What does it mean to be rooted or grounded? How does our history influence or impede our future? Moving forward requires us to look backward. Standing on solid ground gave us a firm foundation to step into the future.
If you are thinking about doing what we did, then your history is important. It is difficult to tear down walls that hosted baptisms, confirmation classes, funerals, and weddings. It is heart rending for some to see a place where they taught, worshiped, and served demolished. The fear of being forgotten is real. Knowing our relationship to our history is vital when we seek to move forward.
History and legacy matter when they keep us grounded. That is what we came to understand. It’s hard work to overcome a rooted history. Roots are safe and secure. They provide nourishment to a plant. However, roots can also bind us to one place. Left untended, a rootball can hinder and choke off growth.
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
It’s taken time, but we believe our history and legacy grounds us as a community. Our story provides a firm and fertile foundation. Rather than root us in place, it fertilizes and amends the soil. And, good soil is vital for growth. Good ground helps nourish what is planted allowing it to bear new fruit.
On the other hand, when history becomes rooted, it strangles growth. Roots tie anything new to everything that came before. We cannot deny our history and legacy. However, we can choose how we tell stories and how we remember.
Our church turned 112 in 2020. South Arlington is far from the days of dirt roads and farm lanes. We’re located in a diverse suburb of Washington D.C. Our community has gone through many changes. It’s been a place where ambassadors from other countries lived. The demographics continue to shift over time to the largely Latinx community that it is today.
One thing that remains the same is that land is scarce. This makes affordable housing difficult to find. Without significant carrots, developers generally ignore this reality.
Just as South Arlington undergoes shifts and changes, so have we. The constant thing that grounds us is how we’ve strived to be on the side of justice in our community. We’ve sought to share the resources we’ve been blessed with as a largely white congregation. When we could, we faithfully stood up for justice.
We ordained our first woman elder in 1941 and welcomed our first African-American member in 1960. In 1997, we signed a covenant of dissent protesting the “Fidelity and Chastity” Amendment in the Book of Order (our governing body’s rule book). We’ve provided relief following hurricanes and been a voice for low and middle-income people in Northern Virginia.
Ronda Gilliam, our first African-American member, is the namesake of Gilliam Place. His legacy of service to the church and community grounds how we think about ministry and discipleship. Mr. Gilliam served as an elder in our church and started our first clothing bank. As an active member of his community, he responded to the needs he heard. His legacy is an example to all of us. It grounds our imagination as we listen to where the Spirit leads us next. As one among many visionaries within our congregational history, Mr. Gilliam taught us about being a committed disciple of Christ who was also committed to their community.
Stories like Ronda’s fertilize and ground our ministries. They remind us that being a part of a larger community is central to our witness as Christians. We choose to honor our history and legacy by grounding ourselves in ministries of social justice. This means we look and listen and honor where our hearts break for our community.
We cannot deny our history and legacy. However, we can choose how we tell stories and how we remember.
We acknowledge that roots are important. We’re just not interested in being rooted. Our roots provide nourishment. They remind us of our connection to the community. Our story is about the call to tend and amend the soil. We strive to be a church where there is space for a diverse garden to grow. We couldn’t do that if we were rooted to our past.
Moving from a rooted community to a grounded one was painful, but necessary. The truth is, not everyone wanted to make that change. It was hard, frustrating, and people left because of our response to the Spirit’s call. As you’ll see, our story isn’t perfect. We discerned, as best we could, the movement of the Spirit within our walls, but more importantly within the community around us, and we responded.