Interested in being featured as a, “Church of the Week”, contact Sonny Graves firstname.lastname@example.org (510) 247-8990
Welcome back to our Church of the Week series! This week we talked with Grace North Church UCC/NACCC, located in north Berkeley. Pastor John Mabry shared with us the rich history, and traditions of the congregation. Grace North church began as a mission of First Congregational Church of Berkeley, and was formed in 1892.
Grace North holds an evening service on Sundays, at 5:00 P.M. If you join them for worship you will find hints and influences in the liturgy of their Episcopal history and relationships. The worship leaders write a lot of their own music for services, and describe the liturgy and sacred space as both, “quirky and friendly…safe space for those who have been wounded by the church to re-approach the tradition.”
The current space was built in 1913, and was designed by James Plachek (a disciple of the artist/architect Maybeck). The congregation was very large and active in the 20th century, and was originally a member of the United Church of Christ. But the community decided to withdraw from the UCC in 1968. The members at that time were politically and socially conservative, and disagreed with the UCC pronouncements in support of the Civil Rights Movement, and against the Vietnam war. The congregation decided to instead join the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, a group of about 500 churches who elected not to enter into the UCC merger in 1957.
The church from that point on began to struggle, and would close briefly in the late 1980’s. An Episcopal group, the Grace Institute for Religious Learning (GIRL) had been renting and sharing the sanctuary space for their chapel services, and when the church decided to close the Episcopal priest, Fr. Richard Mapplebeckpalmer, picked up the parish roster and began visiting the North Congregational Church members. He told them that they were welcome to continue coming to “their church” (although the services were now distinctly Anglican in liturgy). Many did, and as a result a combined congregation formed composed of about thirty Congregationalists and another thirty Episcopalians, now worshiping together. Using an Anglican liturgy and running the parish according to the Congregational polity, they styled themselves “Anglican Congregationalists.” A few years later they reincorporated as Grace North Church. Rev. John Mabry was hired as their associate pastor in 1994, and when Fr. Mapplebeckpalmer retired in 2008, Rev. Mabry became senior pastor.
Together with Rev. Mabry the church decided to heal the breach of separation with the UCC, and begin the process of being received back into the wider church and the Northern California Nevada Conference. The church is now dually aligned with the United Church of Christ and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.
When Rev. Mabry began his ministry at the church, the congregation was made up of members with an average age of 80 years old, most of whom were politically conservative. Many of the elder members thought of the 1960’s as an “evil” time and struggled with broken relationships with their children and extended family over politics and social movements.
Interestingly, the younger members who were drawn to the church were often much more liberal because of the proximity to the GTU and the University of California, Berkeley. The congregation experienced numerous culture clashes, but as the older generation began to pass the church found new life in being a proudly progressive Christian community.
The present-day church describes itself this way: “Grace North Church is a community of people learning to love, where animals are welcome, and healing happens. We deepen our understanding of Christianity by learning from other traditions. We strive for a width of belief and welcome and a depth of tradition and practice.” Pastor Mabry says, “We joyously celebrate the Christian tradition—but hold it in a non-dogmatic way so people can define for themselves what the metaphors, stories, and traditions mean for them.”
The service is influenced by Christian mysticism and the contemplative tradition—which means there is a lot of silence during worship. The congregation is also growing into being a politically and socially active faith community in the wider world as well. Each evening service includes all the regular lectionary readings, but also incorporates a reading from the Hindu Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras, or the Qu’ran that is thematically related to the Gospel reading for the day. The music, led by music minister Lawson Barnes, ranges from Taize to folk-rock to bluegrass, and often features a banjo and fiddle.
The church is well known for welcoming animals to their services. As pastor Mabry puts it, “We’re a dog friendly church.” When I asked about the practice of open communion that includes the dogs, Pastor Mabry shared, “We give communion to dogs because humans are not the only heirs to grace. We don’t give communion to animals because it saves them, but because it saves us to give it to them—it reminds us that we humans are not the center of creation. When we gather around the communion table with dogs, they represent all the creatures that we share creation with. Humans are not the only ones giving praise—the sanctus is sung by all of nature, animals, the stars, moons and suns, the angels and archangels, and the vast communion of saints. When the dogs howl during the hymns, we are reminded of this truth before God.” Pastor Mabry jokes that in direct violation of Matthew 7:6, they “give what is holy to dogs.” “We’re thinking of getting a t-shirt made to that effect.”
Beyond its Sunday worship, Grace North delights in community programs such as Group Spiritual Direction on 1st Wednesdays (offered free for anyone who wants to come, with a special invitation to GTU students), Bible Study on 2nd Wednesdays, and a Christian Mysticism reading group on 3rd Wednesdays. A young adult group meets for fellowship and contemplative practice twice a month. On the last Fridays of each month (January through October) they host a contemplative Interfaith Labyrinth Walk. Lighting nearly a hundred tea-lights around their indoor labyrinth, their band plays interfaith chants for a free-form hour during which people are free to chant, pray, meditate and walk the labyrinth.
The congregation is also currently in discernment about how they may extend their service beyond the sanctuary; they are considering transforming into a hybrid coffee shop and worship space. The idea is to have a coffee shop where they could hold worship and community activities, financially sustain their ministries, and provide free hot bread and coffee to all who come through their doors. (Cappuccinos however, will cost you!)
At its heart Grace North Church is a “place where healing happens.” They invite you to come and experience the beauty and love of God’s grace with them sometime. You can learn more about Grace North through their website here: http://www.gracenorthchurch.net