This is a story about First Presbyterian Church, Cottage Grove. But, honestly the players involved in this story had become so big and numerous that First Presbyterian almost got lost in the narrative.
Tuesday I made my way down from Portland to Cottage Grove, a small idyllic town less than a half hour south of Eugene. Cottage Grove first got on my radar when I discovered the 16-mile Row River Bike Trail that originates in the town and crosses three covered bridges on the way to Dorena Lake. It’s a lovely ride if you ever want to gather a few pedaling Presbyterians for a Saturday outing.
I was in Cottage Grove for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Cottage Grove Village, a one-acre tiny house development on a quiet neighborhood street on the south side of town. I arrived to the scene of thirteen recently constructed tiny houses and over a hundred people gathered around for speeches, a BBQ and a ribbon cutting.
As I looked at the brochure for the event I expected to see the name of First Presbyterian Church highlighted somewhere prominently between the beautiful pictures of homes and residents. Instead, I found the names of some thirty community partners including various foundations, government entities, corporate names and the organizational umbrella of Square One Villages. But the name of the church was not to be found.
That omission, whether intentional or not, really tells the story of First Presbyterian Church. In fact, except for a few short days or maybe a couple of weeks they never owned this story; they were just the divine spark that ignited the energy and passion of city and county dreamers, doers and developers. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t light the match and then walk away. No, they lit the match and then kept fanning the flames until the project is what it is today.
The truth is that by the time this project reached ribbon cutting stage there were major partners involved including the Meyer Memorial Trust, the $100,000 gift from the Presbyterian Women, Lane County, AARP, Banner Bank, Ford Family Foundation and more than two dozen other large benefactors and supporters.
What First Presbyterian Church understands and got right is that a mission of this magnitude has to catch fire beyond the local congregation if it’s going to be successful. What they got right from the very beginning was that they communicated to the community that “we are better together.” They invited the community to dream with them and plan with them.
From the spark of an idea with their Earth and Social Justice Committee they ignited the passions of a community that wanted to make a visible impact on the housing crisis in their community. What started out as an idea to have a forum to UNDERSTAND the issues eventually morphed into a project to SOLVE the issues. It would not have happened without the initiative of First, Cottage Grove and it would not have happened without the investment of the community. “We are better together” was their motto.
I know this congregation well enough to know that this was not some new discovery for them. It has long been in the DNA of this congregation to be the initiators for community development. They don’t need to develop trust for community projects. They crossed the trust threshold decades ago. Their community sees them as barrier breakers and depends on them to step in to mend the social fabric of the community.
During our last presbytery meeting, I closed my comments from the Strategic Planning Team with the lyrics to the first verse of one of our favorite hymns:
Called as partners in Christ’s service,
Called to ministries of grace,
We respond with deep commitment
Fresh new lines of faith to trace.
May we learn the art of sharing,
Side by side and friend with friend,
Equal partners in our caring
To fulfil God’s chosen end.
That hymn clearly plays in the hearts of First Church members.
Today, called as partners in Christ service, the Cottage Grove Village has given thirteen vulnerable residents an opportunity to develop some permanency and to restore their dignity. What started out as a single conversation sparked a community-wide development where people feel a sense of belonging again. In the words of new resident, Asslin, “I had lost the ability to have hope. That is what this place gave me. It has given me a new family of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles who are just as crazy as I am. I absolutely love it.” The world needs a little more of her kind of craziness.
“It only takes a spark…”
Then watch out!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades