Not everything that happened fifty years ago this month made international news or found its way into the history books. While President Eisenhower was sharing his caveat-laden farewell and President Kennedy was delivering his clarion call to Cold War vigilance, something else—quite microscopic in comparison—was going on about twenty miles to the west of Washington, DC. And it is something that still makes a real difference today.
It all started with a guy named Floyd, a 38 year-old employee of the Federal government. He, along with a few other families, had a vision to start a new church in an area of Fairfax County that was at the time a distant outpost of still near-pastoral suburbia. They rented a tiny facility, one heated by a smelly oil-burning stove that barely put a dent in the chill that frigid month. Bed sheets were hung over wire to create “classrooms” for Sunday school. And when nature’s call trumped the call to worship, the people had to bundle up and walk across the road to a firehouse to use the “facilities.” No pomp. No frills. It was barely noticed at all—except from a vantage point high above.
In an understandable sense, the juxtaposition of the great political events of January 1961, with something involving just thirty or so people a short distance away, might seem awkward, even strained. But a closer look reveals that such parallelism involving the political and spiritual has been part and parcel of our national cultural identity since long before we began shooting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. The story of America cannot be told without stories of faith, community, and vision.
Churches—in all shapes, sizes, and styles.
Floyd White, a man who would be embarrassed with genuine and self-effacing humility at the writing of these very well due words, was not a pastor. He had never been to seminary, nor had he any ambition to morph from layman to clergyman. He simply loved God, people, and believed very much in the capacity of a local church to touch lives and impact a community with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
When the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., former Speaker of the House of Representatives, lost his first political race in the mid-1930s, his father reminded him of something that would become the famous man’s trademark quote: “All politics is local.” The point being that connecting with the people at the political grassroots is the key to enduring effectiveness.