Walnut Creek United Methodist Church to mark 150th anniversary
By Lou Fancher
On Feb. 10, when staff, the congregation and visitors celebrate the 150th anniversary of Walnut Creek United Methodist Church — the actual anniversary is Feb. 12 — a mandate to love all people will be foremost.
“The first thing we pride ourselves in is that we are an open church,” says the Rev. Colin Kerr-Carpenter, or Pastor Colin, as he is known by church members.
He was appointed senior pastor in 2017, arriving from a position in Orland, California, near Chico. As a sixth-generation Californian with 30 years in ministry and degrees from University of the Pacific and the Boston University School of Theology, Kerr-Carpenter most appreciates the church’s progressive social outreach.
“Theologically, we believe the Number One understanding of the gospel is that we’re called to love and to love all people.”
That core principle affirmed by a 79 percent favorable vote taken June 5, 1994, designates the church as a “Reconciling Congregation,” which means all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are welcome to participate fully in church operations, missions and life.
Joining a movement begun in 1982 by a church in New York City — and adhering to policies that continue to roil the United Methodist denomination — Kerr-Carpenter says his reading of church history shows the decision was not made “willy-nilly.” A careful study of the issues involved, regular meetings to educate the congregation and other preparations over three years preceded the final vote.
“There were a few people 25 years ago who left, but in talking to people who were around back then, including some who were adamantly opposed to it, I’ve learned they came around. They’re now strong advocates for being a reconciling church,” says Kerr-Carpenter.
Among those in the congregation in 1994 was Linda Schade. A member since 1983, Schade has held multiple chair positions, served as head of communications, taught Sunday school classes, coordinated weddings, assisted with mission trips and more.
“I know my way around the church fairly well,” she says. Now in her early 70s, she adds that, “I headed the committee that planned the 125th anniversary and I’m happy to head the 150th. However, I am not so sure about the 175th.”
It’s likely that future celebrations will be simpler than this year’s preparations. In addition to continental breakfast before a worship service that will include participation from people who’ve served the church over the years, a time capsule buried 25 years ago will be opened.
“The one that’s buried has a Marvel comic book, because we had the kids do it. There are pictures of all the classes at that time and a jewelry box with unknown contents. Unfortunately, we didn’t keep a content list and we didn’t even put a marker over the burial site.”
After three weeks of digging to find the capsule, Schade says, “It was about the fourth hole dug before they found it. The earth was rock-hard. We had to saw off the end of the PVC pipe used to make the capsule because they’d glued it on.” She says the capsule made for the next anniversary will be better prepared. “We’ll put wire around it and place a marker in the ground.”
Remembering pivotal moments in church history, Schade recalls the process of welcoming the LGBTQ community. People brought concerns, fears and questions about how the decision might affect their families.
“Having gone through the education and the fallout from it, I think the church may be a little smaller, but it’s stronger in its unity. Same-sex couples are people who come to worship, they aren’t unusual. People who left missed an opportunity. (With) any limited avenue of learning about people who are not you, you limit your intellectual and emotional growth.”
Kerr-Carpenter knows that like other mainline denominational churches, attendance is in decline. The predominant remaining group is largely retired people who are referred to as “silver sophisticates.” Wishing he had a “magic elixir to turn the tide,” he says that despite dwindling numbers, the church maintains a robust outreach presence. The Extended Family program partners with Shelter Inc. to provide furniture and household items to families as they emerge from homelessness.
“We’re part of Shelter’s wraparound services. At the end of the journey out of homelessness, people obtain permanent housing but don’t have the means to set up a home. We provide the materials and move the materials to the home. We see, face-to-face, a client and get to know their story. It’s not just a name. It’s a family to understand.”
Other programs extend the outreach: Annual trips bring medical care to people in need in Guatemala; meals are delivered to Bay Area service organizations; a Summer Sierra project last year sent a church youth group to Spokane, Washington, to work on a reservation and learn Native American history.
“My crew built a shed for a family. We got to know who they are, learned their future plans. The kids wouldn’t have gotten that any other place. They just drank it up and said it was cool because they knew they were part of something important,” Kerr-Carpenter said.
Schade takes most joy in the church’s “extra dimensions.” Chief among them are the embrace of all people, a June 2010 invitation by composer Bradley Ellingboe to perform his Requiem at Carnegie Hall, choir summer retreats — and one final factor.
“People ask, why go to church on a Sunday? For connection, for a church that never stops learning. And you know, soccer or other diversions won’t help you in a life crisis, but faith will,” she says.