PEACE at 50: Looking back, looking forward

This weekend, Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley celebrates its 50th year in ministry – a moment that’s like starting a new chapter in a book, interim minister Rev. Tom O. Miller said.

The founding families of PEACE Lutheran Church first met at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Grass Valley in June, 1964.

The founding families of PEACE Lutheran Church first met at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Grass Valley in June, 1964.

“Before we can really get into the next chapter, we have to retell and celebrate our whole story,” he explained.

All are welcome to celebrate the 50th anniversary at events on Saturday, May 2, and on Sunday, May 3. (See the info box below for details.)

Peace Lutheran Church 50th Anniversary Celebrations

  • 2-4 p.m. Saturday, May 2: A reunion for everyone who was confirmed in the church or involved in the youth groups. Parents of youth are welcome. Former and current youth leaders will attend. In the Fellowship Center.
  • 8:45 & 11 a.m. Sunday, May 3: Celebratory worship services will include preaching by Sierra Pacific Synod Bishop Mark W. Holmerud. Former pastors, will assist, including founding pastor, the Rev. Wendell Stangeland, and longtime minister, the Rev. Richard O. Johnson. In the Sanctuary.
  • Peace Lutheran Church is at 828 W. Main St., near downtown Grass Valley. More info at or (5530) 273-9631.

That story starts with birth pangs on April 25, 1965, when the congregation of 19 families and was chartered by the American Lutheran Church – a national organization with largely German and Norwegian roots. (For more on the ALC, click here. For more on its successor organization, the ELCA, click here.)

The story continues with fat times and lean, moments of clarity and doubt. But the church’s mission has endured:

“Sharing God’s gracious love with all people,” according to church council member Perry Studt.

Peace has grown from a mission church meeting in a borrowed fellowship hall to playing a key role in western Nevada County.

The church has helped start or supported – and continues to support actively – local programs to alleviate hunger and homelessness including Hospitality House, Interfaith Food Ministry, Nevada County Habitat for Humanity and the Booth Family Center.

It showcases the long Lutheran tradition cherishing fine sacred and secular music. Music in the Mountains’ chorus and the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir meet at the church and perform there; many church members sing in both groups. For a few years, Peace also was the home of Foothill Children’s Chorus.

Members become the face of Jesus for others by stitching quilts, knitting caps and prayer shawls, discussing books, learning about social issues, having dinner together, supporting exercise and good nutrition, and studying the Bible.

Members also are active in the community apart from their church work, volunteering at parks, libraries, musical organizations, the local hospital, animal shelters, and other nonprofit organizations.

And the much-enlarged facility itself is an important venue for events, including large yearly meetings, 12-Step and caregiver support groups, Medicare counseling and impromptu visits by neighborhood families to its small playground and labyrinth.

Peace’s newest chapter includes the expectation of calling a permanent pastor later this month, Miller said. The theme of “living and sharing and being God’s love for all people” will continue – but the forms it takes could change under the new pastor’s leadership, Miller said.

Despite that uncertainty, congregation members are excited about the future.

“There is a renewed resolve about the next chapter… of knowing who we are and where we’re going and being ready to buckle down and be who we are,” Miller said.

The spirit of the moment can be summed up in the prayer Miller will offer during celebratory worship on Sunday: “As we look back in thanksgiving and look forward in hope, we dedicate ourselves to the mission God gives us.”

History of growth, outreach

In spring of 1964, families with Lutheran roots who had been attending various churches in the area started meeting on Sunday afternoons at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in downtown Grass Valley. They were led by pastors Don Bankson, from Bethlehem Lutheran in Auburn, and and Wendell Stangeland, of Faith Lutheran in Meadow Vista.

The group shifted to the Nevada County Horseman’s Club, off Brunswick Road, so they could worship on Sunday mornings. Members would arrive early so they could air out the hall, mop the floor after the dance held the night before, and set up chairs, recalled Peace charter member Sheila Deniz, of Nevada City. “The kids would run around outside” before worship started, she added.

When it was chartered, PEACE had nearly 75 members, including 19 families and lots of children, said the Rev. Richard O. Johnson of Alta Sierra, who is researching the church’s history to mark the anniversary.

The first sanctuary opened in June 1966 at the church’s present site, 828 W. Main St., near downtown Grass Valley. “We were happy to have our own church,” Deniz said.

Yet that building was “crowded and beastly hot. There was no air conditioning,” recalled Johnson, who led the congregation for nearly 30 years. It was so stuffy in the summer that the late service was moved to the cool of 9:30 a.m., and Johnson would crank open the windows on Saturday nights to bring down the temperature, he said.

Baby boomers prompted members to add a wing with five classrooms that, for a time, housed a preschool. In 1993, the congregation built the present sanctuary. In 2007, they added the fellowship center, expanded the kitchen and built an atrium lobby joining the new sanctuary to the older buildings.

After being nurtured by an area faith group in its own infancy, Peace offered the same support to another. Before the B’nai Harim Jewish Community Center was built in Grass Valley, local Jews celebrated their high holy days at Peace, Johnson said.

Reaching out to the community took many more forms, and continues to be core to PEACE’s mission.

To find out how to get involved at PEACE, click here.