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Transition: Grace North Church Heritage

Grace North Church (GNC), as it is known today, has over its history been formed from members with a variety of needs and beliefs, who encountered the congregation in different ways. It has a long history of being a non-creedal church, structured around how the community covenants to walk together rather than a common dogma or belief. This comes from its history previously as North Congregational Church (founded in 1892 in this location) and from the members of the Grace Institute of Religious Learning.

One branch of its history comes from the peoples who gathered as the North Congregational Church of Berkeley in 1892. That was the name of the community for 100 years, and for most of that century it was a stable, flourishing, mainline Protestant congregation, composed as far as can be determined, of middle- and upper-middle-class, white people. The purposes for which the church gathered are documented and common to American Protestantism – perpetuation of the Christian narrative of human life and endeavor in accordance with Biblical tradition, betterment of the wider community, charitable works, and spiritual nurture and teaching of youth and adults. By and large the congregation lived into those purposes and grew in size and stature, and built or expanded several times. The church was financially stable and provided a parsonage for the minister.

The church experienced the 1970-1990s decline in membership and finances characteristic of American Protestantism in that period. In 1992, in the congregation's 100th year, the leadership decided that the time had come to disband the shrinking congregation. This would become an inflection point for what would become the evolution of Grace North Church.

Almost simultaneously, another group of individuals in Berkeley had formed together as the Grace Institute for Religious learning. This was a group which, for its own reasons of internal conflict, needed a new home. The Grace Institute, which was led by Fr. Richard Mapplebeckpalmer), was composed of some members from St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley and met as renters at the Cedar Street building. A developing relationship with Fr. Mapplebeckpalmer led to an injection of life and energy into North Congregational Church, and fairly quickly the remnant of North Congregational and the Grace Institute grew closer and merged. When the congregation determined to re-incorporate itself in 1995, it did so as Grace North Church, to offer homage to both groups.

At its founding, North Congregational Church was part of the national Congregational Church with New England roots. The Congregational Church merged with the Christian Church (with roots in 19th century frontier America) in 1932, becoming the Congregational Christian Church. This denomination, in turn, merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in America (with German roots) in 1957, forming the United Church of Christ (UCC). All of this was part of the international 20th century movement toward ecumenism. As required by congregational polity, North Congregational voted itself into the UCC in 1960. In 1968, the church left the UCC over members' dissension around what was perceived to be the UCC's overinvolvement in social and political issues, primarily the Vietnam war. At that time, the church affiliated with the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC) composed of churches which had refused initially to join, or had later left, the UCC union, though the two denominations share the same deeply held values of covenant, local autonomy and a non-creedal theological stance.

With the disbanding of North Congregational Church, the church's assets were ceded to the NACCC. In 1998, Grace North Church was determined to be the logical and legal successor of the North Congregational assets and resumed the title to its property.

Historically the lay leadership of North Congregation Church was male, as was its pastoral leadership, aside from the “women’s fellowship”. That was a standard fixture of the churches in the 20th century. This was its demographic, or "social location." The called pastors over this period rotated with surprising frequency (every 2-4 years vis a vis a more "average" 5-8 years). The influence of the Grace Institute in expanding the view of leadership and the role of other religious traditions in the congregation’s covenantal walk. However, with the exception of a short period in later years, in 2013, the church has never engaged a female pastor, though they consistently welcomed female voices in preaching and worship leadership for many years.

Pastoral leadership in the 1990s and early 2000s was provided by Fr. Richard, who had arrived from St. Clement's with the Grace Institute group, and Rev. John Mabry, ordained in the Old Catholic tradition. Pastor John first worshiped with the congregation in 1994 prior to becoming its associate pastor. From their joint leadership emerged the distinctly Anglican style of liturgy which continues today. Both also fostered interest in other faith traditions and included them in worship and teaching. Other unique aspects of the life and ministry of the church also emerged – notably the development of a regular service incorporating a labyrinth walk, the study of mysticism, and an intentional welcome for animals in worship. In the early 2000s, the musical aspect of Grace North's worship also evolved from strictly classical hymnody to include more contemporary offerings– folk music, original compositions, and chants with an emphasis on interaction and active participation.

During this same period, GNC was nurtured in ministry by a handful of long-time, devoted members, many of whom are now aging or deceased, and those from the ever-shifting student and faculty population of Berkeley. This group included those connected with the University of California, the Graduate Theological Union, and the Chaplaincy Institute (ChI). The church drew a particular cohort from the GTU resulting in recognition of our charism for pastoral formation, particularly with Pastor John. Joining in our midst were seminarians and other seekers who needed a "home," for nurture, discernment, or respite from wounds inflicted by religion. Some were musicians who brought their gifts to our growing music eclecticism. Several came to do their required field education year with us. They were afforded opportunities to preach, teach, and learn among us. Some became Members in Discernment in the UCC’s denominational process, and we eventually hosted several ordinations.

During its time as North Congregational Church, stability was a hallmark of the congregation's experience, as was common in many churches of the time. Even when nearly half of the parishioners of North Congregational Church lost their homes in the major Berkeley fire of 1923, the church itself escaped damage and assisted in the return to stability. In the life of Grace North Church, however, for many their experience was a transient connection; for some it has been more permanent. Indeed, a trend in American life is at play; people feel less need or desire to affiliate with institutions, and churches have not been immune to that.

With time, it has become more difficult to ascertain who is a formal, "official" member of GNC. The church does not conduct a formal process to become a member or maintain a definitive list, though certainly a core group would claim formal membership. The congregation is privileged today to have a number of ordained clergy in its midst, all of whom preach occasionally and provide varied perspectives on faith and life. GNC continues to take pride in its uniqueness – progressive social stances and commitment to individual spiritual autonomy of belief, alongside its traditional liturgy.

Unable to sustain maintenance on the Cedar Street building (which was declared a Berkeley historic landmark in 1999), Grace North sold the property to Christ Church of the East Bay in 2010, carrying the mortgage note for Christ Church and entering into a use agreement whereby GNC could access space to hold worship and limited other events, and have a small office. Additional changes to the congregation included the retirement of Fr. Richard in 2008, and the retirement of Pastor John in 2021. Also, while the congregation has maintained its affiliation with the NACCC, in 2011 they voted to rejoin the UCC and are dually aligned.

Due to the public health emergency starting in 2020, the congregation has not physically gathered at the building for any events and has, rather, conducted worship and meetings in online space, utilizing technology which would never have been available to the congregation in the past. The existing emphasis on interaction and active participation has continued in the digital environment, avoiding a passive “TV Church” experience. In this way, they are part of "current times" and the reality has encouraged people from locations distant from Berkeley to participate. Church members have contributed energy, ideas and support to the work of this "pivot" in our being. It has, however, been a real ache in the hearts of those who feel attachment to the building and memories of the congregation’s life together in it.

Over time, and in line with the continuing dynamic of organized religion across the United States, the membership and financial well-being of GNC has continued to shrink. The membership does not sustain the church's budget in donations and pledges. While records show that the "claimed" membership and attendance has been about 40, reality is that it is in the high teens or twenties. Necessary expenses are met by the monthly note payments from Christ Church. Should GNC ever call the note, the congregation stands to gain substantially but with that would possibly come with all of the issues of building ownership again.

Grace North Church is overseen by a Board of Trustees and currently has several regularly functioning small groups for prayer, bible study, and shared interests. The church currently has an interim minister, Rev. Kevin Omi, as it assesses its future including the possible calling of a new settled minister. The congregation is a member of the Bay Association of the Northern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ, and as such, has complete autonomy in its own affairs. It also retains affiliation with the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Its financial contributions to the support of either denomination are minimal.

Every church likes to think it is special or "different," and while Grace North may have taken pride in terming itself "quirky," it has never been immune from the larger trends at play in society and religion. The congregation engaged in a successful and well-received visioning process in 2015 which resulted in the following statement:

Grace North Church is a community of people learning to love,

where animals are welcome,

and healing happens.

We deepen our understanding of Christianity

by learning from other traditions.

We strive for a width of belief and welcome

and a depth of tradition and practice.

What remains to be ascertained is the degree to which this vision continues to speak to, and for, the church at this time.

The larger life of Grace North Church is marked by two parallel themes: the blessing of healing, which has already been mentioned several times in this narrative, and the pain of trauma. Healing has been known by individuals through their own experiences of care and inclusion at GNC. The community itself has experienced healing in its ability to pull together to work collaboratively and overcome unforeseen challenges to the ministry. We inherited the trauma experienced by the Grace Institute, but undoubtedly participated in their healing. In addition to personal griefs and losses, some challenges represented trauma to the entire community – notably in recent years the death of treasured members, the loss of the building, and the retirement of Pastor John, and the challenges of carrying out ministry during the pandemic.

--presented January 26, 2022

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