A Very Brief History of the Community Church of Chesterland

        Community Church was first founded as the Presbyterian Church, Chesterland in 1819. It is hard to imagine, but we were a “frontier Church” on the western reserve of the United States at that time. About two decades later, the Disciples of Christ Church, Chesterland was founded in 1842. The Disciples of Christ (D.O.C.) was a frontier Church movement that held that anyone could take communion regardless of their particular Christian beliefs. In 1850 the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, later renamed Hiram College, was founded with the mission of educating men and women for ministry. One of the College’s first presidents was James A. Garfield who became a D.O.C. minister and later the 20th President of the United States. He is known to have presided over worship at the Disciples of Christ Church, Chesterland.

In 1884 the Presbyterian Church of Chesterland changed its affiliation and name to the Congregational Church, Chesterland. The Congregational denomination was formed in 1648 as a merger of the Pilgrim and Puritan Churches in the United States. It is a denomination of many firsts, including: Having a prominent church leader take a stance against slavery in 1700 and being involved in the abolitionist movement; Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American author (1773), was a member of the Old South Congregation in Massachusetts; in 1775, Lemuel Haynes was the first African American ordained Protestant minister in the U.S.; in 1853 Antoinette Brown became the first woman ordained in the United States; and in 1972 William Johnson became the first openly gay ordained minister in a mainline protestant Church.

        The Congregational and Disciples Churches in Chesterland merged in 1920 to form the Federated Church of Chesterland and continued joint affiliation with both denominations. The Federated Church called Rev. Evelyn Walsh, a Disciples of Christ minister and Hiram College graduate, as their first female minister in 1930. The Community Church of Chesterland was officially incorporated with the merger of both churches in 1931. The Congregational Church building on Rt. 306 and Sherman Rd. was then sold and dismantled and both churches began sharing the D.O.C. Church building on Rt. 306 and Rt. 322 (which is now a Catholic church).

        In 1944 Rev. Harriet-Louise Patterson (D.O.C.) was called to Community Church. At that time Community Church only had a small number of members and was on the brink of closure, but Rev. Patterson brought an era of church growth just as rural Chesterland also began around that time to grow in size. Rev. Patterson was followed by Rev. Jud Townley (Congregational), in1953. He served until 1971 and brought an era of social justice consciousness to Community Church. After two years of ministry at Community Church, the congregation took a vote of confidence as whether to retain Rev. Townley who was deemed radical in his social justice perspectives. Rev. Townley remained at CCC but approximately one third (30 of 100 of the church families) of the congregation left the congregation. In 1952 Al Freshley was elected Moderator and held that office for 25 consecutive years serving through both times of church growth and conflict. During the the 1950s Community Church was especially engaged in issues of advocating for racial equality, and in particular fair housing for African Americans in the Cleveland area.

        In 1957 Community Church affiliated with the newly founded United Church of Christ denomination and dropped its D.O.C. affiliation. The U.C.C. denomination was itself created as a merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches (both of which are the result of previous Church mergers).

Community Church began worshiping in our current church building in 1961. Some of the current Church’s interior was built by members and a Church catering service was created to raise funds for part of the building. The large brass Church bell from the original Presbyterian/ Congregational Church building was moved to the D.O.C. Church building and then to the current building where it was hung on a free standing bell tower in the front of our Church. A brass cross from the D.O.C. Church was added to a redwood cross that hangs in the sanctuary. Both the bell and the cross remind us of our Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Disciple roots.

        The 1950s-70s were a period of significant engagement in diverse social issues. Some examples include: members marching in 1963 in the Civil Rights March on Washington led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; members marching with Cesar Chavez and boycotting lettuce and grapes in support of the Farm Workers Movement in the 1970s; the Junior High Youth group conducting the first “Earth Day” service in 1970; CCC supporting “Head Help” by installing and operating phones beginning in1970 for a hot-line in the Church library supporting young people on “bad trips” or suffering from depression; members marching in the 1973 peace march in D.C.; CCC beginning the Geauga Women’s Center (which later became Women Safe) in a Church classroom in 1977; engaging in a youth exchange program of hosting African American youth from Cleveland; supporting the Chagrin Falls Park (a then impoverished African American Community); as well as supporting and engaging in issues concerning the Vietnam war, prison reform, nuclear non-proliferation, and fair and integrated housing.

         In 1986 a young minister recently graduated from Yale Divinity School, Beth O’Malley, was called by CCC. Rev. O’Malley led CCC’s discernment process from 1989-1992, leading to CCC becoming an Open and Affirming (particularly of Gay, Lesbian and Trans-gender individuals) Congregation. The Freshley Pavilion was dedicated in Oct. 1995 in loving memory of Alice and Al Freshley and over time the Church has moved to having worship services outdoors during the entire summer months, enjoying the divine in creation.

        In 2012 Community Church changed it governance structure to create four ministry teams: Faith Proclamation (worship and Christian education), Household Stewards/Trustees (finance and building/grounds), Community (social events and community) and Outreach (social justice). Each of these teams elects co-chairs each year. There are five annually elected Church Officers: Moderator (Chair of the board), Vice Moderator, Clerk (takes and keeps minutes of meetings), Treasurer (pays bills), and Financial secretary (receives revenue). There are no term limits on any leadership positions, but Trustees and Pastoral Relation Board members serve three year terms. All other terms are one year.

Co-chairs from the four ministry teams and the Pastoral Relation’s Board, along with the Church Moderator and Vice Moderator, make up the Church Council which is the representative governing body of the Church. The Clerk, Treasurer, and Financial Secretary are non-voting ex-officio members of the Church Council.

        Rev. Jason Bicker-Thompson was called as a half-time minister Oct. 1st 2015. The Church participated in a series of “Vitality Labs” and discerned its core values to be “Welcome, inclusion, justice & peace” in 2016-17. Rev. Jason became the full-time minister of CCC beginning Oct. 1st 2017. The rest is yet to be written…