Reflections by David Crist, son of our Founding Pastor and Pastor Emeritus Rev. Bertrand Crist for the 275th Anniversary
Anniversaries give us the chance to look back and better understand where we came from. With that in mind reflecting on the founding of San Marino Congregational Church can give us a start on understanding our 75 years as we approach that anniversary at the end of October.
The early days of the church were nothing if not remarkable. It is a story that stirs a mixture of awe and astonishment and pride.
On August 30,1948, when my father arrived here in the middle of a blistering heat wave having driven alone across the country from Rhode Island, no one could have guessed what would happen here a short 2 months later. There was no one to greet him. There was no congregation. The church building that the denomination had funded in hope that a congregation might gather was not yet finished. In fact, the contractor had stopped work because the Conference was so far behind in its payments. The parsonage was empty, without landscaping everything looked bleak and barren.
Yet on October 31 there was standing room only at the first service. After people filled the sanctuary and overflowed into adjacent rooms, some people went home and returned “quickly with camp stools and antique chairs” or so the L.A. Times reported. In his sermon my father declared,
“There is a new creation, unlike anything most of us have known before. Suddenly a dream is realized, in a brave, cruel, weary world, God has made his mark again. Humbly, bravely, hopefully, we begin a new venture of faith.”
A meeting was called for November 7 to vote on organizing a new church. In the congregational way the 70 people who gathered were to covenant together as a church and authorized an Advisory Committee to designate interim officers until the first annual meeting the following May.
The first Communion service took place on November 21st the Sunday before Thanksgiving and 106 people joined the church. 106 members and the church was less than a month old. By the time the Charter membership closed the following April , the number of members had grown to 190.
What are we to make of this extraordinary start, and what meaning does it hold for us today?
As my brother reviewed the account, he found himself focusing on relationships and promises.
He goes on to say that he believes God calls us into relationships, a relationship with God and a relationship with each other. In our liberal Protestant way, we feel these relationships are at the heart of our religion and were at the heart of my fathers thelogy. We don’t feel that faith is a state of mind, or a set of rules or a sudden rebirth. After all, we are told by Jesus about the two great commandments, to love your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. These are relationships and expressions of our being, and our lifelong work is to explore and understand and strengthen these relationships. We don’t always get them right, but we are called to keep working on them.
Over time, these relationships come to define who we are at our core, we don’t know what’s going to happen as these relationships play out, but we attempt to live out the promise.
With that in mind let’s look at some of the promises and expressions of relationship in the story of the church.
What were some of the promises?
* There was the promise that 70 people made when they covenanted together as a church on November 7.
* There was the promise that Oneonta Church in South Pasadena made when it sounded out the need for a church in this area.
* There was the promise made by our denomination when they acquired land and took out a mortgage to build the first building.
* There was the promise that the first 190 Charter members made when they joined the church in the early months.
* And to push it back further there was the promise that Christ made to be present when 2 or 3 gather in his name.
Let’s start with what took place 85 years ago now, with my father’s ordination at Central Congregational Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Responding to God’s call to relationship, he made a promise to serve God and God’s people.
Little did he know that 10 years later he would find himself leading the first service of the San Marino Congregational Church. But if we are anchored in relationships and wrap them in promises, we can find ourselves in the most surprising places.
So, my father went out on his personal limb and left Rhode Island for California. He knew something about Southern California from his time as chaplain at the Navy prison in San Pedro, but he knew little about San Marino. He was taking a risk.
But it was equally true that the Southern California Council of Churches and the Board of Home Missions was also taking a risk. Conference Minister Nelson Dreier interviewed my father in June 1948 at the National Conference in Oberlin, Ohio. Presumably he read a file that stated my father had graduated from Yale Divinity School and had served as Assistant Minister at Central Church in Providence. Also, that he joined the Navy as a Chaplin during World War II and had served in the Pacific and that he returned to Central Church in Providence as their Associate Minister. Presumably there were letters of recommendation. But what did he really know?
After all, they had called another minister 3 years earlier, who resigned after several months without a single service being held, so that had not worked out.
But my father accepted the challenge and set to work. What attributes did he bring? We can make some inferences.
* He was young and vigorous. He was 34 years old; a few weeks shy of his 35th birthday.
* He had certainly done well in seminary. When the Rev. Dr. Arthur Bradford turned to Yale for a new assistant minister in 1938, he didn’t approach them only as the senior minister of a large church, but as a trustee of Yale. So, I suspect my father had shown enough promise for the faculty to be confident in recommending him.
* He was ready for a change. He had served for several years at Central Congregational Church both before and after the war and had filled in for the senior Minister during extended illnesses. He wanted something fresh.
* He was accustomed to leadership. After all, he had been an officer in the Navy rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
* He had a measure of compassion, and he didn’t define his neighbor narrowly. Some of this developed during his time as Chaplain in the Navy Brig, where we know from letters he wrote, that he had real sympathy for the sailors who had made mistakes, for the ones who couldn’t read or write well, and for men whose desires for other men were considered crimes.
* He had confidence, but he wasn’t the sort of man who leads with his ego.
My father always said that attitude is more important than aptitude, for him the glass was always half full. I don’t think he saw an empty church with no members and a large debt to the denomination. I suspect he focused instead on the fact that there were soon people showing interest, and that there was a building almost completed that they could meet in. In September he rang doorbells up and down these local streets and contacted interested people and by October 21 some people were willing to meet informally and appoint the three-person advisory committee.
There were many good people willing to help. In naming a few let me mention my mother first. She was only 28 when she followed my father across the country by train with my 2-year-old brother Bob and several months pregnant with me. Her key relationships were always with her husband and her children and in part to make those relationships work she made sure that every Saturday evening for 12 years that the parsonage was ready to receive the next morning babies in the bedrooms and toddlers in the living room.
There was Stan and Ede Dicken who had read a newspaper report of a new minister, saw a car with Rhode Island license plates and stopped and introduced themselves and Stan Dicken became a member of that 3 person advisory committee.
There was John Morrisroe, who brought his extraordinary business skills to the frustrating task of gaining City Planning Commission approval, through three variance plans for the building of this sanctuary.
There was Dick Biles, Pat Bell’s father who was chairman of the building committee when this sanctuary was dedicated on October 9, 1960 and later became the first Moderator of the church.
There was Lillian Obrien who was the first preschool director and, as we know, would be followed by the wonderful leadership of Connie and Janet years later.
So, we look back at the story of the church, marvel at the early energy and success. But what really strikes me and what really speaks to us is the record of a people entering into relationships and following through on promises. It is no accident that the church started with a covenant that read “for the glory of God, for the service of our fellowmen, for the mutual assistance in our Christian life.” As a church now, we continue to renew that covenant and to live out its promise.