The Church is tradition, the Church is everlasting, the Church just exists. However, churches have lives and stories of their own, and those stories matter very much to those who have lived them and continue to live them. Here is our story, the Oconee Presbyterian Church story.
How does a new church begin? Most will agree that a church begins with a vision and the people to make the vision into reality. In the special case of Oconee Presbyterian, a new church began with a vision bequeathed by a congregation of the past to the Oconee County of today.
In 1989, West View Presbyterian Church was still on Atlanta Highway. The congregation was devoted but dwindling, and the people decided to close the doors of their church on Easter Sunday. West View instructed the North Georgia Presbytery to use its assets to start a new church in Clarke/Oconee County when the time was right. This money, combined with a trust created by the family of Cleyn Martin Cartledge, waited for ten years to begin a new church family.
Fast-forward ten years, and the time was right. In January 1999, a New Church Development Task Force was formed to get things started. First job: an organizing pastor. This group, which counted Jim and Nancy Heyl as members, got a special call about a new seminary graduate looking for a church. They called the Reverend Pamela Driesell, and she answered that call in August 1999. Now OPC had a pastor, and the next step was a congregation.
How does a new church find a congregation? The Task Force was itself the first congregation Pastor Pam had, and their job was to invite others to come and worship. Invitations went out into the community from friends and acquaintances to our informal gatherings on Sunday evenings. Services were informal, and held in living rooms. No bulletin, no hymnbooks, no piano (but there was a guitar). Usually there were less than twenty people there at a time. But there was a lot of laughter, sharing, and Pam’s preaching. And people kept coming.
How does a church find a place to meet and do its work when it hardly has a budget to work with? For Oconee Presbyterian Church, the answer was Malcom Bridge Middle School. On March 12, 2000 (first day of Lent), OPC held its first formal service.
At first the sanctuary was in the band room, surrounded by drums and cymbals. OPC placed adds in local papers, and hung invitations on doorknobs. In a little while, the OPC congregation was worshipping in what would always be called The Holy Cafeteria. The church’s worldly goods were kept in a trailer and unpacked (and repacked) each Sunday morning by dedicated volunteers. The air was filled with the sound of scraping chairs as they were put out and stacked back, but it gave members a chance to work side by side and to get to know one another.
You didn’t just come to worship; you came to pitch in. Behind the sound of Pam’s sermons there was always the drone of soda machines and the tumbling of ice in the cafeteria icemaker. Amongst all this, OPC inducted its first members on August 6, 2000 and elected a Steering Committee.
The business of the church had to be done, and when Tom Little donated office space, it had a place to happen. Pam had an office! Later, OPC would have a storefront on Experiment Station Road, next to a bookstore. Both offices were the homes of the prayer group, meetings, singing, grant writing, phone calls, and counseling sessions. They were presided over by a volunteer secretary, Elsie Bothwell. In a way, Elsie is a prime example of God’s love for OPC. A member of Covenant Presbyterian, Elsie was retired from her job and presented herself as OPC’s administrative backbone and Pam’s right hand.
It didn’t take many rounds of packing and unpacking the trailer into the Holy Cafeteria for church members and Pam to begin looking toward having our own building. People were still coming and joining our church in the Holy Cafeteria.
In February of 2001, with the steering hand of Norm Grayson, OPC purchased fifteen acres of land on Hog Mountain Road. People went out and looked at it, prayed on it, and tried to picture a church sitting there.
In October of 2001, OPC was officially chartered at a service held at the Oconee Civic Center, with the Rev. Pam Driesell installed as the church’s first pastor. Now, instead of a Steering Committee, Oconee Presbyterian Church had its first Session. Worship still happened in the Holy Cafeteria, accompanied by a young couple, Dawn and Patrick Davis, as music leaders. Lots of guitar music and keyboard, a sweet and far cry from Dr. Skip Taylor conducting today next to our grand piano. There was a square dance in that cafeteria, as well as baptisms, holidays, and one wedding. Pastor Pam preached on. All the while, new people from the community were coming to visit OPC, and many stayed. The OPC kids hunted for Easter eggs out where the carpool drivers parked. New members kept coming and joining. Our first Vacation Bible School spread itself out in the halls of the school. More new members. It was great fun, but that trailer wasn’t packing itself. OPC needed a building of its own.
Church buildings do not happen quickly or easily, but we were blessed with Norm Grayson, a prime piece of land, and some money to get plans together. On June 29, 2003, before worship, there was a groundbreaking, followed by the OPC Cornerstone Service and Barbeque on August 17. We had a cornerstone, and we were ready for a building. The OPC Capital Campaign Committee started asking for the money to build it.
In terms of the physical spot that is Oconee Presbyterian Church, the softball field came first. This is only fitting, as OPC had fielded a women’s softball team since 2001. Linda Ferrara’s dear grandfather, Henry “Bomp” Reiter , having been a lively part of the OPC congregation, inspired his grandchildren to use their inheritance to build us a softball field. Soon after that we had our pavilion, and with it, the perfect spot for sunrise Easter services. The church was here before the building ever was.
Linda Ferrara was tireless in her dedication to the planning and designing of a building that would take us from the Holy Cafeteria to the future. Once the construction began, she spent her time supervising the project. Of course, she had some help: lots of church members remember spending a Saturday morning painting the ceiling beams. And of course, during all this time, the volunteers were unpacking and repacking the trailer each Sunday, the secretary was answering phones in the storefront, Pam was preaching, Sue Jacobson was on board and people were still joining!
The home of Oconee Presbyterian Church is built on the highest point of elevation in Oconee County, and it has felt that way to us since it was framed. Many people in our community, some who would never even worship here, gave extra time and treasure to make the building a reality. The heart pine in the conference room and its special table were recycled from old buildings and donated to us. The stained glass window was the creation of an artist who was inspired by our story and made it in seven days. The West View bell, and bricks from its building, were salvaged by Norm Grayson to be used for OPC. One of the building’s workers even remembered ringing that bell when he was five. Later on, the tree at our entrance was donated in the name of Bob Detrick, who greeted us at our entrance for so long. It all came together from the hands of many. The building is a testament to the idea that all gifts made to God’s church are equal and important.
Due to our good fortune in finding Pam and adding so many loyal and loving members along the way, Oconee Presbyterian Church was surviving and growing in a way that not all new churches do. If it wasn’t already apparent by this time that OPC was special, the church won the Walton Award for Outstanding New Church Development in October 2004 (along with a $50,000 grant). One month later, on November 7, 2004, OPC held its first Sunday service in the new building. The West View bell rang for the first time at OPC. Goodbye, Holy Cafeteria. Hello, steeple!
Nobody was prepared for how much the building would change us as a church. Our music went up to the rafters, and Pam had lots more space to walk around while preaching. Amy and Mike Neill had a place to do playdough with the two and three year olds. There was a kids’ musical and a lot of joyful noises as OPC children enjoyed all that space to play! Michael and Heather Jacobson were the first to be married in the sanctuary. We were settling in.
With a building to call its own, OPC was able to expand its activities beyond the scope of Sunday mornings. The Pre-Youth Group met faithfully upstairs. The mission ministry collected blankets for the homeless, Change for Children, and shoes for Mexico.
Nine months after we moved into our home, countless people in New Orleans were cast out from theirs by Hurricane Katrina. Herb Meyer and a hard-working team of volunteers cared for three large families (19 people total), providing everything from housing and furniture to food and support.
In 2005, Pastor Pam began teaching classes for the Curious, Committed and Confirmed (what we call C2 classes now). There were handbells in addition to choir practice around the grand piano. And Phyllis Meyer embarked upon her Saturday routine: cowboy hat, riding mower, and the smell of cut grass.
As our base became stronger, OPC reached out more into our community. The congregation became involved with A.C.T.S. (Area Churches Together Serving) and fielded a basketball team as well as the softball teams. The Theology on Tap group began to take over area restaurants. The Youth Group sent more and more kids to Montreat. The OPC Kids’ Club became established on Wednesday nights along with PYG. There began to be CARE teams to reach out to our increasing numbers. Pam kept preaching, the prayer group kept lifting us up, and people kept coming!
By 2007, Pastor Pam had been preaching, counseling, and leading us for eight years. It was time for a sabbatical. We couldn’t imagine ourselves without her, but we knew she deserved to spread her wings for a summer. The Sabbatical Committee threw a jam-packed Talent Show to get the ball rolling, featuring talents many of us didn’t know we possessed (many may recall the rap by Millie Evans that brought down the house). Pam headed out with her GPS unit on May 13 of that year, and by summer’s end she was back with stories to tell. Ann Kohler kept us together and on track, earning her the title Clerk for Life.
Many of the true successes of OPC do not have one date on a timeline. The weekly prayer group, led by Jim Heyl, has held up our church and its people tirelessly. Amy and Mike Neill have taught Sunday School to every single child who passed through the toddler stage in our congregation (still do). Lives were changed and friendships formed as members of the congregation set out to work with Constructiones Para Cristo and then came home to inspire the next wave of workers.
There have been many people giving freely of their time to the community, including the Garden Springs Trailer Park Community Project, A.C.T.S. Food Pantry, Our Daily Bread, Interfaith Hospitality Network, and Relay for Life. Sue Jacobson began her journey to become a pastor in 2003 and made us proud as she graduated in 2008 and was ordained in 2010.
All along in the history of OPC, special traditions have formed and deepened, as they do with a family. We have greeted newborn babies with a rose on the pulpit and, later, a photograph on the overhead projector. Beginning with “Bomp”, losses were felt and commemorated by the whole congregation. The night of making Advent Wreaths together dates back to the Holy Cafeteria, as do the giant Easter egg hunt and the passing of candles in a circle on Christmas Eve. The more we do these things together, the more meaning they take on.
All along in our OPC story, we had the same hand guiding us and teaching us. Pam Driesell gave us her vision, her creativity, her humor, her spirit and her boundless love. Pastor Pam also must have told us a hundred times that we are the church together, that the church is not centered around its pastor. However, when it was time for Pam to answer a call to Trinity in Atlanta, most of OPC had questions about how our church would go on without her. Her last service with OPC was on August 22, 2010. Talk about a new chapter! It is as tribute to Pam’s work with us that we stayed together and kept things going.
On November 1, 2010, Rev. Roger Nicholson arrived in our pulpit as our interim pastor. He brought us organization and the chance to solidify our leadership. His tenure brought our Wednesday nights into the big leagues, with Church Suppers. Our prayer group found new life, and our children’s groups found lots of friends. Rev. Gaye Brown led us through the final stage of our interim process.
Rev. Joel Tolbert joined OPC as Pastor on April 8, 2012… (any volunteers to write up the last years?)