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First United Methodist Church to celebrate 125th anniversary

Starting with 24 people, the Palo Alto church grew to seat more than 1,000. It's still building community in new ways.

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto at its present location at 625 Hamilton Ave. Berkeley architect Carlton Arthur Steiner, designed the modern, 1,050-person-capacity church, which was completed in 1963. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto.

One of Palo Alto's oldest churches will celebrate its 125th anniversary this Sunday, Nov. 17, with a special service and festivities that include a Tongan brass band, Tongan and Fijian singers, speakers and a luau in the fellowship hall.

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto was founded in 1894, the same year the city of Palo Alto was incorporated. Once a tiny congregation of just 24 people, its members met for Sunday services in Nortree Hall, a meeting room above a store at 340 University Ave. Their first church was a picturesque redwood building serving 58 members on donated land located on the current site at Hamilton Avenue and Webster Street.

By the early 1960s, its congregation outgrew two churches and multiple additions, then built a futuristic-looking, grand sanctuary at 625 Hamilton Ave., capable of seating more than 1,000, which is still in use.

The 1,050-person-capacity church was designed in the 1960s by Berkeley architect Carlton Arthur Steiner. The church's distinctive triangular-shaped, concrete roof panels contain 1,500 brilliantly hued small glass inserts that create a shimmering interior of light and color.

The church has transformed its mission along the way. The original founders came together to form a camaraderie. "They wanted a place where people could come and form community. A lot of people had moved away from their (hometowns) and wanted to form a family in Palo Alto," the Rev. Debra Murray said. But the church has continued to widen its mission to encompass social justice; service in Africa and Tonga; advocacy for immigrants and those who are homeless; and opening its doors to all genders, among other initiatives.

Led at one point by the Rev. Bob Olmstead, a civil rights activist, First United has had a long history of partnerships in East Palo Alto, including the nonprofit Ecumenical Hunger Program. The church donates food to Palo Alto's Downtown Streets Team food closet and hosts Hotel DeZink, a rotating homeless shelter. This year, its members created 20,000 meal kits sent to programs feeding the hungry around the world.

In 2020, a major initiative will expand the SEEDS ministry to partner with Sony, private foundations, Stanford University campus ministries, local churches and synagogues.

"Specifically, as part of this process, we want to do our part to help end youth homelessness," Murray said. By providing outreach care, the SEEDS outreach team fosters a connection which facilitates trust to build long-term relationships with these youth."

First United is also dedicated to accepting all people. Since April 2000, the church has been a "reconciling congregation" and adopted a covenant of inclusiveness that is welcoming and supportive of the LGBTQ community, Murray said.

Looking forward, Murray said the church, which now has 250 members, is encountering an aging population. The last two generations of young people have not been coming to church, she said. Murray continues to place her focus on the church's motto: "Transforming the current age through faith, love and justice." She envisions the church will expand inclusiveness by empowering marginalized groups and giving them a voice, she said.

"How do we become relevant? That's by really forming connections in the community," she said.

In Silicon Valley, people have little time between family and work, so the church has sought ways for people to participate in unconventional ways. The church offers video conferencing for small groups to maintain spiritual and social connections, where members can attend Bible study, for example, she said.

Murray also said the church provides smaller circles or spaces for members to unify around goals and missions, such as the environment, social justice (including mass incarceration of immigrants) and empowering and welcoming LBGTQ youth.

First United also has a strong connection with the Tongan and Fijian communities. The church has helped build schools in Tonga and hosted cultural-exploration events for Tongan youth, Murray said. It also provides space for a Tongan church and pastor. A monthly joint service with the Tongan church members incorporates aspects of Tongan culture, such as fine mats used on the floors and singing within the congregation rather than the choir, she said.

In 2020, the church plans to extend its outreach, creating spaces for youth with events such as a gay and queer prom.

"A lot of parents and friends said they want to come. We're focusing on creating spaces for everyone to have a voice for advocacy and justice," she said.

The 125th anniversary celebration on Sunday at the church, located at 625 Hamilton Ave., is open to all. The event will begin with a service at 3 p.m., followed by a luau in the fellowship hall.

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