First Presbyterian growing its community connections

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Photo by Millie Emery

Those helping organize First Presbyterian’s 185th celebration include Ashton Veramallay, Pastor LydiaGrace Quine-Espiritu Gray, Youth Director Jon Richwine and Debbie Tipton. Other committee members not present are Vi Thompson and Vicki Wilson.

185th anniversary celebration set for Sunday

A church celebrating its 185th anniversary this Sunday continues finding new hands-on ways to serve the community with a relatively new pastor.
First Presbyterian Church welcomes former members and attenders, as well as any interested residents, to join the gathering at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at 100 N. 10th St. in Richmond. They intend to celebrate both the church’s history and its possibilities, and enjoy some cake, too.

History at a glance
First Presbyterian opened Nov. 15, 1837, in the first block of South Fourth Street with 40 people, and by 1854 the congregation needed more space, moving to South Eighth Street.
However, that location burned after an 1885 lightning strike.
Current Pastor LydiaGrace Quine-Espiritu Gray noted that the fire “proved the church is not the church – it is the people.”
Leaders had to decide whether to rebuild on site or create a new home. They chose to build at North 10th and A, and the church was dedicated in 1887, so the church is also celebrating 135 years in its sanctuary.
First Presbyterian’s membership peaked in the city’s 1950s industrial and baby boom. Because more than 400 children were attending Sunday School, an addition was built in 1958.
In recent years, other churches have merged with First Presbyterian – Second Presbyterian, Earlham Heights and Reid Presbyterian – and their members have assimilated into leadership roles.
First and Reid churches, a block away, joined for activities over the years. For instance, both were founding members of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, which has built more than 100 houses.
First Presbyterian leaders are grateful their neighbor is finding new life as Reid Center where concerts and other events are being offered. While Reid is known for its extensive Tiffany windows, some might not realize First Presbyterian also has a large Tiffany window.

Community outreach
First Presbyterian partners with a variety of local organizations and churches to offer social services.
“God has used this church to flow a lot of good into this community,” Youth Director Jon Richwine said.
Bridges for Life, a non-profit that started in 2019, moved into First Presbyterian last year. It offers free restaurant-style meals at 6 p.m. Fridays called “Dinner at the Lamp” for anyone seeking food and fellowship.
Bridges for Life also offers individualized coaching to connect residents with resources for education, physical and mental health, personal finance and relationships such as marriage, parenting and life skills.
Gray said it’s fun to see what that organization is doing to make a difference in the community.
In addition to welcoming Bridges for Life, First Presbyterian also has served as a host for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for many years.
Members coordinate an ecumenical GriefShare group with First English Lutheran, and the congregation supports efforts such as Community Food Pantry, Dwyer Community Center and Open Arms Ministry to provide direct social service aid to residents.
COVID put a damper on some other partnerships, such as a joint Bible school with First Baptist, and Christian Charities’ Backpack Blessings program to feed kids on weekends, but Circle U Help Center and Communities in Schools have since taken on that project.
Gray became pastor in April 2021, taking the reins from interim pastor Ron Naylor. Naylor filled in after the retirement of David Layman, who joined the church in 1988.
First Presbyterian leaders say Layman is considered the founding father of Hope House, a faith-based addiction treatment and homeless shelter for men that the church has supported.
Anniversary committee members were hopeful that Layman could attend the celebration, but the 74-year-old Noblesville resident died in June.
What might be surprising about the church’s pastoral transition is that Gray didn’t intentionally move to Richmond for her current job.
Gray, who had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and served as a chaplain, had never led a church before and didn’t plan to take on a pastoral role right away. She intended to be a stay-at-home mom for her newborn.
However, she was led to apply after discovering the church’s culture of community service and her belief the church needed someone for its transition who could be gentle while offering a vision for the future. She was unanimously approved by the congregation.
Some of the church’s efforts are global. A couple of examples: The church’s children already have started packing 100 shoeboxes with small Christmas gifts, distributed by Samaritan’s Purse. They also provide scholarship dollars for a Thailand seminary training pastors for Vietnam and Cambodia.
Elder Debbie Tipton, who grew up in Centerville and later moved to Liberty, was drawn to the church in 2012 because of its people, which she calls a “caring, welcoming church family,” and Ashton Veramallay, a deacon, agreed that it’s a “loving and caring church.”

Celebration
Some might wonder why the church is focusing on its 185th anniversary for a reunion. Committee members say they believe it’s a good time to intentionally gather after so much time apart during the COVID pandemic.
The church began livestreaming services during COVID, and is continuing to do so to spread its message of hope, staying in touch with former members across the country and residents who still are taking precautions.
Organizers aim to remember Laymon’s pastoral legacy while recognizing the gifts and talents of the current congregation and what it can accomplish in the future.
Gray said she identifies with the church’s mission of glorifying and enjoying God, and believes it’s important to take time to have joy while getting through its grieving.
Ron Naylor, who served as interim pastor, will deliver the day’s sermon, and former pastor Barb Kenley, who now lives near Lafayette, is planning to attend. Former pastor and Richmond native Rick McGuire has supplied a letter for the children’s message.
For those who miss the 185th anniversary celebration, the church invites the community to join any of its Sunday services, which will include a Nov. 20 tribute to the church’s Scottish roots for St. Andrews Day, complete with plaid clothing and bagpipe music.

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