The Fruitvale Presbyterian Church, which began as a church for orchard workers and farming families back before Fruitvale was part of the city, will hold its final service this Sunday after more than a century in the community. A new congregation, The New Revelation Community Church, will then begin renting the church from the Presbyterian denomination that owns it.
Founded in 1889, on the corner of what is now MacArthur and Coolidge Avenue, Fruitvale Presbyterian initially served as a Sunday school for families who worked in the produce-growing regions of the area. The city of Oakland did not yet reach that far, and the church was established for people who “couldn’t get all the way into the city,” said Abigail King-Kaiser, 29, the pastor who has led Fruitvale Presbyterian for the last 3 years.
King-Kaiser said Fruitvale Presbyterian is closing because of declining membership. The decision was made by what the faith calls a “discernment process,” culminating in a
21-6 vote by the congregation.
“We have about 50 members,” King-Kaiser said, adding that about 30 attend services weekly. Many of the members plan to join other Presbyterian churches in the neighborhood, she said.
The incoming congregation, led by Pastor Donna Allen, is “radically inclusive,” according to the new pastor’s website. Allen was part of the “Interfaith” group involved in Occupy Oakland. The new congregation plans to continue the former church’s free meal program from the church kitchen, King-Kaiser said.
In her final newsletter, King-Kaiser detailed some of the church’s highlights over the years. During one Easter service, she wrote, a dove was sitting on its eggs in a nest beside the church bell, so it was decided that the bell would not ring that Sunday, to avoid disturbing the dove. A photo captioned “Easter Bells Silent for Dove of Peace” was sent to the Oakland Tribune and found its way to news outlets around the world, including the Jerusalem Post.
Caroline Yee, who has attended Fruitvale Presbyterian for more than ten years, said it was King-Kaiser’s creativity that Yee most appreciated. “She brought energy that was creative,” Yee said. “The services often had insight into the art world, and she made it visually inviting,” through encouraging participants to draw and paint.
“For example,” Yee said, “when we were talking about faith one Sunday, or the Holy Spirit, she had us draw things we could see and things we couldn’t see. And she made an analogy that the spirit, sometimes it’s there, like the wind. We could feel it, but we can’t exactly— can’t get our hands on it.”
In fact, as a pastor at Fruitvale Presbyterian, King-Kaiser was expected to bring in a new approach to the church, King-Kaiser said. As an artist and painter, she said, she encouraged people to visualize many of the concepts of the Bible through drawing their vision of God.
King-Kaiser also facilitated a weekly youth gathering at a nearby Peet’s Coffee, and worked to increase participation from the younger generation by learning the needs and goals of the youth.
Yee said she saw the closure of their church as an opportunity for new beginnings. “God hasn’t left us behind,” she said, “there is just another journey that we’re headed for, and another adventure.”
In the past four months King-Kaiser has helped members integrate into other congregations. They visited various churches in the community and also invited groups to their church to facilitate a smooth transition for Fruitvale Presbyterian members.
The pastor said they “were trying to be intentional about both leaving a legacy and making a healthy transition, so that it is about new life and not about closure.”
Fruitvale Presbyterian grew and evolved with Oakland, over its many decades. Initially it served German immigrants. Then, starting in the 1960’s, the Dimond district’s African America population grew. Later the church became a popular destination for Cambodians. Over time a gym was added, and the church began to serve as a community center. There were few areas for youth to engage in sports elsewhere in the Dimond District.
“What’s interesting about the history of the church is the way that it kind of reflects Oakland’s development,” King-Kaiser said.
Especially effective, she said, was the church’s role during the 1980′s arrival of Cambodian refugees. Fruitvale Presbyterian reached out to them and supplied language and integration programs for the children. She said the church became the place where Cambodians could connect and feel supported during their transition to the United States.
But in recent years, King-Kaiser said, the church has struggled to redefine itself to meet the needs of the community.
Adapting to the needs of a plethora of ethnicities can be a challenge, King-Kaiser said. “Churches are like people,” she said. “They have life cycles, and there are only so many times that churches can make major, major shifts.” She said the future of many churches in the Bay Area will likely depend on their ability to create their own identity rather than depend on that of their denomination.
“Many of these churches that have this long sweeping history don’t have a sense of identity anymore because they have changed so many times,” she said.
The Fruitvale Presbyterian congregation will host two closing events: One, with a dessert reception on Saturday at 2:00 pm and a final worship service on Sunday at 11 am. Everyone is welcome to attend. The day’s focus, King-Kaiser said, will be on new beginnings.
“If we believe in a God that brings new life,” she said, “then the answer is that this is a step in a process.”
correction: An earlier edition of this story reported, incorrectly, that the decision to close Fruitvale was made by the national Presbyterian denomination as well as the church congregation. Oakland North regrets the error.