Ours is a story that belongs to God. In 1948, Peachtree Road Presbyterian Church sponsored the possibility of planting a Presbyterian church in the Brookhaven area. Albert Wells, who was a seminary student, was sent to study this opportunity, and to gather any interested Presbyterians. The first worship service of what was tentatively called Community Presbyterian Church was held October 31, 1948, in the auditorium of Oglethorpe University. On March 27, 1949, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church was chartered, and began the process of calling a pastor, buying land, and building a church.
This Fall, we will be spending time in worship looking at our congregation’s 65 year history. In preparing for this, I have talked to a number of you, read through our leather bound session minute books, and heard personal remembrances of those who have been in leadership here before, especially the Rev. Dr. Fitzhugh Legerton, who was our first installed pastor.
As a side bar, I first met Fitz almost twenty years ago when I was working on a research project. I was in Montreat, North Carolina, to interview Randy Taylor, a retired Presbyterian pastor. When I got to his home, I was led back to his kitchen, There was a man there, drinking coffee, who introduced himself to me as Fitz Legerton. When he found out I was from Atlanta, he told me that he had served as pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church for forty-one years. And I remember thinking to myself, “I sure feel sorry for anyone who has to follow him!”
So that’s a lesson to you all: the universe hears your thoughts!
I know that there are some of you who lived through the events I will try to bring to life. To you, I beg your indulgence, as I will most certainly get things wrong. I also know that there are many of us who are relatively recent arrivals to this history. What I hope you will see, as I have, is how the seeds were planted long ago for the character of this church that you have come to know and love.
I was also reminded that none of us has more history in this place that Frank Walker, whose family joined in October of 1949, before our first called pastor, before we owned land, before we had any building we could call our own!
In short, it’s amazing what you find when you dig through the early history of a church. There’s the incredible “to do” list of everything that an institutional church needs to function, the things we tend to take for granted. Not only do you need property and a place, but you need all that “stuff”. You need somewhere for everybody to sit…a baptismal font…a piano, an organ…a pulpit…a pastor!
You also find these wonderful little surprises. Did you know that Dick van Dyke was a member of this church until he moved up to New York in the late 1950s to give Broadway a shot? Or did you know that the session met weekly, if not more often, for a number of years? Oh, and elders? You’re welcome.
I was also reminded why that early congregation chose the name Oglethorpe Presbyterian. The president of Oglethorpe University at the time, Philip Weltner, and his wife Sally, were larger than life forces behind the drive to start a church here. We met on the campus for three years until we had a building of our own. And Thornwell Jacobs, the man who had re-founded Oglethorpe University at its present location and served as its president for almost thirty years, donated his own land to the church, which was supplemented by the purchase of additional lots.
The relationship between the church and University has waxed and waned over time, but over the past few years, that relationship has been rekindled. The University’s leaders have actively sought my – and our – participation in a number of events on campus. From sitting on interfaith panels to tending their community garden, we are in the process re-building on a foundation that was first laid sixty-five years ago. And beginning next month, from time to time we are going to have lunch on campus together on Sundays after worship; more about that later.
But I digress. In 1949, we received the deed to the property. In 1950, we welcomed Fitz and Emmy Lou Legerton. In 1951, we built the chapel. And in 1953, just to put things in perspective, we started working on a plan to ventilate the chapel…not air-conditioning for Georgia summers, mind you, but ventilation. So how’s the temperature in here today?
In sixty-five years, a lot has happened. And we will be looking at some key moments in our history over the next couple of months. More than 2700 people have been members of our church at one time or another. Our physical plant has expanded dramatically. We have founded a number of key ministries throughout the region. Meanwhile, the population has grown exponentially since 1948. The area of Brookhaven has become the city of Brookhaven. The world has changed a great deal. And yet, we are still here!
All of this calls to mind for me our New Testament lesson this morning. In it, Jesus tells the parable of the wise person, who builds their house on a solid footing so as to withstand the storms. Think of it as an ancient Near East version of the three little pigs.
In the same way, Jesus says, the person who hears his words and strives to live them out is building a faith that can withstand the tests of time and the storms of life. I am convinced that, more than anything else, the presence of this church stands as a testament to faith. The fact is that, sixty-five years ago, there was a dedicated group of people who believed in the words of Jesus enough to risk starting something new here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow.
Is this faith still alive? I’m sure of it, very much so. What I see when I look out is the faith we heard described in our Psalm this morning. We hear the words of Jesus, and we do what we can to reflect them out to the world around us. We want to be in on God’s transformative work, raising the poor up from the dust, lifting the needy from the ash heap, and giving praise to God alone through it all.
It was not until I began the process in earnest of becoming your pastor that I discovered what a gift it is to follow in the footsteps not only of Fitz Legerton, but of all those who came before. And the more I learn about our history, the more I recognize what a blessing it is to be a part of it.
My friends, this story of ours is one that will surprise us…because in the end, this story of ours actually belongs to the God of surprises. And friends, there is much, much more of this story yet to be written. And this story is not just about our church, but about each one of us here. As we look back today on our church's history, I invite you to look back into your own histories - those places where you can see the seeds in your life God planted and is still giving growth for the years to come. Because God never promises there will be no storms, only that our faith will be able to withstand.
Today, we begin by looking back. And as we do, we also look forward with expectant hope for all that is to come. Each one of us has a place in that story. Let us, together, learn and celebrate what a gift that is!