Fort Worth church marks its 25th anniversary this weekend

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor

It started out in 1993 as a satellite congregation of Dallas’ White Rock Community Church, with about 11 members meeting in a room above the garage at a member’s home.

WRCC Pastor Jerry Cook would preach the Sunday morning service at his church in Dallas, then head over to Fort Worth for Sunday evening services with the tiny new church.

This weekend, the more than 400-members-strong Celebration Community Church, which owns its own historic sanctuary and recently completed construction on its new community center — celebrates its 25th anniversary with a Saturday night gala and Sunday morning services.

The Rev. Carol West, who in August will mark her 20th anniversary as pastor of the church and after whom the new community center is built, said this week that Celebration may have started small, but that the church is a prime example of the power of faith.

When Cook left WRCC, West said, Celebration made do with two part-time pastors, an arrangement that lasted until about 1998, when both part-time preachers quit. So there the church was, five years into its existence, with about 37 members and no pastor.

But when many congregations might have called it quits, the members of Celebration Community Church stepped up and, in a show of amazing faith, rented an historic church building at 908 Pennsylvania Avenue for $2,000 a month.

“That was a huge risk,” West said this week. “That’s a lot of money for 37 people to cover, rent plus utilities and all the other costs. But they did it.”

Four months later, in August 1998, the congregation called West as their pastor, and Celebration Community Church hasn’t looked back since.

An historic church
The building Celebration rented some 20 years ago had originally been home to St. John’s Evangelical and Reform Church, another congregation that started out meeting in someone’s home. Chartered in 1882 under the direction of the Rev. F. Werning, a pioneer missionary from Waco, the church first consisted of some 12 families of German descent.

The church’s original sanctuary was built on Calhoun Street but moved to the corner of Texas and Taylor streets before settling at 908 Pennsylvania in 1915.

At first, West said, all of the church’s services were conducted in German. But then came World War II and the U.S.’s fight against Nazi Germany, and the church services switched to English.

At one point, she said, St. John’s congregation began to shrink. That’s when they merged with the First Congregational Church. But by 1998, the church was no more, and still, the church hesitated when the tiny LGBT congregation wanted to lease their facilities.

Rev West joins the team
West herself began working as a student clergymember in 1986, and was ordained in 1990. One of her first positions was as the AIDS chaplain at the Metropolitan Community Church of Dallas — now Cathedral of Hope UCC — at the height of the AIDS epidemic in North Texas.

After several years at what became the largest LGBT congregation in the country — perhaps the world — West left the ministry, choosing instead to work at local HIV/AIDS service organizations. But in the summer of 1998, she applied for the pastor’s position at Celebration.

“People told me I didn’t have a chance, that they’d never hire a woman,” she recalled. “But I applied anyway.”

And as it turned out, “people” were wrong. Not only did Celebration hire West, she led the charge in growing the church. She even helped found a satellite congregation in Mabank at Cedar Creek Lake called, aptly enough, Celebration on the Lake. That congregation has since spun off to become an independent church.

After being diagnosed last September with an aggressive form of breast cancer and beginning chemotherapy treatment in October, West has had to change her routine a little. Because the treatment depletes her immune system, she said, she has had to forgo her habit of entering the sanctuary early on Sunday mornings to greet those attending. And she can no longer stand at the church door at the end of the service to shake hands and trade hugs with congregants as they leave.

But, she notes, she has only missed “maybe three Sundays” in the pulpit since her treatments started, and she has no doubt that she will come out on top in her fight against the cancer.

The more things change
As Celebration marks it’s 25th anniversary, West said she is more than proud of the church that started with a giant leap of faith. “It’s an amazing group of people,” she said of her congregation. “It’s a family.”

While that has never changed, West said she has seen a lot of changes since the days she served at MCC Dallas.

“I was at MCC Dallas when the cops cruised the parking lots on Sunday mornings, writing down the license plate numbers of the cars that were there. I was there when the Klan came to the church. We had to hide, a lot,” she recalled. “People were afraid to be seen going into the church, afraid to be seen leaving. You could lose your kids back then, lose your job, lose your family.”

These days, though, “more people are bringing their families to church with them” at Celebration, West said. “We’ve had three and four generations in services here. We had a cantata here recently, and people came and brought their neighbors with them. And we have a very active group of straight allies who are members.

“These days, supposedly, [LGBT] people are welcome at more and more mainstream churches, and I know that we welcome everyone here,” she continued. “It’s a double-edged sword, I guess. I hate to see our [LGBT] churches lose our identity, but at the same time, we really do want to be — we really are — a church for all people. And I look forward to the day when all people really are welcome at all churches.”