“I got emotional,” said the Rev. Jeff Johnson, recalling the moment when he found out his congregation had just received a $50,000 Walton Award.
The Walton Award — given to five congregations this year — is an annual award for new church developments that further Presbyterian mission in their communities.
“I was surprised I became so emotional,” said Johnson, pastor of Covenant Fellowship Presbyterian Church here. “I think the intensity of the whole process — purchasing a property, and moving and taking on the responsibility for the mortgage payments, the maintenance, the upkeep and taking on a presence in a new community — was draining. Everything is riding on this, everything is more at stake,” he said. “I think I was emotional because the $50,000 was important to us.”
For the members of Covenant Fellowship, the news of the Walton Award was a deeply welcomed celebration of their arrival in a place they didn’t expect to be a year ago.
Last year the congregation was still a new church development meeting in a rented building on the west side of town. In January 2010, it got its eviction notice, an expected event.
The building belongs to Jeanie Schulz, the widow of famed “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz.
“We tried to buy it from her, but she has something else she wants to do with the property, which is fair. It’s her property,” Johnson said. “She was a great landlady. She was fabulous in every way.”
Now The Cove, which is how the congregation refers to itself, is chartered ― as of June 13, 2010 ― as a congregation and the proud owners of a rehabilitated church building five miles north of the former location.
“It feels like we’ve been transients for almost 10 years,” said original member Peter McCormick. “It feels so nice, it really feels like home.”
McCormick especially appreciates the gift of the Walton Award.
“Maybe a month earlier, I was on a committee trying to find $40,000 to cut out of our budget. It was super exciting to learn that not only do we not have to make these cuts in an already too-lean budget, we have a little more to do some of the things we dreamed of when we moved in here.
“It’s like doing everything you can to have a new lawn,” McCormick continued. “You get the soil ready and you have the seeds down and you see the grass coming up and then you find out you can’t pay your water bill … But then, all of a sudden, there’s enough for water and for fertilizer too.”
The Cove started as an evening, contemporary service at Santa Rosa’s First Presbyterian Church in the late 1990’s when the “dot-com” boom was lifting up the entire San Francisco Bay Area economy.
“Everything was growing,” said Johnson, who was then an associate pastor at First. “We were bursting at the seams. Everyone was rich.”
Charged to lead an Evangelism Initiative by the Rev. Dale Flowers, head of staff at First, Johnson decided that “… instead of taking a 13-week curriculum off the shelf, let’s do something that lasts.”
The church purchased land on the east side of Santa Rosa and a core group of 70 people left First to start The Cove. The congregation met for two years in a school near the property, but that relationship deteriorated over time. Knowing that they did not yet have enough money to break ground, The Cove moved to the Schulz-owned building on the west side of Santa Rosa where they met until they got the eviction notice.
The hunt was on for a new location, and the congregation looked for another site to rent but struggled to find workable space. Then they went to visit a church building left behind by the collapse of an Evangelical Free Church congregation just north of the city limits. Empty for several years, windows were broken, trash was strewn about and gang graffiti extensively marked the building inside and out.
Still, it turned out to be cheaper on a monthly basis to buy the building rather than rent space elsewhere. Months of uneasy anticipation followed while zoning and purchase decisions worked their way through both the secular and the ecclesiastic approval process.
“We were basically being kicked out of where we were,” said member Linda Bohn. “Each week we’d hear, ‘OK, we have to be out of here by this date,’ but we didn’t know when we could start being there,”
Even so, Bohn who had not worshiped in the PC(USA) before joining The Cove, was grateful for the extended, sometimes frustrating pace.
“I’m thankful for the way the larger Presbyterian Church set things up. I felt there was so many checks and balances through the whole process, there were so many committees who prayed to see if this was the direction for us to go,” she said. “Then one day it was ‘crazy-go’ mode. It was ‘OK, everyone bring your boxes and your packing tape on this day’ and ‘we’ll move on this day’ and it was crazy and intense. It was the longest month I ever lived!”
The congregation bonded deeply in the move and remodel.
“People were there all the time. You just showed up and started working. People were pulling the old rug, fixing the sprinkler systems, painting over the graffiti, choosing new colors, washing the windows. People were cooking food for the people who were working,” Bohn said. “Remodeling together we’ve seen some of us at our best and some sides of us we wouldn’t have seen if we weren’t all on our hands and knees working on the building together.”
Being at the new location so often allowed The Cove members to learn about their new neighborhood while they worked.
“There is a bus stop right in front of the church, so we would meet folks on their way to and from work. People use the field [around the church] for their dogs to run around on,” Bohn said.
The congregation has reached out to the local chamber of commerce, inviting them in to use the building for meeting space.
“It seems to me that we have a new visitor who has walked to church each week,” McCormick said. “Our core congregation is spread out all over Sonoma County but we’d like to appeal to our neighbors close by, too.”
The property is bordered by a significant north-south arterial highway. Surrounded by the open field, there are two buildings on the grounds that take advantage of Northern California’s moderate climate to use the patios and lawns as meeting and social space. The sanctuary’s glass doors offer views of the world passing by on foot, bicycle and in automobiles.
“I love the new building,” Bohn said. “I like the orientation it has to the street, I like the big open space around it, I love the way it is set up inside. It feels cozy. The pews wrap around the space. We’re close to each other. It has a more community feel.
“I feel like there’s more a sense of ‘yes, this is our greater community now,’” Bohn said about what the new location meant to her. “It feels like have a home, we have ownership.”
“There’s nothing wrong with meeting on the fifth floor of a high rise,” Johnson said. “You can be a community, but there’s a value to the community at-large to have a visual representation of God. Not that we do that perfectly well. Still, even if people never walk into a church but drive by it and think, ‘God is in there somewhere,’ then I think there’s value in that.“
For McCormick, the Walton Award was the best church-warming present ever. “It was so exciting to get this burst of energy when we were feeling out of energy and out of money. It was quite a boost.”
Anitra Kitts is a candidate for the ministry under the care of Redwoods Presbytery and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service