50-year-old church changes with times
By Kelly Ettenborough 
(An article from The Arizona Republic, Dec 7, 2001)
Used by permission
       Fifty years ago, members of the first children's Sunday school classes at Westminster Presbyterian Church gathered to study in a Laundromat.

     Dorothy Nelson, the member with the longest tenure at the church, remembers pushing back Maytag washing machines and putting down a rug.  One mother would bring a playpen so there would be a crib for babies.

     Other classes were in a radio shop, and worship services were in an empty building in the strip center at 19th Avenue and Indian School Road.

     The Phoenix church, now on 19th Avenue just south of Camelback Road, was in the suburbs then.  Young families, many of the husbands fresh from World War II, purchased homes in the area for $8,000, and in 1951 they started a church.

     "At the time it started, Phoenix had not grown out to us," said Nelson, 78, and a Phoenix native.  She and her husband, Jerry, raised four children in the church.

     "We were in the country, in a perimeter of the city of Phoenix," she said.  "There were many new families and new homes.  We all wanted them to grow up in a church atmosphere, and Westminster was the neighborhood church there.  It was really a second home."

     The wives stayed home and raised the children and ran the Sunday school classes and the women's groups.  Many of the men helped construct the church building.

     But the children grew up and moved away.  Today, many of those second and third generations live in Phoenix's new suburbs where they attend churches in their own neighborhoods.

     But everyone is being invited back to a homecoming reunion service and potluck on Sunday.

     The homecoming service will be on the actual day of the church's 50th anniversary at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the church, 4735 N. 19th Ave. Sunday school classes are at 9:15 a.m.

     The church's average attendance is about 75 today, and fewer children are there.  The church peaked at about 800 members in the mid-1960s.  The church did not suffer any acrimonious split over the years, the pastor said.

     "The movement from this part of the city was more northwest, Glendale, Peoria and Sun City," the Rev. Gale Watkins said.  "That requires a church like ours to redefine our reach.  There's a newer population.  We've got people here from all over the world in our neighborhood:  Bosnian, Somalis, Vietnamese and Hispanic."

     An independent Spanish speaking church, Christian Fraternity, uses the facilities three times a week.  The Valley's Korean churches occasionally have joint revival meetings there.

     In redefining their mission, church members realized that the verse on the church's cornerstone from 1965 remains their purpose.  Isaiah 58:7 says, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

     That just means something different today.  Church members are focusing on prayer and outreach, and the church has set up a prayer room, where people come every day to pray for everything from personal needs to neighborhood needs to world concerns.

     "We want people to know that in their neighborhood there is a church praying for them," Watkins said.

     About 200 invitations were sent out for the homecoming.  One Virginia man, the son of the family who owned the Laundromat, sent the church many old photos for the history booklet and archives.  He's flying out for the reunion services.  His parents have died.

     The meaning of Westminster has changed for Nelson and some of the other longtime members now that families have moved away and the church is mostly retirees.

     "Now it provides a stability in a changing society," Nelson said.  "It's a place where I still have friends.  It's someplace where people know me and I know them."

     But members are excited about celebrating the past and planning for the future.  Although they don't know how many will come to the homecoming and potluck, they are bringing lots of food.

Reach the reporter at kelly.ettenborough@arizonarepublic.com

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