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.
So it is with the church. Some debate ecclesiasticism as a concept, others see it as a movement writ large, yet others come up with tortured interpretations about what people long ago really meant about the relationship between religion and culture. But the faithful—those in the trenches of spiritual warfare and routine—understand that the concept of the local community church, a real flesh and blood coming-together of people with myriad needs and in various stages of spiritual awakening and development is really where the rubber meets the road in this country with regard to things that matter most.
So a case can be made, without laboring the point, that what happened in Fairfax, Virginia fifty years ago this month, seeds planted that have grown into a bountiful harvest of spiritual fruit, has made every bit as much of an enduring difference as any simultaneous pronouncements, policies, or politics, no matter how well intended, eloquently delivered, or ultimately executed.
It is important to remember that as the 1950s flowed into the 1960s there was a religious restlessness in America, one that would soon burst into full-blown rebellion. To many, church had ceased to be relevant, something that seemed to typify the gray-flannel conformity the new decade promised to replace. The vulgar comedian, Lenny Bruce—forerunner to all foul-mouthed performers to come—was fond of saying, “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” He was actually on to something, his cynicism notwithstanding. Some people were beginning to rethink “church.” However, this was not always part of a deeper quest for meaning. Sometimes people just wanted to cast off personal restraint and this is what eventually defined the 1960s.
Of course, the relevance of church to real life actually depended on what a particular church stood for, proclaimed, and authentically modeled.
The fledgling congregation meeting on West Ox Road in Fairfax grew from the start. Then came properties and buildings. Ministry expressions followed, ebbing and flowing to match the dynamic, often turbulent times. And though specific methods of doing things changed by necessity as the congregation grew along with the community, the essential message—the DNA that was present at the beginning—never changed. The church prospered, eventually with physical assets worth multiplied millions of dollars, but it never went to Floyd’s head. He remained a faithful, humble, man of God, through his 50s, 60s, and 70s.
These days he and Mary are in their 69th year of marriage and sit near the front during one of the services at Fair Oaks Church every Sunday. They were parents of three boys in 1961, now they are great-grandparents. And what’s more, their spiritual progeny includes thousands of people who have come to faith and clarity about the claims of Jesus Christ and the true meaning of life during the past five decades. Fair Oaks Church is celebrating its fiftieth birthday this weekend.
Their story is, of course, far from isolated and unique. Similar stories can be told in cities across America and throughout our long national experience. In fact, small groups of passionate visionaries are this weekend meeting in makeshift facilities bound together with a vision to make a difference. They may not have to deal with primitive heating systems or use bed sheets as dividers—and hopefully wherever they meet there is indoor plumbing. But the idea is the same, to birth institutions and movements that will help their neighbors find their way during difficult times.
I am a pastor and I freely admit that the story of church in America (and it has been like this everywhere throughout church history) is all too often told wrapped around the personalities of pastors. And I do, of course, believe very much in the high calling and sobering responsibilities related to such a vocation.
But the fact is that great churches are not about the pastor. They are first and foremost, of course, about God. Yet also, no church rises up anywhere to make a real difference for the Kingdom of God without people like Floyd White, a humble hero.
And a real American hero.