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Opinion: On stewardship and being a good neighbor

Pastor analyzes role of First Baptist Church in the community

A church is not a building. A congregation may have a "church building," but that building is not "the church." We sometimes sing a song by Baptist songwriter Ken Medema that urges:

Come build a church with soul and spirit, come build a church of flesh and bone.

It's people who make up the church -- flesh and bone. It's people who comprise the congregation -- soul and spirit. Medema continues:

We need no tower rising skyward, no house of wood or glass or stone.

He's right about that, too. We don't have to have the building to be the church. But, in the case of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, we have a building of wood and glass and stone, with a graceful tower reaching skyward. What are we to do with it?

If we were starting our congregation today, I doubt that we would even consider building such a structure on the corner of Bryant Street and North California Avenue. For one thing, we could not begin to afford the property given today's values. However, 70 years ago our forebears did buy this property and built this building on it. The times were different. The church was different. The neighborhood was different. In 1947, when churches were experiencing the post-World War II boom, we had 600 to 700 members and functioned as both church and community center. Most religious institutions in those days functioned in that way, and they were built in neighborhoods to provide easy access for those whom they served. Activities involving music, art, education, service, counseling, leadership training and community building were common. Business contacts were made and business conducted in and around the church.

Since that time, more opportunities for community involvement have arisen than most of us can imagine. The role of the church has shifted in that it is no longer considered "the community center." Still, churches and other religious institutions continue to be important community centers. In this way we continue, as the prophet Jeremiah exhorted his people several millennia ago, to "seek the welfare of the city. ... For," he proclaimed, "in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).

However, we are not starting our congregation today. In fact, First Baptist Church has been actively involved in the life of the city of Palo Alto for 125 years, 70 of those operating from the current church building at 305 North California. The building we have at this address is a legacy, a gift from our forebears. What are we to do with it?

It was not so difficult to figure out what to do with our handsome, spacious building today. The uses are obvious, the need is significant, and the opportunities are myriad. When I became pastor 12 years ago, it was my observation that the building was severely under-utilized. I said to the Church Council early on that this was not good stewardship of what we have been given nor was it fulfilling the mission of our congregation to let the building sit empty. After its people, our building is our most important asset.

I will confess that part of the motivation for expanding the use of the building was economic. As with many religious institutions in the western world, we are property rich and cash limited. We need to be creative in order to balance our budget. Generating income from the building seemed a logical way to do that. Some of our congregation argued that we were moving away from being church by also becoming landlords and a rental agency. I had to wrestle with that. I knew it wasn't true, but I wasn't sure why.

What I have discovered over the years, by sharing this space with our partners (we no longer refer to them as tenants or renters), is that every activity and organization that goes on in our church building is consonant with our mission statement. Yes, the first function -- to worship God -- fits easily within the city's definition of a religious institution; the others -- to educate, to serve, to cultivate community -- can be interpreted much more broadly and we do. From the church's perspective, the activities and organizations that share our space and help sustain it are all oriented toward seeking "the welfare of the city." This may not fit precisely what people had in mind when they built this building in 1947, but I believe that many of those wise and creative pioneers would applaud what we are doing with their legacy today. For them, like us, being the church was not about the building but about what one did with gifts one had been given. In gratitude for this building, we seek always to be good and responsible stewards, working to bring about "God's Beloved Community" here in the city of Palo Alto.

That said, it is important to note that we value our neighborhood and our neighbors. We very much want to be a good neighbor. We are aware of the concerns of some of our neighbors about noise, parking and traffic. We share those concerns and are working hard to address them. Consideration of appropriate partners to share our space regularly has included the size and nature of the group along with the noise, parking needs and traffic that will be generated. Given what we have heard from our concerned neighbors, we are quite willing to give additional consideration to those concerns in scheduling further use of the building as well as making changes to the building.

Among the changes are the installation of air-conditioning and double-paned windows in our Fellowship Hall that will significantly mitigate noise; creation of a system for letting neighbors know in advance what is happening in the building; assurance that there is a workable method for neighbors to raise their concerns as they happen; and work with all our partners to create scheduling that will lessen concerns about traffic and parking. Now that the New Mozart School of Music has left the building, iSing Silicon Valley Girlchoir has adjusted its schedule, and the city has created a drop-off zone in front the church, the problems with congestion have been largely alleviated.

We are open to receiving other suggestions for addressing concerns so that we can continue to live in our location as good neighbors for years to come.

Related articles:

First Baptist Church tenants, neighbors seek resolution

Report for April 11 planning-commission meeting on First Baptist's conditional-use application to be used as a community center.

Editorial: Of church and state

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Rick Mixon is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto. He can be reached at pastorfbcpa@gmail.com.

Comments

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2018 at 9:23 am

Thank you for this interview. It is a timely reminder of the fact that we need more in Palo Alto than somewhere to sleep and somewhere to work. The life of a community needs community space and community activity.

I am reminded of the Great Commission. "Go into all the World and preach the Gospel and Lo I am with you Always". One of the last commands of Jesus.

Going into the community of Palo Alto and serving its needs is a good thing for a church body to aspire towards. Preaching the Gospel to those who come is another.

Matthew 28:16-20 New International Version (NIV)
The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”


15 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 11, 2018 at 10:34 am

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

I grew up as a neighbor of First Baptist, and am still a neighbor today. My mother was either the first, or an early, choir director at the church.

I am grateful to Pastor Nixon for writing this column and explaining how the church plans to continue to be a good neighbor of our immediate community.


7 people like this
Posted by long view
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2018 at 11:12 am

long view is a registered user.

I appreciate the honesty and openness of this statement. I appreciate the practicality of a dropoff zone! And I suspect many people within and without First Baptist will enjoy the air conditioning....


9 people like this
Posted by TorreyaMan
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 11, 2018 at 11:57 am

TorreyaMan is a registered user.

Beautifully written! Thank you.


5 people like this
Posted by KrozNest
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 11, 2018 at 3:36 pm

KrozNest is a registered user.

Ditto to all of the comments above. We are nearby neighbors of First Baptist Church and believe that the Church makes real contributions to our town and our neighborhood. We often walk by the Church and enjoy seeing (and hearing) the various activities that go on there. Many thanks for this thoughtful piece.


Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Doiglass
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 11, 2018 at 8:01 pm


When my wife was still alive, we attended the monthly vegetarian/macrobiotic dinners. A lot of vegetarians are followers of Eastern religions, and Pastor Mixon's community is an ecumenical one.
Chop wood, carry water.








7 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 4:27 pm

It would be so great if the pastor and large groups like the Peninsula Macrobiotic Society were telling the truth about their commitment to being good neighbors and about their desire to limit the parking problems they have created.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the website of the Peninsula Macrobiotic Society reveals the truth (peninsulamacro.org). Here's the answer in their FAQs about where paying patrons of their dinners should park:

"Where do I park?

There is ample street parking available. The church is in a quiet residential neighborhood; please be considerate of the neighbors and do not block driveways.

The church requests that you do not park in a church parking space alongside Fellowship Hall, even if open spaces are available."

This direction to clients was astonishing to read, and is one of the many reasons that the neighbors do not trust the church when they say that they care about the impact of their for-profit, non-religious activities on the neighborhood.


4 people like this
Posted by @Mom
a resident of another community
on Apr 15, 2018 at 4:10 pm

Last time I checked, streets are public infrastructure and open to parking so long as you're not blocking a driveway. What's the issue here exactly?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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