PSR's Scenic expansion

October 31, 2008
Russell Schoch

PSR and Disciples Seminary Foundation have purchased University Christian Church, across Scenic Avenue from PSR. Now known as the Ecumenical Center of Berkeley, it will be the site of the 2009 Earl Lectures and Leadership Conference. (Fall 2008 Bulletin story follows.)


UNIVERSITY CHRISTIAN CHURCH was built on Scenic Avenue, across from Pacific School of Religion, in 1931, during the Great Depression. Elizabeth Truesdell Dickey joined the Disciples of Christ church when she was a freshman at nearby UC Berkeley in 1937, and continued to worship there for 70 years. She remembers that the minister climbed up into the tower (located directly across from PSR’s parking lot) to compose his sermons and donned a morning coat to deliver them on Sunday mornings. The women in the congregation wore white gloves and hats, she recalls, while the men wore suits and ties. Students from the University of California and from Pacific School of Religion, along with the community, kept the church vibrant.

Membership reached its highest point, she says, in the 1950s, when a huge choir, accompanied by a splendid organ, sang to a full sanctuary, and University Christian Church held two services each Sunday. But, mirroring the decline in attendance across mainline Protestant denominations, the church’s membership fell off in the 1960s and over the following decades, holding on until the final service was held in February 2007.

Mary Donovan Turner, currently PSR’s dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, began participating at University Christian Church when she became a PSR faculty member in 1991. Ten years later, when the church building celebrated its 70th anniversary, she was serving as interim pastor. “I fell in love with the building and what it had meant to PSR and to the University of California through its early years,” she said recently. ”The commitment of those persons to build that church in the Depression as a symbol of hope for the community greatly impressed me.”

Turner points to many ties between PSR and University Christian Church. It chose its location on Holy Hill precisely because PSR had just built there, she says. And not only did PSR students attend the church but, between 1932 and 1949, the church hosted PSR’s annual Earl Lectures. Its longest-serving pastor, Jack Finegan, was a professor at Pacific School of Religion where he taught Old Testament for 30 years.

Those historic ties now have a permanent future. Over the summer, PSR and the Disciples Seminary Foundation (DSF) joined together to make an offer to purchase University Christian Church. The offer was accepted, and the sale was made final on October 31.

DSF established a formal relationship with PSR in 1987, opening an office in Holbrook Hall for the purpose of supporting the formation of Disciples leaders enrolled at PSR and other Bay Area seminaries. ”In the spirit of genuine partnership, DSF and PSR have acted together to achieve something important that either acting alone probably could not have achieved,” said DSF president Mary Anne Parrott. “The University Christian Church facility serves admirably our common goal of leadership formation.”

PSR Professor Joseph Driskill serves as dean of the Disciples Seminary Foundation in Berkeley. This summer, DSF moved its office from PSR across Scenic Avenue into the former University Christian Church, now known as the Ecumenical Center of Berkeley.

PSR’s summer session office has for years rented space there, and this summer the coordinator of PSR’s Certificate of Ministry Studies program, Ann Jefferson, moved into an office in the church. The new director of Continuing and Community Education, whose responsibilities include the Earl Lectures, will also be housed in the church building. And in January, 2009, the 108th Earl Lectures and Leadership Conference will return to Holy Hill and the former University Christian Church for the first time in 60 years.

“Purchasing a building is a bit controversial at a time of tight budgets,” said Mary Donovan Turner. “But we are hopeful that through the kind of ministries we can generate there, and through rentals, it will be revenue-producing. I am hopeful that the church will become a community educational resource center where people can come together. PSR, for the first time, will have enough space both for a church congregation and for wider community events, like the Earl Lectures.”

Turner is on the pastoral leadership team of a new church start in the building, a Disciples of Christ congregation unconnected to the one that existed there from 1931 to 2007. “Tapestry Ministries started last April, and we now have about 25 people,” she said. “It was intended to be a radically inclusive, multi-racial community, and it is. We meet for dinner at 5 pm on Sundays, with worship at 6.”

Having served in various capacities on both sides of Scenic Avenue for the past 17 years, Turner says she feels very excited about the future. “I don’t know precisely what’s going to happen in the years ahead, but I can feel the energy and potential that building holds for PSR’s future. I believe it’s a convergence of the right things at the right time.”