Click here to see photos from the anniversary celebration
It was October 14, 1989. A new community of faith met for its first service. The scripture for the initial sermon mentioned “love” fourteen times. And that foundation continues to guide mission and ministry.
Walnut Hills United Methodist Church celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary on Sunday, October 26, 2014.
Those in the overflowing sanctuary spoke with one voice, to a “loving and compassionate God.” “Today,” they said, “we give thanks to you for your goodness through all the years of worship and witness in this place. For your grace and calling us to be your people, we are love revealed to us in Jesus and all your saints, for your gift of Spirit and the joys of community and service.” The generations gathered for church in Urbandale was grateful “for those with established this conversation, for their faith and vision, for their gifts and abilities… for all who have been members of the starvation, For those who have given freely other time and money, for those whose wisdom guided our congregation… for all have preached until here; or also found faith or grow in faith here; for all who today offer their prayers, presents, gifts, service and witness. “Today,” they continued, “we celebrate…25 years remembering our past looking to the future, we offer ourselves to live lives of love and justice.”
Avon Crawford remembered the beginnings. “We met in the Western Hills Elementary School. We brought a trailer that had everything – chairs, music stands, altar cloths, the cross, cribs, and toys.” There was church and fellowship time, afterwards. “And then we had to tear everything down afterwards, only set it up again the next Sunday.”
The first service was a memorable one, Crawford noted. “Gene and I were in the cafeteria making the coffee. About ten minutes before the service was to begin we opened the door that went to the gym and saw about twenty people, scattered about in the 350 chairs that were set up; people weren’t sitting together – two here, five there, scattered everywhere.”
“We went back to the cafeteria and we paced and we paced and we paced. About two minutes before the service was set to start. Gene pulled up the Venetian blinds and looked out…there were so many people that they all couldn’t get into the school at one time. They were down the sidewalk and across the driveway and out into the parking lot waiting to get in to church, to a small church.”
Rev. Koth said, “We put that message (of love for everyone) out and people came.” Was he surprised at the first Sunday’s large attendance? “Oh my,” he added. “Usually we start churches with about fifteen people…and then we get twenty. We think we really got something when we get 50 people. We built a building based on faith. We put up a sanctuary that seats four hundred. We did that way before we had 400 in worship.”
For current pastor, Rev. Dr. Denny Coon, the power of unconditional love that shaped Rev. Koth’s first sermon at Walnut Hills continues to form the congregation twenty-five years later. “It’s powerful. I asked him this past week what scripture he used. I had selected the ‘love your neighbor’ passage for this morning (the celebration service). When he told me that…I just had a wedding recently where I used that (same scripture). I went back and noticed that love is mentioned fourteen times in six verses…the same love that Jesus used. Gene said that…he set the bar for how this church was going to identify themselves, this merciful love and the giving of ourselves. That’s reinforced in the Good Samaritan story. It was a really powerful moment when I learned the scripture that he had used and how that laid out the last twenty-five years.”
It continues to shape even the young ones of the church. “The Stewardship Committee decided to have a pretty ambitious goal of raising $200,000,” Rev. Coon reported. “We’ve been working hard on that. We sent out commitment cards. This past week I learned that we had a nine year-old girl who filled out a commitment card. Her participation, her contribution…seems to me that her faith was being formed by this church. Her gift – she just received her “third grade Bible” this year – was very powerful, very heartwarming.”
The all-welcoming love that inspired the first sermon, twenty-five years ago, is expressed in another intentional commitment. Christy Brown spoke about the decision to intentionally express that the Walnut Hills congregation welcomes all persons. “This journey began eight years ago. For three years we informed our congregation of what this meant. Then five years ago we became a reconciling congregation.”
“What this means,” Brown explained, “is that we are an open and affirming congregation. Our doors and our hearts are fully open to members of the LGBTQ community. While the official stance of the United Methodist Church is ‘homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,’ this congregation, along with hundreds of others across the nation, chose to be fully welcoming of our gay neighbors and friends…that was a huge step.”
The impact is clear. Brown said, “We will never hear words from our pulpit or ethical interpretations that include any discrimination or judgment of our gay sisters and brothers. By making this point we are truly following the teachings and the life of Jesus.”
Over twenty-five years an idea to gather faith community in the “open country” area of western Urbandale, to making 25,000 calls before the first service, to visiting people where they were-in homes, at work, in restaurants – to establishing a relationship with a Latino community in San Antonio, to partnering with Burns United Methodist Church in Des Moines, to receiving a cross cut from a beam of one of the fallen towers of the World Trade Center and fashioning it into a baptismal font and symbol of life, to intentionally expressing a commitment to be open and affirming of all persons, to engaging in a “healthy church initiative,” Walnut Hills United Methodist Church is “A place to call home, where all are welcome, nourished spiritually, and sent forth to serve.”
Looking out at all the people the Rev. Gene Koth, Walnut Hills’ founding pastor confessed, “I never dreamed that this would be the outcome of our efforts. We just wanted to grow a church. I wanted to introduce them to an understanding of the church that was unique and special.”
*Written by Dr. Arthur McClanahan, Director of Communications