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Church Maps Course In Changing Times

November 24, 1986|KAREN KENYON

SAN DIEGO — Central Christian Church, at 2nd Avenue and Fir Street, is a church on the edge--not only of downtown, but between yesterday and tomorrow.

The church, one of five downtown, celebrated its 100th anniversary Nov. 1 and is struggling to find its place in a changing landscape of population and needs.

Central Christian has continued to be "a church which takes risks," said the Rev. Barbara Graves, senior minister.

Many of those risks are the result of social concerns:

- Since 1980, Senior Community Centers of San Diego has provided a free lunch at Central Christian for about 180 people.

The federally funded program offers health screenings and peer counseling, according to Anne Gillespie Brown, executive director.

"We have a positive relationship with the church and have appreciated them taking us in after the fire (the lunch program was at First Presbyterian Church until a fire destroyed the kitchen area in 1980), and working with us so closely," Brown said.

- This year, the YMCA opened the Downtown Child Care Center, sponsored by a consortium of employers (including SDG&E, Pacific Bell and Home Federal), at the church.

- The church has sponsored four refugees in cooperation with Church World Services, which brings refugees from Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Eastern Bloc. About 150 refugees are sponsored through its offices each month, said director Do Thien.

- Harbor View Medical Center operates a drug rehabilitation program at the church three times a week for adolescents who have had a problem with chemical dependency. For the past 1 1/2 years, about 170 people have attended the free "after care" program.

The church's desire to serve the community, said Graves, "comes from understanding Christ's ministry. In (Christ's) first sermon, he spoke of 'good news' to the poor, the release of all captives, giving sight to the blind and setting at liberty those who are oppressed. So we feel that sharing the good news means being socially active as well as spiritually aware. We try to balance social activism with spiritual life."

Playing host to the various community services, she said, is "a building ministry. The church subsidizes the organizations, sits on their boards, and in exchange, the groups make donations and contribute for the cost of utilities."

The church is always looking for new ways to serve the community, said Graves, who was appointed a year ago and is the only female minister in San Diego's 13 Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ).

Also helping to shape Central's future the past year was the Rev. Dave Barnes, who was sent by the church's national office in Indianapolis to serve as "revitalization minister." His term ended earlier this month.

"Our building is probably the most used of all San Diego church buildings," Barnes said. "We did even have a Spanish speaking church using our space as well, until just recently, when they were able to go into their own church building. The congregation is very pleased we are able to use our building in this way."

Barnes said he was at Central "to discover what works and doesn't in a downtown church. We are reaching out, but in a non-threatening way." For example, Friday afternoon socials, called Jonah's Hour (non-alcoholic get-togethers to draw the local community into the church) were begun during his term. Although the program is coming to an end, the social hours may be revised and offered later, Barnes said.

He said the church has also tried to work in partnership with the other downtown churches, including St. Joseph's Cathedral, First Lutheran Church, First Presbyterian Church, and Cathedral Church of St. Paul's (Episcopal) and First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley.

As a result, downtown ministers now meet monthly to explore ways to share resources and tackle common problems.

"All the downtown churches have suffered attrition--people moving away from the center of town and other churches beginning in the suburbs," said the Rev. Paul Pullman, senior minister at First Presbyterian Church.

"The constituency in this area consists of two kinds of people not in the suburbs--the street people and the retired seniors who live in high-rises. Six (buildings) are in a three-block radius of four churches."

"The Senior Community Center still has its offices in First Presbyterian, though the lunch program is at Central. This lunch program is a significant contribution. If the seniors had to provide their own facility, it would cost one-half million dollars.

"All the churches downtown have tried to do something about the street people. The Lutheran Church has Bread Day and they used to permit people to sleep on the veranda, until it posed a security problem.

"First Presbyterian has the LADLE Fellowship. We feed 400 street people a hot meal every Sunday.

"We also want to meet the needs of the people who have moved into the condominiums. "All the downtown churches want to be sensitive to the changing needs and people downtown," said Pullman.

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