In 1857, there were just 13 log houses in the newly founded town of Fremont, Neb., located along the banks of the Elkhorn and Platt Rivers. The Mormons had made the same place a stopover on their way from Missouri to Salt Lake City. Today, a plaque in Fremont’s Barnard Park commemorates where the Mormon pioneers once made camp.
By 1866, the Union Pacific Railroad had come to Fremont, soon to become a railway hub. Three years later, a small group of people met together to organize a church, the First Baptist Church of Fremont. That church celebrated its 150th anniversary yesterday. Two years ago, my brother Richard became its minister.
He and his wife, Nola, moved to Fremont, a lively town of approximately 27,000. My brother has settled into his new position, learning about the members of his new congregation and community. Since its founding, the church has played an important role in Fremont, such as aiding those who need help whose homes were damaged by the flood waters this spring.
I made a trip earlier this summer to visit my brother and his wife there and to see their new home and church. Their home is situated next door to the red brick church built in 1901. The church is a Romanesque revival style architecture. Its solid exterior exemplifies the kind of church buildings that dot small Midwestern towns. They were the center of activity, where townsfolk gathered for social events as well as to attend services on Sunday. They were places, and still are, where families of like faiths, beliefs and values congregated and came together to help one another through tough times as well as good. They were where lives were celebrated through baptisms, weddings and funerals.
The back door to the church is right around the corner from the front door of the church parsonage. One evening, I joined my sister-in-law when she invited to give me a tour of the church. I followed her through the church’s back door when she went to feed the baby chicks, waiting for her nightly arrival, that were peeping hungrily in their temporary cardboard box coop in the church’s youth classroom. The chicks had been living and growing there since Easter and were soon to be relocated to the farm of one of the church members.
We headed up the back stairs into the church and passed into the sanctuary. The sanctuary was empty, dim and quiet when we entered. Strong, simple dark timber beams supported the steep pitched high ceiling. From these beams hung long lantern-like lamps that beautifully lit the interior with a soft white light when my sister-in-law switched them on. Behind the altar and the the choir pews at the front of the aspe was a large blue stained glass window. The blue glass of the arched window was deep and tranquil. Lining either side of the sanctuary were golden crisscross leaded windows through which the evening light cast a warm glow over the rows of the dark wooden pews. The mood was reverent and peaceful. It indeed felt like this place, at this moment truly offered sanctuary from the troubles of the outside world.
On Sunday, when I attended my brother’s church service, the sanctuary had come alive as people came in to find their seats in the pews in preparation for the 9:30 a.m. traditional service. (A more contemporary and casual worship takes place at 11 a.m. in church’s Family Center located adjacent to the main building.) The church members greeted one another by name and welcomed me as they introduced themselves before the service started. It was a reminder that the church is not the building, as fine a structure as this one is, but the people within. Like those first Fremont residents who had come together 150 years ago to start their church, the current members carry on their work to keep their church alive.
My brother, as its pastor, now leads this group of faithful members to continue its outreach into the community and to serve its greater mission of providing a place where people can come together to freely worship and commune with one another. Besides its regular services, the church provides assistance to the families and staff of Fremont’s Washington Elementary School, where many children from the town’s Hispanic population attend school. It provides birthday cupcakes at the LifeHouse homeless shelter. Two Alcoholics Anonymous groups meet at the church as does a woodworking hobby club. During the downtown’s annual Halloween Hysteria, it served free hot dogs to hungry costumed characters and their parents last year. At the town’s John C. Fremont Days in July, it set up to sell 50-cent hot dogs and soda to celebrants and offered crafts activities to the kids. It also began a ‘Big Truck Day’ a couple years ago and invited local companies and utilities to park some of its over-sized trucks on the church parking lot where delighted youngsters and their parents could get a close-up look at these gigantic vehicles.
But its biggest role and challenge this past year was in orchestrating and providing local disaster relief efforts to the hundreds of people living in and around Fremont whose homes and belongings were damaged or destroyed when the rivers flooded caused the town to be cut off from outside help for several days. When the water began to recede, the church still continued to deliver and distribute much-needed donated basic supplies, such as diapers, mops and cleaning products, food, socks and water to those most impacted by the crises. Together with members from their community, they coordinated efforts to help the flood victims get back in their houses and back on their feet.
It’s a role that my brother sees as an important part of his church’s work and mission. “We can’t do a lot of stuff, ” he told a local newspaper reporter, “but we can help fill in the gaps here and there.
“We want to be known as a church that’s a blessing to its community,” he adds. I’m sure the original founders of his church, 150 years ago, would have agreed.