The Rev. John Ohmer, who for seven years led the recovery of the congregation of the historic Falls Church Episcopal from its many years of exile, held his final service there last Sunday, departing for a new position in Asheville, North Carolina. Over 400 attended his last service and a reception held after.
When Ohmer came onto the scene at the church in September 2012, the property had just been reclaimed by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia from a more than six year occupation by defectors who’d voted to leave the denomination in December 2005, but then continued to occupy the property. They voted to leave in large part protesting the Episcopal denomination’s election of an openly-gay bishop in 2003.
During those years of occupation, whose claim to the property after years of litigation was denied by the Virginia Supreme Court and then went unheard by the U.S. Supreme Court, a small remnant of “continuing Episcopalians” persisted, first meeting in the living room of a lay member and then invited to worship in the fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church across the street.
That small remnant was only 40 persons at first, and when they were eventually given back the historic church property — where George Washington reportedly worshipped and that served as a hospital during the Civil War — they began weekly services with only 60 or so in attendance.
Being called to serve the congregation, Ohmer’s first service was on Sept. 9, 2012 and from the beginning, as Associate Rector Kelly Moughty said at the reception following the service Sunday, he insisted on “planting a flag” in the main sanctuary with its capacity of 800, despite only 60 or so parishioners then, and to “not be afraid” of claiming it.
The fruit of that commitment were seen in the 400 people who attended this Sunday. Over Ohmer’s tenure, 138 baptisms have been performed.
In his final sermon Sunday, Ohmer focused on three points, stressing to the congregation that “you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it,” that “when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might, and love your neighbor as yourself,’ ” and “love is not so much an emotion or a feeling as it is a series of concrete actions.”
He added, “You don’t just go to church, you are the church. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion will look upon the world, yours are the feet with which Christ will go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which Christ will bless others now.” And he cautioned, “Remember that this side of Heaven, there will never be a time when ‘everything will be fine.’”
Under his leadership, the church adopted a statement of purpose that became enshrined on a plaque displayed there, saying the church is “a welcoming community called to be an enduring beacon of faith, hope and love to all.”
In an earlier interview with the News-Press, Ohmer said he was blessed to serve “a fantastic faith community with a fantastic story” with a “radical hospitality toward all, and all means all.”
He said that by being denied their church property for so many years contributed to the core congregation’s deeply-based hospitality and sense of welcome to all. “It is an outwardly-facing congregation,” he added, noting the role the church has played as a “second community center for Falls Church,” opening its facilities for many community events.
They included meetings of the Falls Church Social Action Committee in the fellowship hall, and the historic “Stonewall 50” panel this June co-hosted with the News-Press to celebrate and reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that are credited with the founding of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
Leaving after his seven years “is bittersweet,” Ohmer said. “This is a good sad,” added Moughty this Sunday, and there were more than a few tears from congregants, including among the youth.
The church’s chief rector position will be filled by an interim while the congregation works with the Diocese to find a permanent replacement after a year or so.
Ohmer told the News-Press, “I did what I came to do here. I have tried to foment a healing sense following the split in the congregation and helped to make God more real and the Bible more alive to people here.”
“We don’t ask people to conform, but to gain a sense of being sent by God. The focus is not on what someone is supposed to be, but what someone is called to do. We benefit by the energy, passion and time all contribute here,” he said.
Moughty recalled at the reception Sunday that when Ohmer first arrived, he transformed the rector’s office from a place organized to emit a sense of power to one that had a conference table in its center, to draw from a collaborative effort of everyone. “Collaboration is more important than power,” she said.
Backing that up was a large banner at the reception reading, “All crew, no passengers.”
“This is a beautiful, growing place,” Ohmer said at the conclusion of the reception, recalling the three essential components of prayer that were the subject of his sermon that day, which he said are to express “help, thanks, and ‘wow.’ ”