Vine Congregational Church United Church of Christ

Rev. Renae Koehler came to Vine Congregational Church in 2010 as the church's first female minister. She's part of the church's 125-year history that has seen tremendous changes, including becoming Lincoln's first proclaimed "open-and-affirming" church serving the LGBT community.

GWYNETH ROBERTS/Lincoln Journal Star

In December 1903, Vine Congregational Church expelled M.J.H. for her “unchristian life and conduct.”

Church records don’t elaborate on what sins the woman known only by her initials committed.

But given the church tenets of the day -- “This church desires to bear testimony against the evils of intemperance, card playing and dancing, which it believes are detrimental to Christian life” -- it is likely the very behaviors leading to Ms. H’s expulsion wouldn't raise an eyebrow today.

Which leaves us wondering what the church’s forefathers would think if they attended Vine Congregational United Church of Christ today -- with its female minister, gay weddings and an official proclamation declaring the church as an open and affirming church for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.

Such is the Vine Congregational Church of 2015.

Sunday, the church concludes its yearlong 125th anniversary celebration. The 10:30 a.m. service will be led by the Rev. Charles L. Wildman, who served as Vine Congregational Church’s pastor from 1977 to 1989.

A potluck lunch, a skit and more than one century worth of memories will be shared.

And members will look back upon this 125th year -- a year dedicated to reaching out and helping others-- with every congregant committing to 125 individual acts of kindness.

No longer is the church a judge of morality and who is or is not “Christian.”

Today it is a church of love, acceptance and inclusion, said Koehler, who came to Vine Congregational Church in 2010. A church that respects all religions and all people regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, age or economic status.

“We see ourselves as midwives of hope,” Koehler said. “We are not about the past, but about the now and the future. ... We see each other in the light of God in ourselves instead of seeing each other as sinners.

“Christianity is evolving and we are a big part of helping that occur."

Indeed, the church’s belief statement addresses the individuality of its people and acceptance of all of God’s children.

… We believe that each person is unique and valuable.

… We believe that each person is on a spiritual journey.

… We believe the UCC is called to be a united and uniting church.

We believe that God calls us to be servants in the service of others.

We believe in the power of peace.”

* * *

Vine Congregational Church got its start as a Sunday school project for First Congregational Church.

As Lincoln grew, First Congregational Church sprouted shoots: Plymouth (now First-Plymouth) and in 1890 Vine Congregational, named for its location at 25th and Vine streets.

Vine Church grew quickly; by 1893 membership surpassed 160 people -- sometimes drawing from other congregational churches.

According to church history, one couple unable to choose which congregational church to attend left it up to their horse, which took the path to Vine.

By 1903, the church had outgrown its building. Members debated whether to add on and remodel the existing facility or move to a new building. To ease financial constraints, the church women ran the dining room at the Nebraska State Fair -- a task they continued for 12 years.

“Cots were set up so they could keep an eye on items on the stove overnight,” church member Cheryl Svoboda wrote in a history piece for the church newsletter, the Vine Reporter.

By 1905, after several unsuccessful attempts to find a new location, the church purchased a plot at 25th and S streets for $2,800. The congregation moved the following year.

But with the move from Vine Street came a bigger question: Should the church change its name?

Ultimately, the congregation voted to keep the name, and “vine” no longer represented a Lincoln street, but the Bible passage John 15:1: I am the true vine. My Father is the gardener.

In 1958, Vine Congregational Church moved to its present location at 1800 Twin Ridge Road -- at that time considered the outskirts of Lincoln.

Years earlier (1948), the congregation voted against the national merger of the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. But in 1960, following the national merger in 1957, the Vine congregation voted to become part of the new denomination, the United Church of Christ, a church of “firsts.”

Throughout the church’s history, Vine’s women have played an integral role in its growth -- and its very survival. Running the State Fair dining room proved lucrative and helped the congregation through hard financial times.

Vine women have always been creative in their fundraising, whether it was earning a quarter through free facials at a beauty salon, to canning the communion grape juice, to sewing shirts for the Red Cross and canning surplus fruits and vegetables to give away over the winter, Svoboda wrote.

* * *

In an era where church attendance is declining and membership/affiliation is dropping, Vine is growing -- especially among young parents “who want their children to grow up in a church that is inclusive of all people,” Koehler said.

“We believe God is still speaking and working in the world,” she said.

And because God is still speaking, they are still listening, carefully -- as the church’s belief statement expresses:

We are Christians who respect all world religions.

We believe everyone will go to heaven/afterlife

We are open to questions and do not have to have all the answers

We believe in evolution.

We go on mission trips to learn and help other, not to try to make people become Christians.

“It is important to be on our feet; to do the things that I believe Jesus would do -- reach out to other people,” Koehler said.

“If we keep doing that, I think we will be around for more than another 125 years,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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