As the first open community in Fairfax County in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Reston attracted many middle and upper middle class African Americans in search of the suburbs. More than 30 years ago, Carol Bradley was one such New Town pioneer.
While Bradley, and other black residents like her, felt comfortable and welcome at the many different churches in Reston to which they called home, there was something missing, she said.
“We always felt accepted at all of the various churches where we worshipped in Reston,” said Bradley, who was principal at Terraset Elementary School from 1993 until she retired in 2002. “But we had some of our own traditions and teachings that we wanted to share with our children and to continue amongst ourselves.”
Reston's emerging African American community did not want to lose the traditions that they brought with them to this new enclave of inclusiveness in Northern Virginia, Bradley said. "Nothing against the churches where we were attending, but many of us still wanted a worship service in the black tradition," Bradley said.
So on Sunday April 2, 1978, 20 people, including Bradley, crowded into the Reston home of Harry and Bessie Lamb. What started as a small gathering in a Reston home has bloomed into the Heritage Fellowship United Church of Christ, a regional church serving more than 1,500 parishioners from around the region each Sunday.
On Sunday evening, more than 300 Heritage Fellowship members attended an anniversary banquet at the Waterford at Fair Oaks, capping a weekend of events that celebrated the church’s quarter century in Northern Virginia.
A WEEK AFTER meeting in the Lamb's living room, 32 people took over the Glade Room in South Reston. By June of that year, the ever-growing nomadic congregation, then called the Christian Community Fellowship Church, had once again outgrown its surroundings. Under the leadership of its first pastoral advisor, Harold L. Hunt, a Howard University theologian, the fledgling church set up shop in the Southgate Room where it remained for three years before moving into the Reston Community Center at Hunters Woods. Nine years, and one name change later, after beginning their mission in the Lamb’s living room, the Heritage Fellowship United Church of Christ moved into their current site along Fox Mill Road in Reston.
Alvarez LeCesne and his family joined the church in 1980, shortly after its inception. LeCesne recalled watching his daughter, who is now 24 years old, crawl on the floor of the Southgate community room. “It’s always been a very comfortable place," he said. "There’s a real sense of family here, and that has never changed."
While LeCesne has watching many changes in the church, he says he is proud that its core mission and values have stayed the same. "The biggest similarity from then and now I think is the genesis of why it started in the first place," said LeCesne, who was raised in a Catholic household. "Everyone has always felt comfortable no matter where they came from. That’s been the connecting thread over the years because lots of people have taken different paths to get here."
Kwame Osei Reed, the church's first pastor, came aboard in 1983, and he said he is "truly amazed” at the transformation from a "house church" to Heritage's modern incarnation. Reed said that the church was founded by a group of “upwardly mobile African Americans," adding that while the church's core constituency hasn't changed, it was never about being open only to African Americans. “Their vision was open to all and it attracted — and continues to attract — people of many different faiths and traditions," Reed said. "It's a perfect fit for Reston, people came to Reston because of Robert Simon's vision and this church was a natural outgrowth of that vision."
“IT’S PRETTY AMAZING,” said Catherine Lewis, chairman of the church's 25th Anniversary committee. “We’ve gone from a few dozen people meeting one day a week in the Glade pool house to over 1,500 strong and something going on every single day of the week. We are rooted in Reston and we are very much family oriented and now we have people who literally grew up in this church and now bring their children to worship here.”
In 1995, the Rev. Norman A. Tate took the reins of a well-established Reston institution with a healthy 250 member congregation.
Less than a decade later, Heritage’s population is six times what it was when he came aboard, Tate said. Before long, Tate had to move his two Sunday services from the cramped confines of the Fox Mill church’s 218 seat sanctuary, to the theater at South Lakes High School to accommodate the overflow crowds.
Tate and his congregation have their sight set on a new facility for Heritage to call home. Neither the current Fox Mill location nor the high school can serve all the needs of an ever-expanding church. “A new facility will allow us to do the ministry that we cannot do right now,” Tate said shortly before Sunday’s anniversary banquet.
According the church’s Web site, officials are looking at three possible sites for a new church, all in the Route 28 corridor. With an estimated $14 million price tag, the new church will house a main sanctuary that will seat 800 and will be able to be expanded to upwards of 2,000 parishioners. The church is in the midst of a Capital Funds Campaign which hopes to bring in more than $5 million help build the new facility.
“A new facility is an absolute necessity," said the Rev. John R. Deckenback, the conference minister for the United Church of Christ's mid-Atlantic region. "You can’t park 1,500 bodies into a church that seats 220. You can’t even park.”
Tate said that a new site will allow the church to expand its geographical reach into Northern Virginia. Tate added that he didn’t want to limit the number of people who could worship at Heritage. “If God sends someone to us, he sent them to us for a reason … to make us a better place and stronger ministry,” Tate said on Sunday.
A study commissioned by the church in 2001, estimated that as the church's total population, at its current rate, would reach nearly 5,000 by 2006. "A lot of people would like to see Heritage become a mega church," said Reed. "A church with as many as 5,000 members would have an even greater reach and would become more of a regional church, not just a local Reston church."
With an average age of 37, many of the members have young children and many others are young single professionals and the church shows no signs of slowing down its membership drive. “Many who come to us are new to the area and may not know a lot of people, they find a family in our church,” Tate explained. “The fellowship of this church is what sets it apart.”
GILL SCOTT HAS been a member of Heritage for two years, but, he says, it didn’t take long at all for him to feel at home. Scott, who has lived in Reston since 1990, followed his daughter's lead in joining up with Tate’s congregation and he credits the outgoing pastor with energizing the faithful. “As preachers go, he is unique,” Scott said of Tate. “He preaches as well as teaches, and he’s funny.”
Scott was also drawn to Heritage because of the church’s history of outreach and its numerous ministries. Bradley agreed, calling the church a "force in the community." From its partnership with Reston’s Embry Rucker Community Shelter to its legions of volunteers at a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., Fellowship Heritage was built on belief that members should always be giving back to their community.
This past year, Scott said, “members spearheaded a drive to pay for healthcare for needy children in the area.”
A $318 donation would pay the healthcare costs of one child and the church set a target of helping 100 children. The church nearly doubled that number, Scott said. “I think that says a lot about this congregation,” he said.
Citing the healthcare drive and the church's work on her gang task force, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) praised Heritage's dedication to the community and its youth. "This is the kind of partnership that we in government look for in the faith community," Hudgins said. "Whenever we need help, we know we can turn to the folks at Heritage. They are always willing to do whatever they can for this community."