Rev. Richard L. Worden was appointed to start a new congregation to serve the King’s Park area in June, 1963. The congregation was started by a “door-knocking” program.
Saint Stephen, for whom the church was named, was “full of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom,” and had been called to come and take care of that first Christian community. (Acts 6:3) Stephen is the one who died for his faith in the face of persecution, speaking boldly and unwaveringly. (Acts 7:54ff)
Since there was no building, St. Stephen’s began in schools. Ravensworth School in Ravensworth Farm was under construction when St. Stephen’s held its first worship service in its entrance hall on September 8, 1963 with 83 individuals in attendance.
Alice Tolliver said, “Richard Wordon Came to see me at the old Lincolnia school where I was principal of Ravensworth Elementary School … (he) asked if I’d agree to having St. Stephen’s meet in the school as soon as it was near completion … I was almost as excited and enthusiastic as he … the first Sunday we met in the vestibule of the school: we had folding chairs, a folding table, a portable lectern, a table cloth on the table, a portable organ, and a beautiful vase of flowers. We served coffee, tea, and juice after the service, and everyone seemed to have caught the spirit of the occasion.”
On January 10, 1965, when King’s Park Elementary School was completed, the congregation moved there for services and Sunday School. Services continued there for the next four and a half years. Our annual Vacation Bible School began in that summer.
Recognizing the needs of others, the congregation sponsored the family of Dr. Rene Llaneras, a refugee from Cuba. In November 1965, we found an apartment, paid rent and provided his family (wife and two small boys) with food and clothing, and helped him find a job. Dr. Llaneras moved to Miami, FL to complete his medical internship about a year later.
After a long search, the Board of Missions bought a 5.5 acre parcel of land on Braddock Road west of King’s Park, much of it swampland. The congregation was small and money was difficult to obtain. Ever optimistic, groundbreaking was on the fourth anniversary, December 3, 1967. Financial and construction hardships ensued, and finally on May 4, 1969, the new sanctuary was consecrated.
For people currently living in the area, it is difficult to realize how pioneering St. Stephen’s was. Braddock Road was a narrow two-lane dirt road from the Beltway exit west. Between the two entrances to King’s Park was Rebel Hill, a long steep grade which was a nightmare in bad weather. The entrance to Burke Lake Road was difficult to find because of the towering trees and overgrowth. The trek to groundbreaking was quite an event with snow on the ground, and cars and boots sinking in the mud!
The families who started St. Stephen’s were mostly young, salaried, government or military workers with small children, high mortgages (at that time) and with people living far from “home.” They were looking for a stable, friendly church which reminded them of home and their childhood. St. Stephen’s seemed to fit the need.
The form of the original sanctuary (now called the “Chapel” or “Welcome Center”) goes back to Andrea Palladio who died 400 years ago. He argued that the ideal church plan should be circular, “the most proper figure to show the unity, infinite essence, uniformity and justice of God.” The center altar brings the congregation close to the center of worship. The circle was eight-sided in our structure to symbolize rebirth. The sense of community fostered by the sanctuary-in-the-round, continues to be a unique value of St. Stephen’s.
In the spring of 1970, two Sunday School services were necessary to accommodate St. Stephen’s growing congregation. When the continually growing Sunday School program outgrew the space available in 1971, a trailer was obtained to provide more youth classrooms. The sixth grade Sunday School classroom in the winter of 1970, made two mosaic murals that still hang in our church – in the hallway between the Gathering Place and the old narthex.
In the fall of 1975, the church adopted the Vietnamese family of Mr. and Mrs. Truong and their four daughters. And in 1979, the church decided to sponsor another refugee family, the four Phanthavongs, originally from Laos.
The overflowing church needed some additional space, and has been added onto several times. The first in 1974 to build four classrooms, a large equipped kitchen and an all-purpose room that could hold 250 people. In 1980, we built a new narthex, and expanded our seating space for the Sanctuary (“Chapel”).
In 1982, Gilbert Reynolds designed and built a stained glass window “The Seraphin with the Hot Coal,” for the Narthex as a memorial to his father, William V. “Red” Reynolds. The window depicts the Bible verses of Isaiah 6:5-8 and can be seen in the wall of our present sanctuary.
With the building program completed, the church in 1982 undertook a major new outreach program which is designed to share our resources with helping agencies in our community and throughout the world. This is in addition to our support of FISH, FOCUS and the Community Ministry of Fairfax County.
In 1984, St. Stephen’s received her first African American pastor. At that time, the church membership was 99% white and included only three African-American families. Many members were apprehensive about the appointment. We quickly learned that our new pastor was a warm, loving human being and that his presence provided us with a unique opportunity to be in ministry.
In April 1987, a Long Range Planning Committee report called for building plans. And the summer of 1987 saw a major change in St. Stephen’s worship schedule. After years of deliberation, a decision was made to change the long-standing 9 am and 11 am worship times. Worship changed to beginning at 8:30 am and 11:00 am with Sunday School starting at 9:45 am. Despite much concern, the change was adopted smoothly and achieved some lessening of our parking problems.
The 25th Anniversary Memorial Rose Garden was planted in July, 1988. This is a visible sign of the celebration serving as a living symbol of the life and spirit of God at work in St. Stephen’s through faithful and beloved people.
The Next Twenty Years
A score of changes have taken place at St. Stephen’s UMC in the last two decades. Our next period of growth is characterized by those qualities Bishop Robert Schnase identified as the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.” As the church looks back on 45 years of service to the community, our practices remain clear:
- Radical Hospitality: Doors at St. Stephen’s remain open and inviting for people of all ages, races, and identities. During the winter time, the church hosts those seeking shelter from the cold Virginia winter. Visits to new members of the community and especially to church visitors include the offer of coffee cups, introduction to church leaders, and an opportunity to meet the pastoral staff for coffee. A preschool at St. Stephen’s provides education for many local families.
- Passionate Worship: St. Stephen’s embraces a variety of worship styles and experiences, from traditional to cutting-edge emerging worship services. The music program at St. Stephen’s is matched with a variety of talented vocalists and musicians. Music ranging from popular to rock to classic to gospel quartet can be heard through the year. Worship leadership includes the experiences of lay readers, speakers, and liturgists.
- Intentional Faith Development: Christian Education is a fully-integrated component of life in the St. Stephen’s community. Sunday school classes for all ages include a variety of curriculum. Practical faith development is encouraged through participation in worship, mission efforts, and sacramental participation.
- Risk-Taking Mission: By both example and immersion, St. Stephen’s UMC has shown a consistent desire to see to all of God’s Kingdom reflected in the membership and leadership of the church. Pastoral leaders have included diversity of ethnicity and gender. In the pews of St. Stephen’s you will find a diversity uncommon in today’s churches. People of color, people of differing physical and mental abilities, the young and the aged, and both lifelong Christians and those new to the church all play an important and visible role at St. Stephen’s. Our mission outreach includes assisting those in our immediate community through financial and practical assistance as well as outreach to those in our state and around the world. Mission trips, missionary support, and hand-on, hands-out assistance to those in need form the basis for St. Stephen’s mission to the world. An important difference at St. Stephen’s is an outreach budget completely separate from operations. Members at St. Stephen’s can target their giving to ensure each donation goes towards mission or support as they feel led.
- Extravagant Generosity: The St. Stephen’s community gives generously, not only within the immediate community, but also to the larger Christian church and the world. The congregation supports missionaries both directly and through the United Methodist Church Global Board of Missions. The church celebrates “One Great Hour of Sharing” and gives a special offering towards the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
The St. Stephen’s vision statement:
1. Receive Christ as the key to life, awake and alive, growing in knowledge and love of God.
2. Reflect Christ as the catalyst for community, inclusive and engaged, igniting mission and service for all.
3. Relay Christ as the call for a new generation, convinced and committed, sharing faith and hope with others.
Where will the church go next? Simply put, only God knows. With a deep commitment to follow where God’s Holy Spirit leads, St. Stephen’s is certain to be where the people of God meet people seeking God.