126 years ago this evening, forty or so people from the Mt. Tabor neighborhood gathered in Deardorff Hall, a lodge building at Glencoe Station, a stopping point near 47th Avenue for the small steam railroad which traveled what is now Belmont Street. They had been meeting together for some time with their children for Sunday School and midweek for prayer and Bible Study. But this night they had a particular intention. They were planning to start a church. The Presbytery had authorized this action back in April – guess the presbytery didn’t move fast in those days either! I wish we had pictures of that gathering! But we can use our imaginations. What would you be feeling as you gathered in that lodge hall on that auspicious night? Excitement? Nerves? Awe at taking on a significant task? Sense of pride…, strength…, determination…, hope…? Even the children could feel that their parents were doing something important. Let a picture develop in your mind.
The little band continued to meet in Deardorff Hall until 1893, when the sum of $799 was raised to erect a church building. The new structure was built at the corner of Belmont and 55th. It was a simple wood-frame church, with a basement for coal storage, and perhaps some fellowship or education space. That building is now a four-plex on the southwest corner of 55th and Stark. Some of the foundation of that building is still holding up Copeland Commons. And…, we are not quite sure, but from the picture of the old building, it looks like the angel window at the back of our sanctuary used to grace the steeple of that church.
This little band grew quickly and soon needed a bigger home. And here is where the story gets interesting. The documents from the building fund drive for the stone church show that the building was to be built by the congregation and the neighborhood, in order to function as both a church and a community center. This little band apparently appreciated their lodge home as a starting point, and knew that this new structure would be needed by the community for all kinds of community gatherings. When they were preparing to add the Parish House in 1929, they also did fundraising in the congregation and the community together. It was to be a place for all.
From its original dreams, this was to be a place where the community did activities together. A place for connection. A place of peace. It was wonderful to uncover this legacy when we were considering the Taborspace project. We really were intended to be a space open for and with the community!
One of the key themes of the commitment to peacemaking is peacemaking in families. That is kind of what we are here – one big family, learning to live together in in a healthy way. In a way which blesses everyone, inside and outside, regular or newcomer. We Jesus-followers inherit the covenant promise God made with Abram and Sarah – that God would bless them so that all people on earth would be blessed through them (Genesis 12:3). Our founding mothers and fathers seemed to understand this. They saw their gathering and their gathering space as a place which would bless the whole neighborhood. It would be a place of coming together.
Psalm 133 is one of the shortest in the book of Psalms, but it is beautifully poetic. “Behold! How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity!” This is profound wisdom about the way things work in this world.
In the background of this psalm is the Hebrew Law regulating how families would live together in broad tribal tents – children, grandchildren and great grandchildren growing up together with their older and younger generations. The psalm celebrates the goodness of a family life where the members live together harmoniously without strife and conflict. Such a life is pleasant for all concerned, in contrast to those situations where conflict and violence erupt. The Hebrew story is full of these traumatic families as well – Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Judah, David, and more.
The same is true among us. Even though this place was envisioned as a place for community, church and family gathering, we know that we have not always been good at it. We have been divisive among ourselves. We have not been welcoming to strangers, or those among us who were in trouble. Yet, each time we gather, we are showered with grace and sent back out to be good neighbors again. What a blessing it is for people to live together in unity. And how rare!
Today, church, synagogue, mosque, and other religious gatherings are among the few places where we still gather regularly in intergenerational communities. It can be like the big tribal tent, where families find home together. But it isn’t easy.
People come together in intergenerational gatherings for celebrations. Today, it is the church’s 126th birthday. It is not one of the big round number birthdays, so we can watch it come and go in relative simplicity. But later this week is the busiest travel day of the year, as people launch into the holiday season around Thanksgiving tables everywhere. Do you travel for Thanksgiving? You see the best and the worst of human behavior in the airports during these stressful travel days.
We love our holiday foods, but holiday family gatherings are also notorious for breaking down into religious or political wrangling or resentment between the dish-washers and the football-watchers. With the polarization which has developed in our nation some of us may not be looking forward to our family gatherings. How can we learn to be family in healthy ways?
Our friend, Cynthia O’Brien has introduced me to an organization called, “Better Angels.” Their mission is to heal the divide between red and blue in our political discourse, and find ways to talk with each other in healthy ways. At their national gathering on October 31 of this year, they issued “An American Declaration.” Here is just a bit of it:
…Our American experiment in ordered liberty requires that “We the People” take responsibility for the direction of our nation. Our nation is in trouble. The crisis we face is polarization. What endangers us is not the rise or decline of either party, but our loss of trust in each other and the take-over of our politics by those in both parties who would have us put faction over country, treat our opponents as enemies, and reject the idea of common ground. Today we rise as red and blue Americans in equal numbers to say that the era of polarization must come to an end…. [https://www.better-angels.org/features/an-american-declaration]
They also have produced a guide for families gathering around Thanksgiving tables this year. How can we have healthy conversation around our tables? I made some copies available for you to pick up. Today, we prepare ourselves for being peacemakers during the holiday gatherings.
In Romans 12, Paul is describing how to live a Christian life. Following Jesus changes your life. And people won’t always understand. Families were cracking under the weight of differences. Jesus’ followers were finding themselves “outside” of their social circles due to their new religious beliefs that forbid the worship of idols. Family members, co-workers, and neighbors who had not converted to Christianity did not understand and did not approve of the new behaviors of their Christian counterparts who refused to attend public events, many of which were deeply integrated with idol worship.
In the face of this tense, painful separation, Paul tells the Christians to love, not just surface politeness, but honest, robust love, for the community of saints and for those outside just the same. Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. It is the only way.
“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rms 12:18). Not just those who agree with us. Not just those who worship in the same way. Not just those who speak the same language. Live peaceably with ALL.
Fred Rogers, “Mr. Rogers” to most of us, had such a disarming way of getting this message across. You may remember the TV show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran from 1962 to 2001, mostly on PBS. The camera pans through his miniature neighborhood, until we see Mr. Rogers’ front door. He walks in after work and makes himself comfortable by putting on a sweater and tennis shoes. He sings to the children, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood/ A beautiful day for a neighbor/ Could you be mine?/ Would you be mine?” Can you hear it in your head?
I remember in my teens that we joked about Mr. Rogers and thought he was pretty silly. But the tide has turned. When he died, there was an outpouring of appreciation for how Mr. Rogers impacted people – and a huge sweater collection for cold neighbors! Now there is a documentary out about this man. Most people never knew he was a Presbyterian minister. But he lived it. He saw everyone as neighbor – child, gold fish, toothpick maker or grocery clerk. We all live something wonderful! His way of going around with deep curiosity and delight for whatever and whoever he met made a difference! Did he change the world? Yes, in some of the neighborhoods he touched. Not everyone. Not everything. But there would be less peace in the world without Mr. Rogers. And because of Mr. Rogers, many adults are teaching their children about being a good neighbor.
And so, I think back on the legacy left to us by the little band of children and adults who began to gather in Deardorff Hall at 47th and Belmont. These 126 years have been eventful! One could certainly write a book about the drama which has been its life. But I believe that their legacy is much like the words of Mr. Rogers: Won’t you be my neighbor? When they gathered, when they dreamed of a building, when they needed more space: Won’t you be my neighbor? Perhaps these family days can be as simple as that, too: Won’t you be my neighbor?