Danville Express

Living - October 19, 2007

Acting the faith

Methodist church celebrating 50 years of praying, loving - and thinking

by Natalie O'Neill

A thinking church. That's what Pastor Heather Hammer calls her place of worship.

Some say faith and reason are like oil and water. But San Ramon Valley United Methodist Church - an Alamo congregation that's turning 50 years old this year - is mixing the two.

The church isn't a place where you're told what to believe. It's a place where you're encouraged to use your mind to better understand God, said Hammer.

"Theologically we are progressive. We believe people worship God in different ways," she said.

What started as a gathering of 33 at the San Ramon Valley Mortuary has grown into a meeting place where 1,200 members ask questions and have discussions about religion and society.

"There are some churches where people go and if they disagree they leave," Hammer said. "But in order to live well together, we must talk - the dialogue is critical."

Exploring different cultures and creeds is one way to understand and love one's neighbor and the world at large, she noted. This has prompted pastors to give sermons on subjects like bridging the gap between Muslims and Christians - and in some cases - even Christians and Christians.

Subject matter like this sometimes fuels disagreement among church members, but leaders believe it should be a place where conversation and communication are welcome. A wide range of political and social views among church-goers help them better understand each other and the world around them, she said.

"It causes us to look beyond ourselves," she explained.

Originally, the congregation was an extension of a Methodist church in Walnut Creek. The San Ramon Valley Church was founded in July 1957 because the bishop saw the need for a Methodist community in the Danville-Alamo area. The first ceremony was held in a funeral home on Front Street and they also held a Sunday school for 66 children at Lynn School.

One year later the church moved to its present site on Danville Boulevard and the sanctuary was built in 1961.

"We were a very loving church and I think our spirit was contagious," said Daphne Kimbell, an original member, who remembers having to set up before and clean up after the tiny gatherings.

Kimbell said she can recall the ad hoc worship sessions at their beginning stages, when one charter member accidentally ran Sunday's cash donations through the washing machine. She laughed recalling that they hung all the dollar bills on a clothesline to dry.

About 20 years after the church was founded, members began an Experiment in Practical Christianity, a 12-week commitment in which church-goers studied how to best apply the teachings of Jesus to their day-to-day lives.

Today, the church practices a similar "thinkers" philosophy.

For example, book groups through the church focus on combining faith with present day social issues. The group just read "The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and the Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected Unhappy Kids."

After reading the book, the group began analyzing how pressure from parents affects youths, why there is a lack of quality family time and how to use religion to prioritize what really matters.

"The pressure to succeed is so heavily pushed on kids ... Families have very little relaxed time together," said Hammer, 57, who quit her job teaching English and became a pastor after her son died.

Hammer finds that changes in one's life - like the one she endured - are often the catalyst for acquainting or reacquainting oneself with God. New members often join during two major events in life - births and deaths.

With the birth of their firstborn, families tend to reprioritize religion, Hammer said.

"Young couples want their children to grow up seeing the value of being connected to the church," she said.

Similarly, people turn to the church in times of need, like death, sickness and hardship. A caring positive community helps these members know they are not alone in their trials.

A youth group program, Sunday school, volunteer-abroad opportunities, performances and meetings - including Alcoholic's Anonymous - at its John Wesley Center are other resources the church has to offer.

Church members have also joined together to help people build homes in Mexico and for hurricane relief in Mississippi. Here in the East Bay, they work with Loaves and Fishes and the Salinas Hispanic Fellowship in Richmond.

"The idea is that we act on our faith - that your life is changed because you believe a certain thing," Hammer said.


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