Fifty years to the day St. John's Lutheran Church opened, Reverend Paul Meyer returned to the church he helped start to celebrate.
"It's very exciting to be back," said Meyer, who is currently the pastor of a church in California but was invited to come back for the anniversary.
"The way the community has changed is just tremendous. The growth here is phenomenal. There was a lot more open space back then," he said with a laugh.
When St. John's opened, the congregation of about 400 members met in the cafeteria of the Franconia Elementary School, just down the road from where the church now stands. The main church building, where services now take place, was built in 1959 and an addition was finished in 1988, he said.
Meyer, who left the congregation in the late 1960s, said he was invited to perform services to commemorate the church's anniversary.
"They wanted to bring back the guy who got the whole thing going," he said. "They had a luncheon for me today and I got to see a lot of people I knew way back then."
Traveling back to Alexandria was almost a trip back in time for Meyer, who found himself "mesmerized" by the similarities in the world between 1956 and 2006.
"The country was divided by a war, both when we first opened and now. Back then it was Vietnam, now it's Iraq," he said. "There was the question of how to deal with poverty. Back then, it was [President Lyndon] Johnson's war on poverty, now we look at the situation in New Orleans in the same way."
Questions of how to make life meaningful are always in the minds and hearts of Christians, Meyer said, as are ways to bring their faith to life in the community.
"They're using a more contemporary worship service here than when we started," said Meyer, who was dressed for an "informal service" Saturday afternoon that did not include any robes or vestments traditionally worn during services. "It's a way to look at how we communicate with the people of a different culture. The culture of today's youth is music, so it helps us to speak their language."
When Meyer left, it was to allow the congregation to "hear additional leadership," he said. "I felt called to go to a congregation on the West Coast. It was important for me to have varied cultural experiences."
Meyer planned to remind the congregation of the obstacles they faced in 1956 and continue to face in 2006 during the anniversary service Sunday morning.
"During Vietnam, we had people in responsible positions on both sides and we were able to get them together to communicate with each other," he said.
COMING BACK to the church he helped create has been "a real joy and a privilege," Meyer said. "It feels very familiar here. I feel very honored to be back at this place to celebrate with the congregation," he said.
"This is just the beginning of a year-long celebration," said Pastor Ben Nass, one of the men responsible for services at St. John's.
Following the Sunday morning services, a procession was planned to return to the Franconia Elementary School, where services used to be celebrated. A concert was also planned for the afternoon, followed by a "woodwind petting zoo" for the children at the church, allowing them a chance to inspect various wind instruments, Nass said.
Sunday's service was carefully planned to make it as similar to the first service as possible, said Susan Gobien, music director at St. John's.
"We used the same service that would've been done in 1956. The choir will be sitting on bleachers instead of sitting on chairs like we do now," she said. Instead of being accompanied by a keyboard and other instruments, a piano provided their back up music, she said.
"We're going to be using a liturgy book from 1941, which is what would've been used in 1956," Gobien said. "It's been fun trying to do things that would've been done then, but it's been sort of challenging to think of things to do for the whole year we'll be celebrating," she said.
One event will be scheduled for every month, Nass said, to keep the celebration going through the end of 2006. Some events, like a spaghetti dinner in February, take place annually, but others, like Sunday afternoon's concert, are treats for the congregation.
In March, a series of "Servant Events" will focus on the congregation's commitment to building their community. To commemorate the Easter season, Rev. Peter DeMik from Our Savior Lutheran Church in Laurel, Md., who grew up attending St. John's, will return for Palm Sunday services. Other pastors, including Rev. James Roseman, will also be returning to the church for anniversary services, Nass said.
"We're planning a big banquet in October as our main anniversary celebration," Gobien said. The choir will be preparing songs that were featured on the Hit Parade during the 1950s during the banquet.