On Oct. 15, 1964 Jack Shawn craned his neck to see Aldersgate Pastor Jim Duley and building committee chairman, Nash Love, dangling from the boom of a seven-story crane. As they swung and spiraled in the sky, the two managed to come within arm’s reach of the church’s new golden cross and put their palms against it.
Only eight years before, Shawn and 43 of his neighbors had been meeting in the cafeteria of Hollin Hall Elementary School, with the church’s founding pastor, Gene Thompson, who most of them had met for the first when he knocked on their front door in the summer of 1956, inviting them to join his new church. In southern Fairfax in the 1950s, fields and forests were disappearing and lone farmhouses were suddenly shoulder-to-shoulder with suburban homes. Aldersgate United Methodist Church was founded with the area’s new residents in mind, and much of its earliest efforts, Shawn recalled, were bent on recruiting them. “The way you start a church is you knock on doors and say, ‘Come and start my church,’” Shawn said.
“In the early days, if a moving truck came in, we followed it to see where it stopped.”
With support from Arlington and Alexandria Methodist Churches, Aldersgate (named for the London street where John Wesley had the spiritual experience in 1738 that led him to found the Methodist movement) purchased property at the corner of Collingwood and Fort Hunt Roads. It moved into a temporary building in 1959, and in 1964, when attendance had topped 1,000 a crane placed a gold cross on the steeple of the dramatic, contemporary Gothic sanctuary that exists today. Duley and Love volunteered to follow the cross into the sky and bless it.
ATTENDANCE AT THE CHURCH peaked in the mid-1970s with almost 3,000 people. As the congregation aged, attendance declined. But in the 1990s the church committed itself to connecting with a new generation of mothers and fathers. It massively expanded its youth and music programs and built Shepherd’s Hall, a new children’s wing with 25 classrooms, in 2005.
Now, as the church celebrates its 50th anniversary with 50 days of celebration bracketing Oct. 21, the day the church was chartered, its membership is at about 1,900, and there are myriad programs for seniors with free time and families seeking more involvement.
“I almost think we’re cycling back. This church was started by a lot of young families when the neighborhood was new and young. Now 50 years later, a lot of those couple are retiring and moving,” said Amy Hurd, the church’s communications director. “They’re selling their homes to young families. We are seeing a lot of growth through bringing in those young families.” She estimated 20 to 25 percent of people in the congregation had their first contact with the church through its day school.
“There is new energy,” said pastor Dennis Perry, “new ideas for programs we can do, new volunteers. It’s been all good right now.”
“That kind of energy sort of snowballs,” Hurd said. She cited one of the church’s traditions, an outdoor living nativity, as an example. In the nativity scenes of past Christmases, there would be “a few live sheep out there. We’d have the kings come and the shepherd’s come and that was about it,” said Hurd. “Last year we had a living Bethlehem and had the whole city out there.”
Perry said this example of “reenergizing what was already here” demonstrated the church’s mission at 50. “Instead of a silhouette scene, we had a whole city. We had hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of people walking through.”
Perry said the church has organized a group of laypeople into the “Joel Committee,” charged with studying the church’s history, its members and the wider community and identifying a vision for the future in keeping with the data culled from demographic studies and surveys. The vision will be presented to the congregation as part of the 50th anniversary celebration.
Hurd and Perry identified two aspects of the church that they believe have attracted an enthusiastic, “multigenerational” membership: a solid religious foundation for children and opportunities to express spiritual beliefs in concrete action. “We have very strong outreach locally, as well as what we do internationally. What we’re finding with our young people coming in is that that’s why they’re coming, they want hands on opportunities to reach out to the community,” Hurd said.
ON A SUNNY Sunday morning, the translucent windows of the sanctuary light the high hall from each side. The family of Robert Kucera is clustered around the baptismal font near the altar. It’s impossible to see the arch of the ceiling without tilting one’s head. But two red banners sweep smoothly down from the corners of the room to form a cross that hovers a few feet above the pews, dividing the immense space in two. Beyond the baptismal party, a forty-foot wooden cross rises, back-lit, against a cliff of uncut stone, beginning below the red banners and visible high above them, as if rising from one element into another.
Below the cross, Perry cradles Robert in the crook of his arm, among the folds of his white vestments. “Jesus said ‘You are a light to the world.’ Everyone on the platform knows its true,” he tells him.
“Would you like to see him?” Perry asks the congregation, before descending into the first rows of pews and presenting the silent, wide-eyed infant to the people in the Sanctuary. They clap, and for a moment the noise fills the room.
Later in the service, Rev. Bob McAdan, one of the former pastors who will be returning to the church for the celebrations, described the church he led from 1992 to 1997. “It was such a joy to be part of a church where there were so many people involved in serious bible study and prayer,” he said. “When that happens, God does exciting things in the lives of those people.”
He described a study undertaken in his time that called for the church’s new education space, its new organ, a larger parking lot and a third Sunday service, adding that it was “thrilling” to attend that service this morning. The study reflected the church’s growing membership at the time, and its plethora of opportunities for participation.
McAdan recalled being approached by someone searching for a new church because her last church had been too chaotic. The first Aldersgate service the woman attended with her husband happened to be Palm Sunday. The children of Aldersgate had gathered in the yard with palm fronds and a donkey, and they processed through the Sanctuary in a mass of waving branches, leading the animal with them. McAdan recalled watching the new members come face to face with the donkey as they sat in their pews, and afterwards he approached them with trepidation to ask what they thought of the service. Their response surprised him. “There’s chaos oftentimes at Aldersgate,” McAdan said, repeating what he’d been told, “but it’s chaos with a purpose.”