For 130 years, First Christian Church has shared worship, nurture and service with the people of Des Moines at the corner of 25th & University Avenue in the Drake Neighborhood. At its peak the church saw as many as 2,000 people at Sunday worship, and originally was named University Place Christian Chapel, then University Church.
LEGACY OF JUSTICE
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at Drake’s commencement in 1936, held at University Church. Outspoken on women’s rights and numerous social issues, Mrs. Roosevelt was invited to speak a second time in 1953, but the church board at first denied this appearance because she was an outspoken supporter of the United Nations and they feared her appearance to be too political. This denial became so controversial that the hubbub made TIME Magazine. Public and congregational opinion sided with Mrs. Roosevelt, and the invitation was finally approved. Her winning approach may well have been the impetus for a more progressive outlook on the part of the church board.
In 1959 the N.A.A.C.P. asked the church to host a talk by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his first appearance in Iowa. His engagement was postponed because of the bombing of his home in Montgomery. Later that year, when Dr. King walked down the center aisle to the pulpit, someone waved. “Henrietta, what are you doing here?” Dr. King asked. “This is my church, Marty,” Henrietta Edwards replied, for when she had studied in Atlanta she was a frequent guest in the King home.
Other prominent progressive figures through the years spoke from the pulpit of First Christian Church, including but not limited to: Madame Lady Chiang Kai-Shek, Jesse Jackson, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, Sister Helen Prejean and Senators Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders.
LEGACY OF MUSIC AND THE ARTS
Amelia Earhart, who as a young girl lived at 31st & Cottage Grove, wrote about hearing pianist Jan Paderewski at University Church in 1913. First Christian Church’s fine music program and partnership with Drake University have made it a lively center for the arts for over a century. Blessed with a fine Chancel Choir of its own, First Christian Church was the original home of the Des Moines Choral Society, and hosted the Des Moines International Children’s Choral Festival. This legacy is now acknowledged by our GREAT CHOIRS SERIES, featuring such groups as the St. Olaf Choir, Nordic Choir, Westminster Choir, and the famed Vienna Boys Choir. In 2010 many church members lent voice and support for Composer-in-Residence, Ben Allaway’s work HEAVEN & EARTH: Mass on the Celtic Journey, filmed for broadcast by Iowa Public Television, and featuring full staging and choreography.
The dual legacies of justice ministry and vibrant embrace of the arts came together in the THRESHOLDS ARTS FESTIVAL to a CULTURE of PEACE, a multi-day festival in the Drake neighborhood begun in 2002 by First Christian Church and many neighborhood partners. Conceived of just prior to 9/11/01, the tragedy gave great urgency to the committee to make the first THRESHOLDS a success to show support to our Muslim neighbors. That first year we built relationships through collaboration, cooking and eating together, and worship. Artist-activists who’ve performed at THRESHOLDS include: Richie Havens, Jamie Bernstein, Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Chief Albert Whitehat, Ray Buckley, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Susan Werner, Roosevelt Credit, Willie Farrell, Betty Soo and Ashleigh Brilliant. All of these artists joined with the Thresholds Mass Choir, which worked with guest conductors such as Robert DeCormier and Andre Thomas. The festival went on hiatus in 2010 in conjunction with the work surrounding HEAVEN & EARTH.
ENGAGING OUR NEIGHBORHOOD
As the city of Des Moines grew up around Drake University, our church has adapted and continues to journey together with our neighbors.
Though the summer of 2013 was our last farmers market, we celebrate 17 years of bringing locally grown food and healthy produce to our underserved neighborhood by pioneering the reception of food stamps at farmers markets in Iowa.
In 1992 First Christian Church was among the charter members and hosts for the Churches United Homeless Shelter, which is now Central Iowa Shelter and Services.
Starting with an after school program called the Drake Community Center, in recent decades First Christian has invested in the lives of children and youth of our neighborhood. Now we enjoy a wonderful partnership with Boys and Girls Club of Central Iowa. Their kids are our kids, and we see all the children and teens, numbering over 100 per day, as valued participants in the life of our church. English as a Second Language classes began at First Christian Church in 2004 out of the Drake Community Center, and now we serve over 140 immigrants and refugees four days a week through a partnership with Des Moines Area Community College. We are the only such partnered-program that offers free childcare for ages 2 through 5.
The first church building was constructed at 25th & University in 1888 to serve the faculty, staff and students of Drake University (founded by the Disciples of Christ in 1881). In 1909 a large auditorium seating 2,000 was constructed beside the original church to meet the growing needs of both the church and University. It was the largest auditorium in Central Iowa for a generation. Our 5-story education building replaced the original church in 1926, and included a gym, theater and roller-skating rink. The Drake University Campus Historic District comprises six buildings including First Christian Church. Our sanctuary has undergone two significant remodelings, the latest was completed in 2005, and it now seats 650 comfortably.
Interesting note: the long-serving former minister, Rev. Dr. Charles Medbury, was vital in the early building of the ministry and footprint of the church and the success of Drake University. Even so he is most famously remembered for two things: 1) The religion and philosophy department of Drake University is housed in Medbury Hall, and 2) Rev. Dr. Charles Medbury died on the chancel during worship, after Communion and during the hymn of invitation, “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling Thee Home”, on Easter Sunday 1932. No matter its merit, that specific hymn has ceased to exist within the walls of First Christian Church.
In 1971, the downtown Central Christian Church merged with University Church and two years later we took the new name of First Christian Church. A conscious choice was made at that time that we would remain in the Drake Neighborhood to commit ourselves to urban ministry. Through all the ebbs and flows of our community, we have and continue to reaffirm that commitment, and now we’re in our 125th year of love and justice in this same neighborhood!
RECENT CONGREGATION HISTORY
Realizing our need for children and youth education, in 2002 we formed our LOGOS program. Since that point, LOGOS as proved our most comprehensive, intergenerational dependent ministry with and for children and youth, doubling in size since 2009. Every Wednesday night, starting at 4:25pm, over 55 children and 45 adult volunteers run through the halls, fellowship at the table, and dance in sanctuary and classroom. You can learn more by visiting the nurture page.
Ministers have come filling our hearts and minds with great teaching and encouraging our development, and ministers have left for other callings or retirement. However, outside of Jesus Christ, First Christian is more than any one persona, and in 2013 we confirmed this by congregational celebration of what we’ve always known to be true: we, First Christian Church, affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of ALL Christians, though differing in many beautiful and unique ways.
125 years and going, our history is not complete. We journey together acknowledging that history makers and shapers are here now and are yet to come. And we trust that the Spirit of God who began a good work in us will bring it to completion.