On March 31, 1878, 27 individuals, eager to minister to a budding university community, founded the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley.
First Pres came to life one day before Berkeley itself was incorporated, and the church and city have grown together ever since.
In fact, we quickly outgrew our first three homes before purchasing the current lot, at the corner of Dana and Channing Streets, in 1902. Our membership was about 500 at the time, but we built a sanctuary large enough to seat nearly three times that number. The vision behind this confident move did not go unrewarded. Over the coming decades, First Pres would continue to build our membership and to expand our ministries.
Youth and college ministries were focal points for First Pres from our earliest days. By the early 1900s, hundreds of students active at First Pres had moved on to full-time Christian ministry. The Calvin Club, as our college fellowship was called, was particularly active during the war years, and well into the 1960s.
Mission is another longstanding commitment, with support of overseas missions dating from the early 1900s. This emphasis on mission became firmly rooted during the 1950s, when more than half of the church’s budget was devoted to mission work. No other church in the country could match that commitment. At the same time, dozens of our members were going into Christian service, accounting for a full 10 percent of all Presbyterian missionaries sent from the U.S. into struggling parts of the world.
The cultural upheavals of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s had an impact on First Pres, as attendance declined and street demonstrations left broken windows and anxious citizens in their wake. It was during this time that the fire department declared our 65-year-old sanctuary unsafe. With much of the neighborhood boarded up, First Pres might have retreated.
Instead, church leaders were determined to live out our mission on this corner. What’s more, we took the bold step of building a sanctuary lined with glass windows, giving renewed visibility to our ministry and welcoming the community inside.
The new sanctuary was dedicated on June 8, 1975. From that point forward, the church rebounded, expanding many of our ministries — music, children and families, education, food service, and homeless outreach. Berkeley Christian Counselors (formerly the Christian Lay Counseling Service) began as a ministry of the church in 1978. And our licensed childcare facility, Cornerstone Children’s Center, was founded in 1991.
With this growth in programming came an expansion of our facilities, with the renovation of McKinley Hall and Geneva Hall to accommodate education, child care, counseling and other ministries.
In 2017, 1951 Coffee Company opened its first coffee shop on our campus, further engaging the church with the community (university students especially). 1951 Coffee is a non-profit organization providing job training and employment to refugees and asylees while educating the surrounding community about refugee life and issues.
1951 Coffee Company is just one of the 29 local and international mission partners First Pres supports today. Through our mission partner relationships, the church works to fulfill our commitments on behalf of justice, poverty, oppression, and women around the globe.
For nearly a century and a half, First Pres has lived into our vision as a beacon of hope for communities in need. Every day, we continue to listen, so that we might understand where God is calling us next.