When one church door closes...

2013-01-07 10:56:58
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BARSTOW • Rev. Felix Villanueva gave the sermon, calling the day "a bittersweet occasion," as about 40 members gathered to commemorate the life of the First Congregational United Church of Christ Saturday.

After 111 years of service, the church will be officially sold no later than June 1 to a Hispanic Pentecostal congregation from Riverside, ending its run as the oldest organized church in Barstow.

"It’s not really suited to what we need right now," said Jeri Lyn Randolph, chairwoman of the church’s council, noting the discrepancy between its large size and their smaller group of worshippers. However, Randolph wants it to be known that while the building is being sold, the congregation is more than its wood, paint and plaster, and services will continue under the name DesertRising once they officially get a new location locked down.

Founded in 1901, the First Congregational UCC Church was the first organized church in Barstow and became a part of the Congregational denomination in the 1920s. It's been home to countless Sunday services, youth bible classes, weddings and funerals.

"It’s really kind of sad," Martha Manzanares said. "I was married in this church."

So, too, was Maria A. Flores-Saens, in 1961. In fact, she, Manzanares and two other women in attendance were all part of the Barstow High graduating class of 1952.

"It’s hard to part," Flores-Saens said. "You have to realize much of the congregation has diminished." She spoke of a time when the church hosted regulars like police chiefs, mayors and other prominent members of the community such as Ray Langworthy — the namesake of the BHS football field.

“Anybody who was anybody, came here,” she said. “It was the place.”

During Saturday's service, members were given the opportunity to go up to the front and tell their fondest memories. At least half were near tears.

"I thought it was a good idea to say, ‘yes, we’re too small to keep this up,’" said Barbara Moore, former president of the woman’s fellowship at the church and a member for more than 30 years.

Rev. Sheri Lea Randolph was optimistic about their future.

“It’s exciting, it’s a challenge,” she said. “We’ll see how the transformation goes.”

As members entered the church, they were given sheet music with lyrics to a song entitled, "We Are the Church." Its first verse may have best summed up the mood of most in attendance: "The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is a people."

The First Congregational UCC Church will continue to serve its members at 220 N. Second St. until June 1 or when notice is given.

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