In 1877 a women’s sewing society began collecting funds to build an Episcopal church in West Berkeley. Today, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd remains in its original building at 1823 Ninth St. It is the oldest continually occupied church in Berkeley.
On Aug. 10, Good Shepherd will celebrate its 125th anniversary, which coincides with the founding of the city of Berkeley. In recognition of the special day, the congregation will hold a special worship ceremony and a community party, and the mayor plans to declare Aug. 11 “Good Shepherd Day.”
But the real celebration, congregants say, is the recent completion of phase one of a renovation process to upgrade the structure of the classic carpenter gothic building and make it more attractive to passersby and members alike.
The bulk of the funds raised for the renovation project—a capital campaign brought in $70,000—went toward replacing leaky gutters, enhancing the building’s structural foundation, and making other small repairs to ensure the safety and solidity of the historic church building. But on the occasion of its anniversary, Good Shepherd also received an aesthetic makeover, taking on a new coat of brightly colored paint.
“Cars and bikers and pedestrians have been stopping to look since we got the building painted,” said Jane Redmont, the communications director for the church’s anniversary and remodel. “Those bright colors do make a difference.”
Redmont added that the attendance at Sunday morning worship services since the building was painted has consistently been three or four people more than the church’s average—a major gain considering the congregation is comprised of about 50 people.
But attracting new people to participate in church activities is not a new goal for Good Shepherd, whose motto is “Welcoming, thoughtful, progressive.”
An item from the Berkeley Advocate newspaper in October 1877 noted that “an Episcopal interest is springing up and attracting many of various shades of belief,” a quote that rings true for many involved in the congregation, who emphasize their welcoming attitude to people invested in, questioning, or doubting their faith.
“The members range widely in their relationship to certain doctrinal statements,” Redmont said. “More than many other churches there is room at Good Shepherd for questioning and seeking.”
With this encouragement of participation from people of all faith backgrounds comes an emphasis on maintaining a diverse congregation. Though the members are predominantly white, the group has a wide age range, as well as variances in gender, sexual orientation, and social class. Congregants include artists, students, business administrators, a yoga teacher, restaurant staff, and unemployed people.
“On a Sunday morning we typically have at least two Ph.Ds and one homeless person in the church,” Redmont said.
Church member Barry Hathaway said that the diversity at Good Shepherd make it a welcoming place to be.
“It’s a great group of fascinating people,” he said. “The variety gives it spirit.”
Good Shepherd is a unique church not only because of its diverse congregation. Unlike most Episcopal mission churches, the congregation’s vicar, Kathleen Van Sickle, is not a priest, but rather a deacon who works 65 percent time as the primary administrator and pastor of the church. Van Sickle has been at Good Shepherd since 1987, and says she enjoys the opportunity to be an integral part of the community.
“We love our little congregation,” she said. “But we’re not here for ourselves. We’re trying to show with our lives and our worship and everything we do that the Gospel is there for all.”
The senior warden of the church, Laura Peterson, recognizes Good Shepherd’s role as a part of the West Berkeley neighborhood where it sits. Peterson, who lives just two blocks away on Seventh Street, said the church has an opportunity to help not only its members but also the community.
“It’s important to be able to get the neighbors together as community center,” she said. “It’s nice to be a place that people look to to come together.”
To that end, Good Shepherd puts on a monthly meal for the homeless population and hosts occasional events that are specifically pegged as community-oriented. During the war in Iraq, the church held weekly prayers for peace that were Christian-oriented but welcoming to people of all faith backgrounds.
“We’re all about getting as many people as possible involved in everything we do,” Peterson said. “We see our mission as not just about our members but for everybody in the world around us.”
Good Shepherd will host a special Anniversary Liturgy on Sunday, Aug. 10 at 10:00 a.m. A barbeque party will take place at the church following the service at 11:30 a.m.