BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Exactly 50 years after leading the first Community of Christ Lutheran Church service, Rev. Ray Gotts-chling is returning to the Whitehouse church as part of an anniversary celebration on Sunday, Sept-ember 10.
Reaching such a milestone didn’t cross the mind of the 27-year-old pastor serving a rural church in Monroeville, Ohio, when he was asked by the synod to become a mission developer.
“I thought it was a neat challenge, and no one would say, ‘We’ve never done it this way before,’” he laughed.
The impetus for the new church came from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waterville. Rev. Conrad Buehler asked the synod for direction on whether to add another pastor or start a new church, as it was expected that Whitehouse and Waterville would quickly grow into one town.
A synod representative ran an ad in the local newspaper to announce a meeting at Whitehouse Primary School, in order to gauge support for a new congregation.
“He was surprised by how many people were there,” Gottschling said.
Gottschling moved to Whitehouse with his wife, Judith, and their two children in May 1973 and spent that summer, along with the families of Greg and Lila Aubell, Don and Betty Dick and Bob and Dorothy Yeack, touring other mission churches and hosting gatherings in homes.
Don Dick, who was on the Anthony Wayne Board of Education, secured the Anthony Wayne High School senior commons for a place to meet. By the time that first service was held, on September 9, 1973, the church had a used organ, an organist and a lectern that was part of a wood porch that member Ray Chamberlain furnished.
“The windows of the commons were plastered with ‘Let’s Go AW!’ which made for a nice backdrop of the portable altar – and always kept us abreast of the current football schedule,” recalled founding member Susan Nofzinger. “I think what made our church so special from the start was everyone was involved. We set up and took down chairs every week, held meetings and choir at individual homes, took turns cleaning the church and everyone used their talents to help out, including choir directors, Sunday School teachers and cooks. The church was very welcoming – we were very excited to see a new face. I feel this excitement and welcoming nature continues today.”
The seven-member Cochran family had moved from Findlay and were among the 92 people in attendance during that first service.
“After attending a very ornate church in Findlay with pews, massive pulpits and elaborate stained glass windows, it was quite a change. But it was exciting to be part of something new,” recalled Marsha Cochran, who was 17 at the time.
One of the biggest decisions was selecting a name, she recalled, laughing about how St. Carson was one of the names jokingly submitted – in reference to her dad, Carson Cochran, who was the first council president.
“A clear majority chose Community of Christ,” she said.
The Bucher family, including Loretta, Dan, Ken and Beverly Howard, were charter members, transferring from Zion.
“My mom felt this was a calling,” recalled Bev.
That same year, two months after Bev was married, Loretta called Gotts-chling to share tragic news: Bev’s husband had died in a motorcycle accident, leaving her a 21-year-old widow.
“Pastor Ray began counseling me when he had barely found a place to hang his hat. I needed his wisdom, empathy, leadership and prayers … and he gave graciously. This is my very first, most blessed memory of my faith journey at Community of Christ,” Bev said.
While the synod would fund a 5,000-square-foot church building, the members needed to raise funds to pay off the 6-acre plot of land that the American Lutheran Church had purchased in 1966 from Orville Disher. He suggested planting sweet peppers, and soon everyone was involved in “Project Pepper,” with every family planting, weeding and picking peppers, Marsha said. In all, the pepper project raised $13,750 – after a bumper crop was sold to Vlasic.
By 1976, the Munger & Associates Architects firm was hired to design what was then a modern building.
“It had to be multipurpose, because 5,000 square feet is not a lot of space,” Gottschling said. “Every-thing had to be moved, set up and torn down, but we were used to that in the school.”
Ken Bucher built the altar and Marilyn Umlauf designed and sewed banners that hung around the space.
Some were upset with the spire on top of the building.
“Everyone thought it should be a cross, but the architect thought it was a vertical look upward toward the heavens,” Gottschling recalled.
A symbol of Christ wrapping his arms around people was hung by the door. That image depicts the true meaning of Community of Christ, Gottschling said.
“Every church is the community of Christ, whether it’s St. Joe’s Catholic, Lutheran or Methodist. Where Jesus is present – where two or three gather in his name – good things happen,” he said.
When the church was dedicated in June 1977, the congregation agreed that the space would be open to anyone in the community. The building was used morning to night, hosting Alcoholics Anonymous groups, Scouts, homeowners’ associations, sports teams and even a daycare.
“The goal of the parish was that we would be welcoming on behalf of Jesus, loving the Anthony Wayne Community,” Gottschling said. “The people who joined were very faithful, loving and caring.”
Debbie and Tom Lytle joined the congregation in 1991 after moving from South Toledo. The couple had previously worshipped in the 150-year-old St. Paul’s Lutheran in downtown Toledo. Being open to the community was just part of Community of Christ’s ministry, Tom said.
“The congregation was very welcoming, and many were our neighbors,” he said. “It was and still is a very hands-on congregation.”
While the building has now tripled in size, that same family and community atmosphere remains, said Kara Yokum, who was a child when her parents, Molly and John Wacht-mann, were founding members.
Kara grew up in the church, married her husband Rick and became a youth advisor for six years before having her own children. The four Yokum sons, now ages 15 to 27, have all been confirmed in the church.
“It’s been a great place to introduce our children to the faith,” she said. “It’s been the fabric of my being.”
Marsha Cochran agrees.
“This church has been pivotal in my life for so long. My church family means so much to me,” she said.
The community is welcome to attend the 50th-anniversary celebration, “Blue Jean Sunday,” at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 10, outside the church, located at the corner of Dutch and Finzel roads in Whitehouse. Bring a chair and dress casually.
Following the service is a potluck, games and a service project – collecting school supplies for Salem Lutheran in downtown Toledo to distribute to students in Toledo Public Schools.
The new pastor, Rev. Stephen Bond, will preach his first service at Community of Christ on Sunday, September 24.
For more information, visit www.commofchrist.org or call (419) 877-0607.