Commentary, Guest Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our county’s 80-plus churches have roots in the 18th century (remember that Glebe Rd. is named for a church’s slice of income-producing land, and the Glebe House on N. 17th St., rebuilt in the 1850s, still stands).

      The first on our soil was likely George Washington Parke Custis’s “Chapel of Ease,” constructed in the 1820s on the grounds of Arlington House, followed by Mount Olivet Methodist in 1860.

      But one could argue that the church “most central” (geographically and perhaps in congregational loyalty) is First Presbyterian at 601 N. Vermont St. in Ballston.

     Founded in 1872 at the central intersection of Ball’s Crossroads, that dynamic church is now marking its 150th anniversary. A service and potluck luncheon this Sunday, Nov. 20, at which county board members are slated to attend, forms part of a year’s activity that includes a special logo, a photo gallery of all 26 pastors (all found but one), picnics, tree plantings, a curated “memory walk,” and “Snowball” prom for all ages.

      “Our vision is to use our 150th for an opportunity to reunite our church and involve as many volunteers as possible, in small or one-time things so we don’t overextend anyone,” I’m told by co-organizer Lynnette Yount (daughter of the church’s longest-serving pastor George Yount, who led it from 1944-80). The faith mission is to “re-ignite our commitment to Christ and our church, and inspire us for the next 150 years.”

      A detailed history of First Presbyterian appeared 50 years ago in the Arlington Historical Magazine, where writer Donald Wise marked the church’s centennial by situating it within the broader history of Arlington (then Alexandria County) as farmland recovering from the Civil War.   

     In February 1872, 29 founding congregants met at the home of Malvina A.G. Hayes, contributing fees as charity. By June, an arrangement with the Presbytery of Washington City had the minister of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, Rev. David H. Riddle, preach at 3:00 p.m. every other Sunday. By December, he was appearing every Sunday. A hall above Mortimer’s Blacksmith Shop became the Sunday school, and the group raised $1,200 to buy 11 acres (on the corner that later became Bob Peck Chevrolet). Construction began April 18, 1873, and the dedication by 67 parishioners happened Oct. 22, 1876.

      By World War II, the congregation had outgrown the sanctuary. Trustees raised $35,000 to purchase 3.5 acres for building the current structure at Vermont and Carlin Springs Rd. (with later modifications), opening in 1951. By the 1960s, they needed two Sunday services, and the Sunday School served 500 children.

          First Presbyterian made a commitment to social issues. In the 1960s, parishioners were active in the Civil Rights movement. Yount got involved with a citizens group that countered the influence of the American Nazi Party. The church pioneered a special class for children with disabilities, adding a wheelchair ramp in front of the sanctuary. It appointed the first female elder (Jeannette Ragusa) in the 1970s, and in the 1990s welcomed a first openly gay couple.

     Today’s church houses a free Head Start program for preschoolers. Congregants bag meals for the homeless and host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It shares space with La Iglesia Libertad Sin Fronteras, a Spanish-speaking Church.

    After 150 years, the church is plugged into a thoroughly modern Arlington.

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    Melody Miller, for four decades the spokeswoman for the Kennedy family, was my friend and collaborator in the Yorktown High School Hall of Fame and Inspiration. She died Nov. 9 at 77, from a heart attack in her Washington home.

     The event that changed her life came during senior year at Yorktown in 1963. President Kennedy invited her to the White House after liking a bust she’d sculpted of him. After graduating from Penn State, Melody would work for Jackie, Robert, Ted (for 30 years), Caroline and JFK Jr.

      It was only fitting that she was inducted in the Hall of Fame for the county school she did so much to help establish.