Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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 Many steeples dot the Arlington landscape, but few embody our hometown’s activist style of religion like Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ.

On May 18-20, Rock Spring will mark its 100th anniversary with a litany of events ranging from a reunion of old pastors to a strawberry festival to a special service for the congregation of 500. Their contributions give them much cause for celebration–countywide.

There’s Arlington’s first community lending library, its first Boy Scout troop, its first cooperative preschool. A roster of prominent Rock Springers includes the late County Board stars Ellen Bozman and Jim Hunter and legendary state Del. Mary Marshall.

Fingerprints of other members can be found on the cornerstones of such institutions as Hospice of Northern Virginia, local Meals on Wheels, the Arlington Food Assistance Center, Arlingtonians Meeting Emergency Needs (AMEN) and the Arlington Housing Corp.

My own relationship with the handsome campus on Little Falls Road consists of having performed, as a 12-year-old in 1965, in a well-meaning rock band on the stage of its Neighborhood House. But I know some contemporary members.

Sara Fitzgerald, a parishioner who married her husband there in 1975, sees the place as “extended family” for many transplanted Washingtonians. “Over the course of its history, Rock Spring seems to have always attracted people who were thoughtful, curious and committed,” she told me. “The key issues have changed over the past 100 years, but we continue to strive to make the world a better place for all of God’s children. We don’t always agree, but we respect each other’s opinions. And we find ways to have fun in the process.”

I asked the current senior pastor, the Rev. Kathryn Nystrand Dwyer, how she addresses political sensitivities from the altar of nonpartisanship. Rock Spring “honors the individual thought process of every person and has long encouraged putting faith into action through service,” she said. “We have a tradition of encouraging respectful and informed conversation and dialogue about current and controversial issues that affect people from all walks of life. We embrace advocacy towards dialogue, bridge-building and understanding. Through sermons, forums, and educational programs, we try to provide a theological rather than political grounding for these efforts.”

The historical record offers an even rarer legacy–one of outward-looking, pragmatic citizens prone to avant-garde action. The congregation’s first gift to the community was bestowed just three years after its founding as Vanderwerken Congregational Church (named for the nearby trolley stop along what today is Old Dominion Drive).

What became the Carrie M. Rohrer Memorial Library began in 1915 when a church committee sought to honor a young mother recently deceased. As Eleanor Lee Templeman wrote in her history of Arlington, “They all knew the tedium of reading the same few stories over and over, yet books were expensive for people on government salaries and the nearest public library was Seventh and K Streets in Washington.”

That children’s library, like the cooperative preschool set up at Rock Spring during World War II by WETA founder Elizabeth Campbell and others, still serves the church mission.

In January, the Virginia General Assembly adopted a resolution honoring Rock Spring’s clergy and members for their “constant commitment to democratic decision-making and consensus-building.” The Arlington County Board approved a similar proclamation, congratulating the church for a “vision that looks beyond its immediate neighborhood.” 

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]