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Legacy of Love: An East County Saga

by Mary Domb Mikkelson and Sam Buchenau

 They were young and far from home, just starting out in the world, with new jobs and new families, little money but lots of energy.  They became friends and, as friends, built a community.

1953.  Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States.  From Here to Eternity won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Frank Sinatra could be heard singing “I’ve Got the World on a String” on radios all over the country.  Gasoline cost 29 cents per gallon, bread 16 cents a loaf.  Mt. Everest was scaled for the first time.  Color television sets and transistor radios entered the marketplace.  Change was in the air.

Out in La Mesa, California a new housing development, Lake Murray Manor, was springing up:  700 of a planned 7000 homes were almost complete, awaiting hordes of young families seeking affordable housing.  In June one of them, on Dalhart Street, became the home of newly-ordained Rev. Curtis Clare, wife Elsie, their 2-week-old son AND Holiday Community Congregational Church (later re-named Lake Murray Congregational Church).

“In September,” Elsie reports, “we had our first Sunday worship service in our living room so every Saturday night we re-arranged the furniture.  I baked tons of cookies, made gallons of coffee.  We quickly outgrew both the living room and the kitchen, aka the choir loft, and moved into the backyard.  The huge tarp hung over this area had to be pulled back during rain and wind or the fence it was attached to would be pulled down.  There were many nights when we leaped out of bed to rescue the fence.”

The congregation was, Curtis (now Pastor Emeritus) recalls, “liberal in thought; democratic in form and designed to serve persons of varying backgrounds.”  From the earliest days this new congregation was a “family” – perhaps not in the traditional sense, but in every way that truly matters.   Maybe because they were neighbors…maybe because the earliest church meetings were held in the Clares’ home…maybe because they were all so young.  They were, as member Ann Catlin recalls, “impossibly young, nearly all of them in their twenties and thirties, even the minister.  Almost all were just starting out in the world – with little money but lots of energy.  Nearly all had two or three children.  They had all come from somewhere else – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois.  Nobody knew anybody else – they were new in town with new jobs, new homes, new families.”  They became friends and, as friends, began building a church – and a community.  As a result, there was a unique warmth and intimacy in this congregation that continues to this day.  They partied together, too – potlucks at one neighbor’s house, card parties at another’s, dances at the church (“You just moved the chairs out of the way on Saturday night and put them back in place for Sunday services.”

In no time the community and the church were teeming with children.   And with children came an awareness of needs.  There were, for example, no sidewalks on which the youngsters could walk safely to school.   To get them would acquire a tax assessment, which many felt they couldn’t afford.  But, it was the right thing to do for the children and so it was done.  They also stood up for open housing in a day when restrictive housing covenants were de rigueur.  And, because the community needed healthcare, the members of the young congregation were instrumental in the organization and building of Grossmont Hospital, which opened in 1955.  They were also building a future.

They still are – as the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (UCCLM), a future for themselves and their neighbors in La Mesa and the world beyond.

They’ve dug trenches and erected the frame of a Habitat for Humanity house; provided medical transportation for area residents for over 40 years and supported an orphanage in Baja California for nearly 30, providing food, clothing, supplies and educational opportunities up to and including law school.  They work in a shelter for the homeless, provide an apartment for abused women and their families, support the Charley Brown Day Care Center and have been awarded the Oliver and Eleonore Powell Award “for demonstrating a vision of inclusiveness in living out their mission in the local community…for believing in, welcoming, loving and empowering all of God’s children” and for “living their motto:  ‘Doing together what we cannot do alone.’”

Their youth have traveled to Puerto Rico to work in an elementary school and a hospice, to Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas to learn to work to end hunger and poverty, care for the earth and improve the lives of others and to do home repair on Native American reservations.

And that is just for starters.   New members bring fresh energy and perspective to the church, new technologies are being utilized and new programs and groups started.  Among the goals addressed in a recent strategic planning session (open to all members) were continuing growth in diversity, staying relevant in a changing society and increased public participation in social justice issues.   The people of UCCLM, believing ALL are created in God’s own image, welcome ALL people into the full life and ministries of their church – no “ifs,” “ands,” “buts” or exceptions, without regard for age, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or background.   Its congregation strives to “love one another as God loves us” and to live their faith and their commitment to God and extend God’s extravagant welcome to everyone.

And to be open to one another – and to God.

“The church’s role is to speak up, to call things as they are, to listen, to talk, to address fear,” former Senior Minister Félix Villanueva (now Conference Minister of the Southern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ) explained.  “We need to reach out more, not just wait for others to find their way to us. (We need to let them know that) our church values intellectual inquiry.  One of the great gifts God has given us is our capacity to think, explore, question and discern.  At the United Church of Christ of La Mesa, we encourage and provide opportunities for people use that gift to its fullest.”

UCCLM is growing in numbers and diversity – and in God.  And it plans to keep on growing!

You’re invited to be part of that growth, to visit; to meet the people of UCCLM and their pastor, Rev. Dr. Bill Peterson; to experience the church where the front pews fill first and “Challenge, Change, Community” is the order of the day.  We believe God is still speaking and invite you to come listen with us.

We’re at 5950 Kelton Avenue, La Mesa 91942 (619-464-1519 – www.ucclm.org).  Our Sunday contemporary service starts at 8:30am, the traditional service at 10 – with friendship hour after each.   Everyone is welcome!

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