A report from David Leith on the June 2nd service of memory and hope celebrating 170 years of ministry of 1st Pres. Church of San Jose
About 150 people gathered in the sanctuary of Cornerstone Church to celebrate the life and ministry of the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of San Jose, who had deliberately and bravely decided to end their 170 years of actively living out Jesus’s command to feed the hungry, clothe and care for those in need, by asking the Presbytery to oversee the sale of their downtown property and to use the resources from the sale to create an ongoing urban ministry in downtown San Jose, thereby assuring the continued presence of the mission they have created and lived out.
That congregation began in 1849 with founding pastor Douglas W Shaw and six members, built a wooden structure for worship which was completed in 1851, on North Second Street and which eventually proved to be inadequate. For $ 20,000 a new brick structure was erected, (in the midst of the civil war days), in 1863. It was destroyed by an earthquake, rebuilt and was in use until the 1906 earthquake. A new building was begun, completed and dedicated in April 1908, at 48 North 3rd Street until it was closed as a fire hazard. A fourth building was erected in 1973 at the present location at 49 North Fourth Street, San Jose.
This small community grew and flourished over the years. They formed the first school in San Jose. And they birthed many other Presbyterian churches in the area. In 1881, 77 members left to organize the Second Presbyterian Church of San Jose, now known as the Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 1944 a committee of elders laid the foundations of the Foothill Presbyterian Church. In 1953, about 250 members of the First Church became the founding members of the Calvin Presbyterian Church which closed in 2007. They also supported Donaldina Cameron, who was a pioneer in the fight against slavery as a Presbyterian missionary in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She helped more than 2,000 Chinese immigrant girls and women escape from forced prostitution and indentured servitude. The First Presbyterian Church of San Jose is part of the Presbytery of San Jose, the Synod of the Pacific, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
By 1969, the members of the First Presbyterian Church knew that they had to redefine themselves in order to continue to be a meaningful presence in the San Jose downtown community. The long-range planning committee spent considerable time assessing their own circumstances and the needs of the surrounding community. Their building was deteriorating and the membership shrinking, and there was a clear and crying need for a residential facility for low income seniors. This led to a decision to demolish their existing building and build a not-for-profit ten story apartment building on a portion of the of its footprint. And so ‘Town Park Towers’ was erected and continues to provide 216 residential units. In 1973, First Presbyterian Church dedicated a new smaller sanctuary with classrooms and parking nearby. Through an inclusive outreach effort the congregation became very diverse, creating programs for cooperative housing for women going to college, for housing of retied people, to serve 150 lunches every day to those in need, (with help from other local churches), the Front Door Ministry program, the Woman’s Gathering Place (called Lifted Sprits) activity providing laundry and shower facilities and a quiet place, and the Service Sundays program (on every fifth Sunday of the month) making 10,000 meals and supporting urgent mission locations world-wide.
The celebration service featured a presentation of photographs taking the audience through the 170 years of history with oral comments from Martha Beattie, Judy Lococo, Ole Johnson, Sharon Johnson and Charlotte Powers. Remembrances were offered by Sharon McDougal, Nathan Ganeshan and Nancy Shell, followed by a reflection by Joey Lee, Executive Presbyter of San Jose Presbytery.
About a hundred people in attendance retired to the Social Hall and were treated to the sight of a completely full hall with beautifully set tables with white linen cloths and a delightful fresh vegetable salad, followed by a wonderful buffet style dinner of grilled chicken, risotto-stuffed red peppers and grilled asparagus, with fruit salad, cookies and lemon bars for dessert.
My first interaction with this incredible church community came during the Dismissal Process a few years ago, when the national church and our own Presbytery suffered a serious dislocation when many conservative churches choose to leave the PCUSA, (mainly over the ordination of lesbian and gay pastors and performing marriages for lesbian and gay couples). Our presbytery formed groups that met weekly over a nine month period to pray for the church nationally, and specially our local church communities. Sharon Hare – the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Jose was part of a group that met weekly at Covenant Church in Palo Alto. I also participated in that group, and got to know Sharon rather well and became familiar with the work of that remarkable congregation. Beyond that very important personal connection, our congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, has been part of the broad church community support for many of the outreach programs we had been celebrating at this service – for instance, we have packed lunches for their Front Door Ministry program.
Joey Lee requested prayers from all in attendance, and indeed from all of our Presbytery, for guidance and providence over the plan of selling the property, and using those new financial resources to sustainably support ongoing mission work in downtown San Jose that will be a continuing presence of the work of First Presbyterian Church of San Jose – AND – for every church in our Presbytery to actively make the remaining members of First Church of San Jose feel warmly welcome as they now look to find a new church home within our Presbytery. Many of us have strong connections with individuals in that community, and we are asked to take responsibility to contact them and invite them to come join us in Sunday worship, and in our life of mission work.