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God’s pioneers

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

– Matthew, 11:28






For 82 years, those words have comforted Sibley Hansen.

It’s the first thing she sees upon entrance to Grass Valley’s United Methodist Church, where a stained-glass portal of the scripture’s author presides over the flock, providing comfort and assurance of his presence.

Hansen doesn’t remember a life without the sanctuary, nestled in among other houses of worship on Church Street.

It’s where her great-grandparents worshiped, where Hansen was baptized in 1920, and where the former Sibley Vennallack and her husband, Arlie Hansen, brought their four children every Sunday.

And that’s where she’ll be Sunday, as the church celebrates 150 years of worship.

“It’s just something I’ve always done,” she said recently. “I don’t feel like it’s an obligation at all. I feel blessed.”

In many ways, the church’s maturation after a century and a half mirrors that of Grass Valley’s: its transformation from mining town to a melting pot of senior citizens, high-tech workers, artists and yes, a few who still make their living prospecting.

No longer do the men wear shirtwaists, wool slacks and dress whites, their hair neatly coiffed and beards shaved clean by a razor’s edge, and their wives are no longer outfitted in wool petticoats and floor-length dresses, as when they prepared for the sermon delivered by Indiana transplant Isaac Owen.

The young man gave his first sermon on Sept. 23, 1849, ringed by wagons as the pastor pushed his cane into the dirt and placed his hat atop it, forming a makeshift pulpit.

The sermons today are delivered in a conversational manner, doctrine often interspersed with prayers for loved ones as a microphone is passed. Presentations by a red-robed hand-bell choir are often followed by a potluck lunch where followers gather to share good tidings and food. Often, night meetings center around donations to the Interfaith Food Ministry or missionary moments.

The church, bedecked with stained-glass memorials, is like the center of the city itself, largely made up of those who have been living nearby for generations. They are a faithful, mostly graying lot with a common thread: their love of the Lord.

“What I experience here is that this is a church that has rich traditions,” said the Rev. Barbara Smith. “There are people here who have been Christians for a long time and are mature in their faith. Many members that have been in the community a long time had grandparents and great-grandparents that were in some way involved in this church.”

That’s true of people like Sibley Hansen, whose late husband, Arlie, was well-known in these parts as one of two founders of the Hansen Brothers construction and rental equipment business.

It’s also true for Gwen Rood, who was baptized at the church 81 years ago and later left with husband, the late county Supervisor Eric Rood, when they went overseas to Germany and later moved to Oakland. She returned to her roots several decades ago.

“It’s something I miss if I don’t go,” she said, remarking that many of the faithful have become like brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. “I feel like I’m a part of history. It’s something that’s a part of my life, and I’m always expecting to see my family there.”

As their “family” has grown, so has the church. The original Methodist Episcopal Church, “bowed to fire fiend” as the Morning Union reported on August 19, 1936. It was, the paper bellowed, “the most spectacular and disastrous fire to strike the community in two decades.”

Hansen remembers a pang of guilt as she read those words. Her uncle’s father-in-law, Frank Purvis, the church’s janitor and a member, always believed he started the fire because he had been burning leaves in the furnace just before the blaze began.

“Nobody else blamed him for the fire,” Hansen said.

Parishioners immediately began rebuilding their temple, a process that 65 years later hasn’t stopped. The three-story church’s Wesley Hall was opened in 1998, under the direction of pastor W. Thomas Clark. The decision to expand on the current site rather than to build at a new location was based largely on the fact that members wanted to keep the church downtown, Clark said.

“It was a wise choice for them, because their roots were established in town,” said Clark, pastor from 1994 until Smith’s arrival in 1999.

Today, 300 mostly mature members gather at two services to share a moderate Sunday message delivered by Smith, a slightly graying Silver Spring, Maryland, native who wore the cloth in Carson City, Santa Rosa and San Bruno before coming to Grass Valley.

That most of the church’s members are eligible for Social Security is not lost on Smith.

“The challenge is to find new people, and making a way for the message to be relevant so that it’s attractive. Before, church was a duty, an expectation. …It was the social place for women to be. What I know has happened is that we have become so busy and we’re not looking for that special place to be.”

Thirty-nine-year-old Kathy Kinney married her husband, Pete, in the church 11 years ago. Their daughters, Haley, 9, and Toria, 6, are possibly two of the church’s youngest members.

“My daughters have 100 grandparents,” Kinney joked recently from her Lake Wildwood home.

Kinney enjoys the services, she said, because of the progressive message Smith and the church espouse.

“It’s important the church teaches that people have choices. There’s still the traditional music and sermons, but the philosophy is very open. I’m very comfortable there,” she said.

“The church has given me a strong sense of right and wrong,” said Kinney, whose husband is part of the church council that acts as the local decision-making body. She sings in the choir.

It’s feeling the spirit, and not the age of those that do, that matters.

“My prayer is that in the next 150 years, we can be as relevant as we were in the last, where our lives were touched, and we can bring the ethic of the church into the future,” Smith said. “We’re the heart of the community.”


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