Palo Alto is known for its urban canopy with over 36,000 city-city-owned trees. One of the first things Thelma Tuttle told me when I first moved here was about “El Palo Alto,” the 1,100 year-old coastal redwood tree that our city is named after. I later learned on a tour of Professorville, (thanks to Lynn Hunwick for this great find!) that it was the Palo Alto Women’s Club who nurtured the many trees lining the newly forming dirt roads by carrying milk cans full of water in horse-drawn buggies to irrigate trees they planted. Many years later in 1986 Palo Alto became a Tree City USA and has since employed a certified arborist to further the development of tree life, diversity, and care. Little did I know that my own story would weave into the tangled roots of Palo Alto’s Urban Forest. Last Tuesday I met with one of the more recent staff members in the arborist department of the city, her name is Elise, and she also happens to be a former student of mine from a youth group in Florida. We talked for a good two hours about our shared loved for the Christian tradition and for nature. I am excited to say that she will be joining us in April to share with us some of her story and some of her knowledge about the trees on our church campus and in our neighborhood.
Last Sunday the city of Palo Alto hosted a conference on climate change with over 300 people, multiple city officials, long term residents, High School students, and a few of us clergy. The city representatives shared their vision for the continued transformation of the city in ways that further honor and cherish the land, plants, and non-human animals we live alongside. The conversations were inspiring, especially because some of the young people were vocal in their yearning to discover stronger connections between their spiritual practices and their sustainability practices.
During the week we hosted a brown-bag luncheon with 15 local pastors and Rabbis; I met with pastor Kaloma Smith of the AME church for an inspiring conversation about my call in ministry and how we can partner together in future programs; I met two gay men from Stanford’s Queerituality club and they invited me back to join their club’s faith-conversations this semester; and on Saturday I had the great pleasure of eating the amazing cooking of Greg Griffey as he and his husband hosted me for lunch. Thank you for another great week!
Help the Palo Alto Developmental Assets Initiative design posters and such to help promote the asset Caring Neighborhoods. Palo Alto and Stanford residents are encouraged to participate in this community art competition. Art should represent community and neighborhood collaboration in our neighborhoods. Artwork can be photography, paintings or drawings and should be turned in digitally by email to firstname.lastname@example.org before June 30th 2014.
The Caring Neighbors Team (13 teens from across Palo Alto) will be he judges. Up to three submissions will be awarded cash prizes of $50 each and the artwork will be used for Developmental Assets posters and promotions for future community activities. When submitting art work please include your name age neighborhood and a brief summary of your artwork.
About the Developmental Assets Initiative: The Search Institute in Minnesota has done research around what makes kids more likely to thrive. This research led to a list of 41 Developmental Assets that are highly correlated with thriving youth. Developmental assets are the positive values, relationships, and experiences that youth need to thrive.
Asset #4: Caring Neighborhood | Young person experiences caring neighbors.
By now the word is out that the Reverend Marie Onwubuariri will become the Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin this summer. Wisconsin’s gain is our loss in that we had hoped that God would lead Marie to come work with us as a key element of our Renewal Proposal.
In fact, the Proposal that the Task Team and Council brought to the congregation was built around Marie’s unique gifts and skills. Though her decision to follow a different career path is a setback in our progress toward renewal, it is not the end of the road.
On Sunday, March 23, we had a very useful conversation as a congregation about the renewal process to date and how we might move forward. Some honest thoughts and feelings were shared as well as some good ideas about how we might adjust the Proposal and move forward with renewal. At that meeting, the Council was seeking guidance as to whether or not we should continue working on the principles of the Proposal, even though our first candidate is no longer available. Two‐thirds of those present and voting favored continuing to work on the Proposal that was presented in March.
At this point, I cannot say what a revised Proposal would look like but it is clear from the conversations that we have had and the lack of a specific candidate that some adjustments must be made to the Proposal itself and in our process for considering it. Here some thoughts I have about moving forward:
I continue to believe that work of the Task Team and the Council in bringing this Proposal is good work. The time and energy invested in it by all involved was invaluable and was given in love and concern for our congregation and its future.
I also believe that principles of the Proposal are still sound and represent a bold and creative possibility for sustaining and enhancing the life of this congregation as we continue to journey through unfamiliar waters toward a future that is ultimately in God’s hands. That is, no one knows what the church will look like, even in the near future. We know many familiar ways of being church are changing rapidly. If we want to continue to witness to the Gospel and to serve those in need, we need to take some risk with new and creative methods. Investing in the skill and passion of a creative specialist in the area of outreach to the community seems to me like good stewardship. As Al Williams instructed the congregation during your long period of discernment, if you want to focus on growth you will need to hire someone specifically to lead that effort.
Any effort toward outreach and growth must take into consideration the changing demographics of Palo Alto. The undeniable truth is that we are becoming an ever more multicultural community. This is a good thing. It affords us the opportunity to learn to live together in the richness of our diversity. If we are to minister in this multi‐cultural environment, we need to be intentional about addressing those concerns, including the make‐up of our staff.
The Proposal takes very seriously the life and needs of the existing congregation. One of the chief reasons we are proposing two pastors is that there is still a full time job and another half‐time one in ministering with the current congregation. We may be slipping through attrition but our current pastoral staff configuration still allows for and uses a full time Pastor and half time Minister of Faith Formation and Family Life. Even with 20 hours a week, it has been a challenge for Pastor Tripp to meet all our needs for education and family life. (As we know, school and the commute play a role in this.) In reality, the Proposal only adds a half time position to our existing pastoral staff. We need that if we are to have any chance of reaching out to those in our community we don’t currently reach.
The reality is that we are in a window of opportunity right now. We have the financial resources to move forward with this Proposal. What we do not have is enough people power to maintain the church’s infrastructure and realize all the great ideas for outreach and community life that were shared on March 23. I agree with those who say we can’t go on hiring staff to keep the congregation alive. We are at a crossroads. We have a wonderful congregation of committed people but for reasons of age and the exigencies of life, we do not currently have the critical mass of volunteers necessary to sustain us very far into the future. More than anything, the Proposal promises to put focused effort into building up the base of those who will be able to carry the congregation forward into God’s future.
We may not end up looking anything like we look now. We may have to give a little to get a little – or even a lot. For myself, I remain committed to serving the wonderful people who make up the congregation of FBCPA today. This is not an either/or proposition. I believe we have, right now, the resources to sustain and enhance who we are AND explore the future that God has planned. I look forward to continuing this journey with you. As always in the best Baptist tradition, your input and participation in this process is vital. I welcome your thoughts, feelings, ideas and prayers.
Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 39-12:2
Today we celebrate the official birthday of the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto. In truth, that official date, June 18, 1893, is a little suspect. Records indicate that the first gathering of Baptists in this area was in the village of Mayfield, which pre-dates the city of Palo Alto. A group of 7 or 8 began a church in Mayfield, which was centered around what is now the intersection of California and El Camino, in the spring of 1891. Ironically our church had its earliest roots in the very neighborhood in which we are now located, before it was part of Palo Alto.
At that time there were no churches in Mayfield but there were 13 saloons. This intrepid group of Baptists bought one of those saloons, which was sitting vacant and refurbished it as a church, complete with new paint, carpet, an organ and a lovely coal-fired chandelier. However, with the growth of Stanford University, several of the original group left Mayfield and the church for the new town of Palo Alto, where they worked on the construction of the new university. The church sold its carpet and organ and closed its doors.
The first religious services in Palo Alto were held in September of 1892, outdoors, in a grove of live oaks at the corner of University and Emerson. The minister was a Baptist who came up from Mountain View to conduct services. At that time, Baptists in Palo Alto did not receive denominational support for founding a church that others did, but they were enthusiastically part of ecumenically shared ministry. They met either outdoors or in a town hall which had an organ. They were instrumental in founding the first Sunday School in town, which met in a downtown real estate office.
The First Baptist Church of Palo Alto was finally founded in June of 1893, in the chapel car, Emmanuel, which stopped regularly in the new town, as the Southern Pacific Railroad made runs from San Francisco to Aromas in northern Monterey County. That first church had 9 members and was officially known as Emmanuel Baptist Church. Unfortunately, they were only able to sustain their church life for about a year and a half before abandoning the project. However, they continued to meet in the homes of members for prayer and study. In 1897, with denominational support the church was re-started as the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto and has continued to this day.
We’ll share some more of the history of the congregation when we move to the Fellowship Hall after lunch. Marilyn Hunwick, with some help from Lynn and myself, assembled a display of materials from our archives, which we hope you will find as interesting as we do. What I would like for us to celebrate in this service of worship is the dedicated, persistent efforts of this small group of faithful Baptists to formalize their witness in an important, growing community in the Bay Area. When the church built its first building in 1900, there were about 1000 people living in Palo Alto and Stanford was barely fifteen years old. These people had a vision of what might happen in this area and they committed themselves to being a part of an exciting, new town that held great promise for the future. These folk had faith that God was doing something in their midst and they chose to live that faith as a congregation. 120 years later FBCPA is their legacy and we are their heirs.
But we are not just their heirs in terms of property and resources, rich as those are. We are also their heirs in faith. The writer of Hebrews encourages us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” I often feel, when I enter a sanctuary like ours, the presence of that cloud of witnesses. Maybe it’s memory, but maybe it’s something more. Maybe those faithful folk who went before us still visit on occasion or linger long to guide. Maybe I’m too taken with Dickens and the kind of spirits that come to old Ebeneezer Scrooge, leading him from his miserable greed into the joyful light of a new day. Anyway, however you might think of or experience that cloud of witnesses, there are surely people who have helped to shape your life in the faith, who still draw you into a practice of faithfulness.
Who is in your cloud of witnesses? I know some of you have been a part of this congregation for 50 or 60 years, half the life of the congregation. Some of you were born here, like our moderator, Carolyn, who was entered on the cradle roll at 4 days old; or Thelma Tuttle, whose father helped to build our Fellowship Hall. For some of us our candidates for the cloud of witness are still with us. Others of us have faith heroes from other times and places. In this month’s Spire I wrote about some of mine from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Let’s take a minute. Each of you has a slip of paper on which to write a name or two. After you have written the names of your faith heroes, your cloud witnesses, we’ll collect them, share a few and offer a brief prayer of Thanksgiving.
We’ve come this far by faith. Again, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Commentators Edgar McKnight and Christopher Church write, “Biblical faith is both gift and action.” It is something we hold and something we do. It is grace that shapes and informs the way we actually live our lives. The commentators continue, “…by faith the heroes and heroines of the past translated the promised hope into reality by which they lived their lives. It was something substantial” (Edgar V. McKNight and Christopher Church, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Hebrews-James, pp. 259, 261).
In this congregation, a living faith is something we inherit, from the cloud of witnesses and from the life and ministry of Jesus, the Christ, “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The challenge for us as we celebrate our past is, at the same time, to allow our faith to shape our present practice of ministry and draw us into God’s new thing, the promise of a future that will move us ever closer to the reign of God in our lives and in our world. We’ve come this far by faith. This is true. As we honor the faithful who have led us this far, we offer our undying gratitude. But we also remember that theirs is a living legacy. Everything with which they have blessed us is so that we might “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We’ve come this far by faith and we keep on keeping on by the same faith and we look to God’s future wrapped in the very same faith, holding fast to the promise of all that is yet to be. Amen.
It feels like summer here in Palo Alto today. I hope you are enjoying some of the beauty of this springtime. Thanks to everyone for joining to make Holy Humor Sunday a joyous event. I know it’s not the way we want to approach worship every Sunday, but it is good and healthy to laugh and to fill our service and ourselves with joy. So, on a day like today, “Sing a happy alleluia!”
This coming Sunday we will consider the added epilogue to John’s gospel with its lovely stories of Jesus’ tender care for the fishing apostles and the great reconciliation between Jesus and Peter. It seems that this Easter season is filled with “Amazing Grace.” Lord knows we can never have too much of that. In a day and age in which fear – of neighbor, others, difference, insecurity, scarcity, destruction, death, you name it – seems to rule so much of our social structure, deeply affecting how we live our lives, it is challenging to give ourselves over to a God characterized by forgiveness and grace, joy and love. How can we engage in that countercultural way of letting love rule our minds, bodies, our interactions, as well as our hearts as we seek to serve the One who promises to save us from the bondage of conventional cultural expectation? Join us in worship as we consider “The Care and Feeding of…” How would you fill in the blank? See you Sunday at 10. Bring someone along to share.
May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us.