I can remember back in my Jesus Freak day attending First Presbyterian Church of San Diego. I must give some background to my blog in that I grew up in a non-churched family and that attending any type of large institutional type of church building wasn’t part of my family history. So as I walk into this monstrous church edifice I am taken back by the size of the stained glass windows the thousands of pipes for the organ and the pulpit that seemed a hundred feet above the pews. My first memory of the pastor who was preaching, not my future father in-law, was someone that seemed too distant from my life or circumstances that surrounded me. I was confused when it came to the style of music, the rationale for the pastors wearing robes and the formalness of the service. As I listened to my first sermon it didn’t resonant with my heart or mind. Yet, this institutional church, which I at first judged severely, has become my home, why?
I had the opportunity to take a group from my neighborhood to work at First Presbyterian with their soup kitchen lunch to the homeless and their military food bank distribution. As I brought my teens and college students to this fortress of a church I started to remember what it was that brought me to see this church as a generational movement in spite of my original harsh judgment of robes and anthems in Latin or some other language.
I had asked one of my former youth group moms, that is now the secretary of the church, after working as a nurse at Pt. Loma University for a career, to help us arrange housing at the church and connect with the new Ladle Director. She was quick to tout who I was, yes I am the son in-law of the former long term pastor but also in my own right a youth pastor that helped birth a dynamic movement in the youth that continued the work of my predecessors who were passionate about urban multicultural youth work. This is in contrast to an elderly church that had gone from being a thriving military church in the 50’s with thousands coming to now a church of 700 that is primarily seniors with a very active middle age presence making a difference in the downtown. You have to understand that First Church was one of the few downtown churches to actually survive the suburb growth of the city while most of the other mainline churches died.
We arrived at First Church around 7:30pm after driving a six-hour journey from our Phoenix neighborhood. I had been given the secret code to help us break into this edifice of a building. All of a sudden memories came back to me from the 70’s and 80’s of doing youth work in this maze. I can remember all of the youth that are now 40 somethings getting lost purposely in the gigantic facility. My own daughter has memories that have shaped her life. Yet, being honest I was so critical of this church the first decade I was around it. Yes, it is part of a liberal denomination, yet the generational family that is First Pres is different in an exciting way.
As I wake up the following morning to get Starbucks, thanks to my app on my IPhone, I get my coffee and some milk and other supplies from a 7-11. As I walk to the old scout room I encounter a middle aged lady who we strike up a conversation and then realize that we are FB friends but really don’t know each other. All of a sudden the history part of First Church comes to life. She’s the wife of Bob Parrish whose mom, Madeline, was a close friend of my Anne as a youth. We end up hitting it off and talk about the legacy of First Church both the awesome side that brought this church to care for the community around it and also the numerous church rifts, which had impacted all of us.
As I push out the college students to help setup the military food bank I connect with my good friend Jean, who had been one of the youth group moms in the 80’s. It was so good to be around a few who had been very close friends with my mom and dad when they attend First Church for over 20 years. I was actually proud of what First Church was doing today in making a difference in their neighborhood. Yes, the controversy surrounding a ‘Gay Organist’ pushed me to seek ordination in a different Church Family but ultimately God used all of the church battles to shape all of us, myself included, to become better people that are more understanding of the bigger picture of life issues.
I asked my new friend, Lisa, to share briefly about First Church and her journey that brought her to this large downtown church. We concurred that it would have been easier to find a mega church in the burbs to attend that would have had more youth programs and a more contemporary worship style but First Church was now home and a mission field. As we began to work with the military families who live on next to nothing it was such a blessing to see the thousands of pounds of food that they would receive for free. I can’t fathom the amount of time that was required to organize this grocery store in the church dinning room.
As the weekend for our Leadership Trip to San Diego and First Pres literally flew by what stood out was the significant relationships I had with really old people. I will always remember the look of Mildred Marksbury when she saw us at First Church that Saturday and Sunday or Ellie Gross’ long discussion about her life journey with her Don getting Dementia and dying. She is the 80 year old who had just cooked the soup that feed 400 people. Then there was seeing my special youth mentor friend, Sandy, that was truly a homecoming. I don’t know whether many of my group picked up on the tears flowing from my cheeks during church but after my mom’s heavenly departure First Church has a very tender place for me. I come close to crying as I write this as I remember my mom and the legacy that she left that was so much part of First Church. She too worked there for over 8 years and it was such a blessing to connect with a few of her best friends as we walked out of church that Sunday.
Yes, I still struggle with churches that have become more institutional than family but see the Hand of God at First Church. I have to be completely honest and say that it was the First Church Family that gave me a portion of my urban passion for doing community work. I know that Ladle’s formation over 25 years ago was a stretch for this elderly church but they continued the work of being a real neighbor to those that live on the streets and those that live on fixed incomes. I’m still slow to see the benefit of wearing robes or having an organ with more pipes than church members but God has used this edifice of a building and an aging family to teach me the real meaning of Church. I want to thank First Pres’ families who have loved me when I was the longhaired odd ball that stuck out!