Fruits of Their Labor
Three PTS Alums Celebrate a New Church and a New Vintage
by Barbara A. Chaapel
t's not every church that celebrates its chartering by uncorking a bottle of a new vintage of wine - one produced as a uniquely Presbyterian communion wine. But if the church is nestled in Sonoma County in California's wine country, it seems somehow appropriate.
In September, Windsor Presbyterian Church in the small town of Windsor - a burgeoning suburb of Santa Rosa - began its life as the newest congregation of the Presbytery of the Redwoods. Its founding pastor, Jeanie Shaw (PTS Class of 1983), believes in gala beginnings!
To kick-off the month-long chartering festivities, she invited fellow PTS alums John Staten and Roger Hull (both from the Class of 1964) to preach a dialogue sermon on September 21 about the place of wine and celebration in Jesus' ministry and in the Christian tradition. They then joined her in celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Both Hull and Staten, who have been friends since their days at Princeton, are Presbyterian ministers, and both work in the California wine industry. They brought with them to Windsor the gift of Convivio, a communion wine aged in the oak barrels of the Field Stone Winery. Field Stone is a family winery in the Alexander Valley, run by Staten with Hull as director of sales. Staten is believed to be the first Presbyterian minister in America to own a winery. As clergy, they come by the work naturally. Since the early centuries of Christianity wine and wine-making have been associated with the church. Churches and monasteries as early as the sixth century planted vineyards, harvested their own grapes, and made their own wine.
The Franciscans introduced viticulture (the cultivation of grapes for wine-making) to California in the eighteenth century.
"And Jesus himself was a wine-maker, as John's Gospel tells us," says Staten. Taking their text from the second chapter of that Gospel, when Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, Hull and Staten pointed out the banquet imagery throughout the Gospels. "The party is a central image of what the Kingdom of God is like," says Staten. "It is about life shared with one another in the community of Christ, about conviviality in a serious world, about the good life. Not the good life that centers around money, but around an open table, where the poor and the rich and the outcast will all experience together the regeneration of life, energy, love."
The congregation of more than a hundred joined in a circle around the communion table, and Hull and Staten poured out and blessed the wine they had made. Staten explained that the wine had not been specially blessed as sacramental wine. "It is table wine," he says, "made of cabernet and chardonnay grapes. It is set apart and blessed here within the community, as a sign of God's rule." Convivio is Italian for 'with life,'" Hull adds. "That's what I believe Jesus came to bring - life in community."
It is also what Shaw hopes the Windsor church will offer the people of Sonoma County, especially those who are new to the church - the "seekers." "We want to be a family for people," she says, "a family that includes children and older adults, teenagers and single people, young couples, people of every race. We envision a community filled with abundant life in Christ."
A glance at the Sunday worship bulletin indicates that Shaw is well on the way to her dream. Already Windsor has a clown ministry, both a children's and adult choir, a Mom's Bible study, a Bible study for working women, a family supper club, three youth groups, a men's breakfast group, and a support group for families with children with disabilities.
Shaw's energy and enthusiasm are infectious. Church members and visitors are quickly involved in the congregation's life doing things they had never dreamed they could do. For example, several women and girls who had never before danced in church formed a liturgical dance choir for the chartering service on September 28.
Shaw gets the presbytery involved, too. As a prelude to the chartering she organized an eight-week pilgrimage of Presbyterians from San Francisco to Windsor to bring media attention to the congregation's birth day. On August 3, in front of Old First Church in San Francisco, thirty-five Presbyterians donned running shoes to carry - relay-fashion - a small, nine-inch wooden cross across the Golden Gate Bridge. That began a journey that took the cross to Presbyterian churches in Sausalito, Tibiron, San Rafael, San Anselmo, Terra Linda, Novato, Santa Rosa, and Windsor, from California's oldest Presbyterian congregation to its newest.
People from three-year-olds to retirees carried the cross. When it arrived in Windsor for the chartering service, the church's oldest member (ninety-two-year-old Irene Neil) and its youngest (three-month-old Spencer Brady) escorted the cross into the sanctuary.
Roger Hull, astride his bicycle, was also one of the cross-carriers. Hull had helped found the Windsor church seven years ago when the presbytery asked him to take a try at new church development. The pastor of Old First Church in San Francisco for ten years, he left in 1988, at what he terms his "dark night of the soul." After traveling across the United States spending time in retreat centers and praying about where God was calling him, he re-turned to California, where Staten offered him time to think while working at the winery. He never left.
Now, in addition to his work at Field Stone (where Staten refers to him as the "director of hospitality"), Hull is Windsor's parish associate pastor. Shaw welcomes his help. She believes new church development needs the gifts and commitment of as many people as the church can muster.
"Last year there were only forty-one new churches in the 181 presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church USA," says Shaw. "Yet the only way we can reach people who need the hope of Jesus Christ is through new church development." Shaw has definite ideas about how to begin a church. Like talking to people in grocery stores and gas stations and diners about Jesus Christ. "I remember being in a laundromat and beginning a conversation with an older man about God while we were waiting for our clothes to be done," she says. "He told me God had let him down. He was very bitter and wasn't interested in the church, and I listened to him."
A few months later she got a phone call from a woman in Denver whom she didn't know. It turned out to be the man's daughter, asking if Shaw were the woman minister who had met her father in a laundromat. The man had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had mentioned his conversation with Shaw to his daughter. Shaw went to visit him the next day.
"I feel like I have the responsibility to share my faith," she says. "As a new church development pastor, I'm accountable to the Gospel and to my presbytery to tell the story of Christ, to bring people into the community of the church." Shaw has wanted to do new church development since seminary. She took several positions in churches in Sacramento before Redwoods Presbytery called her to the Windsor church in September of 1996.
"I look at Windsor as part of a whole unbroken chain of churches," she explains, "a chain that includes Thessalonica, Philippi, Corinth, Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Old First in San Francisco, and now Windsor. The hope of our world is in Jesus Christ. The hope for our church is in beginning new churches."
Windsor is a success story in a denomination that is closing more churches than it is opening. "We had a total of 675 people at our three chartering services [one for the congregation, Shaw's installation service, and the ordination and installation of officers] and have an average worship attendance of 140," Shaw reports. In January twenty people will join the church as part of Windsor's first new member class, and Shaw has already baptized two children.
All of this is happening in a building that was a Methodist church 100 years ago (old by California standards), then a community center, an antique shop, and a private home.
Shaw likes having a community center in the church's family tree.
"Community, connection is what the church is about," she says, "connecting people to Jesus Christ and to each other."
Roger Hull agrees. He sees his work at Field Stone as a kind of ministry of evangelism. "I'm closer to being an evangelist in the tasting room than I was in the parish," he muses. "People talk with me about their problems, their hopes and fears, their desire for community and connection. It's not typical evangelism, but it's sharing with people who often have no relationship with the church as a place to find food and sustenance." A few wine-tasters have even joined the Windsor church.
Staten is happy about Field Stone's connection with the church. He was a professor of religion and a college chaplain for almost fifteen years before he took over Field Stone's vineyards after his father-in-law's death in 1979. With his PTS M.Div. and a Ph.D. in theology and philosophy of religion from the University of Chicago, he has always pondered theological questions, including how to integrate belief with experience. He also believes that one's faith should inform one's action and has committed to giving a percentage of the receipts from the sale of Convivio to non-profit organizations, including the Alliance Medical Center in Sonoma County. Alliance primarily serves members of the Hispanic community, who make up most of the area's vineyard workers.
Staten's experience as a vintner has also given him an opportunity to offer the church something concrete to symbolize the sacredness he finds in the love of the land and the grapes. "It took me twenty years to come up with a communion wine," he laughs, "and that doesn't include all the years I thought about the theological meaning of communion. That's pretty fast for a Presbyterian." Staten is also sure that if Jeanie Shaw had been given the task, she would have done it in a year!
© Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary