First Pres and the City of Berkeley have been growing together since 1878.
First Pres came to life on March 31, 1878—one day before Berkeley itself was incorporated. Twenty-seven individuals founded this church to serve the nearby university and the community at large.
We outgrew our first three homes before purchasing the current lot at the corner of Dana Street and Channing Way in 1902. The vision behind this move did not go unrewarded—over the coming decades, our membership and ministries would continue to grow.
Youth and college ministries were focal points from the earliest days of the church. 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 years of World War II, continuing well into the 1960s.
We also have a long-standing commitment to mission work, 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 this work. At the same time, dozens of members were going into Christian service, accounting for a full 10 percent of all Presbyterian missionaries sent from the U.S.
The cultural upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s had an impact on First Pres, as attendance declined and street demonstrations left broken windows and anxious citizens behind. 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, and built 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, and from that point forward, the church rebounded, expanding many ministries, including music, ministries for children and families, education, food service, and homeless outreach. Berkeley Christian Counselors (formerly the Christian Lay Counseling Service) began as a ministry of First Pres 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, the 1951 Coffee Company opened its first coffee shop on our campus, further connecting the church with the community. 1951 Coffee is a nonprofit 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 29 local and international mission partners that 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 those interested in learning more about our history in depth, read our 1973 brochure about our sanctuary, our 2003 Living from the Center brochure commemorating our 125th anniversary, our 2009 On this Corner brochure, or the history section of the 2020 Mission Study.
For nearly a century and a half, we at First Pres have lived into our vision as a beacon of hope. Every day, we continue to listen, so that we might understand where God is calling us next.