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A Refuge in Rockridge: church provides respite from stressful times

on October 2, 2009

College Avenue was bustling back when Emma Fleming, now 89, was a newly married twenty-something.World War II was just over, and people from all over the country were flocking to this thoroughfare in North Oakland, turning the Rockridge neighborhood into a mini-metropolis, she recalls.

Drug stores, hardware stores and clothing shops lined the avenue, and baby strollers crowded sidewalks as young veterans bought property in the area and started families, she remembers.Most of the time, one only had to travel a few blocks away to buy anything they needed, said Fleming, who for years ran a neighborhood print shop with her husband. “You never had to go downtown except to buy furniture,” said Fleming, whose sharp memory makes her seem far younger than her age.

A few decades later, the neighborhood felt less prosperous to Fleming—the arrival of the Highway 24 overpass and Rockridge BART station turned the area into a noisy construction site beginning in the 1960s.  In later years, some families and businesses moved out, and local anxieties about crime increased.  Fleming, who said she was once robbed at gunpoint, continues to be haunted by memories of the incident. “You never sleep easy after that,” she said.

Yet in the middle of this constantly transforming neighborhood, the elegantly designed sanctuary of the College Avenue Presbyterian Church has long been a spiritual base for Fleming and countless others drawn to the serenity of its modest, oak-beamed interior.

“My whole life was, and still is, home, work and church,” Fleming said.

“It’s a refuge, but also a place of getting together with people who will accept you regardless,” added Rev. Anthony Gamley, the interim pastor, while taking a break from work in the church’s office.

Gamley, who was an anti-apartheid activist in his native South Africa, is filling in for Rev. Bill Beatty, the church’s former pastor, who retired in 2007.  The congregation is still seeking a permanent successor.

Longtime members say the church’s founders envisioned College Avenue Presbyterian Church as a community center rather than an exclusive place of worship.  That philosophy can be seen in its understated architecture. Unlike many churches, it has no pinnacles or belfries, instead creating its religious symbolism through a repetition of triangles that make a more subtle reference to the holy trinity—Father, Son and Holy Ghost—of the Christian faith. The design is the work of noted architect Julia Morgan, who drafted plans for Hearst Castle in San Simeon and prominent Oakland landmarks such as the Mills College bell tower and the Chapel of the Chimes.

Rev. Anthony Gamley, the interim pastor of College Avenue Presbyterian Church, takes a break in the church office.

Rev. Anthony Gamley, the interim pastor of College Avenue Presbyterian Church, takes a break in the church office.

Construction of the building finished in 1917, and still amazes longtime church members such as Scott Fossum, an Alameda resident who serves as the church’s facility manger.  Workers did a painstaking job of realizing Morgan’s vision, using oak beams and other materials that give the sanctuary good acoustics and a quality of timelessness, Fossum said. “The way they built things and formed them together is so precise,” he said.

Fossum said the building’s design is just one of the things that helped him put aside his suspicion of organized religion and become a dedicated church member.

Among longtime members, some of the most vivid memories of the church are not of services, but rather activities that drew in people from throughout the community.  During World War II, for example, the church gym often opened up for dances for soldiers on leave in Oakland, and rooms in the church were offered to troops who needed temporary places to stay, according to a church history compiled by members.

Many service members who frequented the church during World War II later returned.  Membership rolls steadily increased in the post-war period, reaching a peak of 500 in 1960, according to the church’s historical records.

Today, even though the Rockridge area is more prosperous than it was during the economically troubled 1970s and 80s, church membership is low.  Gamley said only about ninety people are on its official rolls and that about fifty regularly attend Sunday services.

However, Gamley and longtime members say the smaller crowds during Sunday services are partly made up for by other activities that take place at the church. Athletes rent the gym nearly every night of the week for basketball and other games, voters fill it during elections, and every Friday, members and local volunteers host a popular free meal that draws homeless people from throughout Oakland.  The average attendance is somewhere around one hundred—a crowd that rivals Sunday services and fills volunteer workers with pride.

Oakland resident Trina Anderson, who along with other parents of Piedmont Avenue Elementary School students served food on a recent Friday, said the dinners provide a bridge between Oakland’s poor and the residents of more upscale neighborhoods. “We’re bringing part of our world into theirs,” said Anderson, the mother of a third-grade student.

Recently, the church has also hosted vigils for the missing five-year-old Hassani Campbell, who disappeared in early August.  Campbell’s foster parents, Louis Ross and Jennifer Campbell, say the boy disappeared while Ross was visiting Shuz of Rockridge, just south of the church.  The Oakland Police Department arrested Ross and Campbell August 28 on suspicion of homicide, but the Alameda County District Attorney’s office has declined to press charges, citing lack of evidence.

In the sanctuary of College Avenue Presbyterian Church, a candle burns in honor of Hassani Campbell, a five-year-old boy who went missing in August.

In the sanctuary of College Avenue Presbyterian Church, a candle burns in honor of Hassani Campbell, a five-year-old boy who went missing in August.

Despite the divisiveness of the case, church leaders decided to hold vigils for Hassani that have included Ross and Campbell, as well as neighborhood residents who are concerned about the boy.

Regardless of who is responsible for the boy’s disappearance, said Gamley, family members and other citizens need a place to gather and pray.“It’s a valuable service to the community, and all we had to do was open our doors,” he said.

Albert Hussian, a lifelong church member, said providing refuge to the lonely and troubled is a mission built into the church’s history.  Like many others who have flocked to its doors, Hussian said, Campbell and Ross needed a place where they could reflect on their lives and feel the presence of a higher power. “We need to be here to pray with them, and to make them aware that God is here,” Hussian said.


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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