. “I think the concept of hospitality is the new frontier. For instance, in New York City, it’s unusual to be invited to someone’s home. If people meet up, they meet at restaurants or bars. But during COVID, many things were closed and people weren’t going into enclosed spaces outside of their home. In essence, hospitality was shut down. It motivated me to contemplate, ‘What makes a person feel welcome?”
She has also contemplated other ways Hephzibah House can be used to support and advance Christian outreach efforts. “I saw several untapped ministry opportunities that could be met through Hephzibah House,” Penelope stated, “it just needed a little extra push.”
Her first goal was to initiate much-needed renovations, using the down time created by the pandemic to freshen up the common spaces and prepare for the ultimate return of visitors to the house at 51 West 75th Street. Penelope and her husband, Andy, have a history of renovating apartments, so they were up to the task. Worn-out rugs were replaced; new lighting fixtures were installed; furnishings were curated and restored; and many rooms received a fresh coat of paint.
By the time the renovations were complete in September of 2021, Hephzibah House had reached a new level of beauty, even for this neighborhood of stately and well-preserved brownstones a block away from Central Park. “The result of the renovation is that people are able to focus more on the beauty of the architecture,” says Penelope. “Visitors feel honored to step into a house that looks inviting, special, and welcoming.”
There are 15 guest rooms on the upper floors, along with housing for the director, and the two levels beneath the main floor feature a kitchen, dining room, a small meeting room, an office, a workshop, and a laundry room.
The accommodation fees at Hephzibah House fund the building’s operating expenses, and a trust fund established by Mrs. Virginia Field, the ministry’s first director, supports the maintenance of the guest house. Financial support also comes from churches, Christian organizations, and private donors, ensuring seamless ministry support.
At the core of the Hephzibah House mission is its guest house, where Christians serving in vocational ministry can book one of its rooms for far less than they would pay for comparable lodgings in the neighborhood.
Penelope has also launched a Ministry Residents program for young adults who have been called into ministry. Two young adults, both who work full time for local churches, currently live in Hephzibah House at rates well below New York City’s prohibitive rents, which allows them to focus on their seminary studies and serving at the church without taking on extra jobs.
Through this growing program, Hephzibah House can target a new, younger audience and bring awareness to its ministry, reaching an additional demographic, Penelope explains. “We see the house as a unifier ministry. We’re able to unify different demographics and denominations as we share the space with our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Penelope has also begun a space-sharing program within Hephzibah House, allowing local churches and Christian organizations to use its common spaces, which can accommodate up to 130 people. Three church plants now hold their services in the house, and several churches host Bible studies in its smaller spaces. Eight different arts-related groups, such as ministries to dancers, singers and actors, use the space on a regular basis, and the resident grand piano is pressed into service during concerts and recitals. Some groups come simply to share a communal meal, using the large kitchen to prepare their food. There’s even been a film screening at the home.
Penelope hopes more churches will begin to hold events or church retreats in Hephzibah House. “We want to see ministry fruitfulness expand across New York City,” she explains. “Rent for smaller spaces in the city is very steep, and is usually accompanied by a huge set of restrictions and regulations to abide by. Here at Hephzibah House, we don’t have a lot of red tape that groups have to navigate, and we don’t impose a gazillion rules. We just want people to feel welcome and relaxed in a beautiful, yet low-cost space.”
A transplant from Indiana, Penelope fell in love with New York City when she attended a Christian convention in the City when she was 15. She returned to attend King’s College in 2006 and stayed on after graduation, working in a series of jobs that included guiding students and teachers through the New York Historical Society. In 2015, she joined the board of the Hephzibah House and became as passionate about the ministry as she is about her adopted home city.
Penelope and Andy and their three young children live full-time in Hephzibah House, and she is delighted by the unique atmosphere the arrangement offers. “My kids are meeting all these interesting people and are living in community with people from all over the world. It’s super-enriching at their age, and it will only be more so the older they get. What a wonderful way to grow up—knee-deep in Christian community!”
Penelope’s children will certainly not be the only ones to feel the impact of Hephzibah House on their lives. For almost 130 years, the ministries offered by the Hephzibah House program have introduced untold numbers of people to the Lord and encouraged and uplifted untold numbers of Christians who were looking for a little hospitality. The legacy continues today, and even people who spend only a night or two in the house often feel they have received a special blessing. Many will tell the staff, “I feel God’s spirit here!”
New York City is filled with buildings that have been preserved as time capsules of a bygone era, such as the Tenement Museum, Merchant’s House Museum, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion, to name a few. However, Hephzibah House offers more than its beautiful antique décor or reminders of past glories. Instead of looking backward at its many landmark accomplishments, Hephzibah House continues to press ahead with its mission of introducing people to Christ and building up believers to send them out as beacons of light in an increasingly dark world.
“God delights in you, and that’s how we want you to feel when you are here,” says Penelope Morgan.