First Presbyterian prepping to celebrate its 200th anniversary throughout the year

Pastor Felipe Martinez poses for a portrait at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Columbus on Monday. First Presbyterian is set to celebrate its 200th anniversary with events throughout this year.

Granted, Pastor Felipe Martinez acknowledges that anniversary celebrations highlight hallmarks of the past.

But forgive him if he fails to focus the bulk of First Presbyterian Church’s 200th-year observance on yesterday. As the leader of one of the area’s oldest houses of worship, he wants to be careful of another direction.

“Really, I’m asking us to think about our next 200 years, which is slightly bold, right?” he said, sitting in his church office at 512 Seventh St. in downtown Columbus. “Because, would the people who were starting the church 200 years ago have been thinking about the next 200 years? I don’t exactly know.

“But I want us to think in terms of the staying power and the legacy of this church beyond our time. One of the images that I use to talk about that is this question: What fruit do we want to give? What fruit of the ministry do we want to give? And so if we think about 50, 60 years from now, what will that fruit be?”

First Presbyterian, with a current Sunday worship attendance of about 125 people, is perhaps best known for the fruit linked especially since the 1960s to a strong stand for equality for all people, from racial minorities to those with various sexual identifications. The late Rev. William Laws, who will be celebrated with wife Ellen in a special Sunday School class in April, was a leading voice locally in the 1960s and 1970s amid the civil rights movement.

The late Sarah Hunt, a longtime member who founded the Columbus Peace Fellowship, will be the focus of another Sunday School class in April.

The church’s fruit years ago also includes its launch of Housing Partnerships to build or refurbish affordable homes for lower-income residents. Plus, its members had a role in the formation of the local nonprofit Turning Point Domestic Violence Services and also in Su Casa’s Latino outreach.

“I think our identity as a congregation is one that really is interested in justice and social justice and being a witness (of God’s love) in the community,” Martinez said. “It’s very much a part of who we are.”

Moreover, church leadership specifically formed bonds with Catholics years ago before many small-town Protestants were doing so elsewhere.

And they did this, they said, to spotlight God’s love rather than First Presbyterian’s community standing.

So members’ faith always has extended well beyond the walls of the church, which received its charter July 3, 1824. The current location has been home since 1885, according to the church’s history.

These tidbits and much more will be included in a special anniversary book that local writer and editor Paul Hoffman is updating and publishing via his PathBinder Publishing business.

Stark loves the fact that, mixed in with this year’s fanfare will be the launch of a new initiative — a joint venture with The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County and Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center — known as the First Presbyterian Bicentennial Legacy Fund. It will be for modest grants to help the financially struggling start small businesses and ventures to help them become more self-sufficient.

Lincoln-Central, with a substantial track record of empowering lower-income families, will administer the funds. Diane Doup of Lincoln-Central is excited about the collaboration that is being seeded via a private campaign at the moment.

“Providing people a hand up, rather than a handout, is a foundation the LCNFC has stood on for years,” Doup said. “The impact this fund can have could raise neighbors to self-sufficiency, prevent other neighbors from falling off the fiscal cliff, and spark individuals through entrepreneurship, unforeseen crises, and more. First Presbyterian’s investment in its own neighborhood, gifting its own neighbors a hand-up, is truly faith in action.”

Stark said the effort is a big step into the future.

“We certainly want some celebration,” Stark said. “We want some fun. We want some history.

“But we have to ask: What really is our responsibility as part of our next 200 years and a way to pay it forward?

“So this will be the lasting way we can look back years from now and say, ‘Look what they did and look at the difference it’s making.’”

Just like the first two centuries.

Times of celebration

Besides small “Bicentennial Bits” of each Sunday service spotlighting history, First Presbyterian Church will mark its anniversary with special Sunday School classes in April highlighting significant past leaders such as the Rev. William and Ellen Laws and Sarah Hunt.

Plus, also on the schedule:

  • July 21: An ice cream social on National Ice Cream Day in the church parking lot.
  • Sept. 15: The celebration culmination at Donner Park with speakers, games and more.