Seeker's Diary:
First Presbyterian Church of South St. Paul
By Amy Gage
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Published August 30, 2003

Click here for Have A Little Faith in Jazz

For anyone raised a Protestant in the 1960s, First Presbyterian Church of South St. Paul will look and feel familiar.

The people in attendance are well dressed and polite. The sanctuary is a clean, well-lighted place. The service has the predictable rhythm of hymns and prayers and unison readings.

But something more is at work here. Beneath the staid look and demeanor of this century-old church -- which dedicated its new building in 1959 -- beats the heart of a change agent.

The first clue was the entrance of the Rev. Katie Estes Collins, whose enthusiastic voice carried energy throughout the room. "Friends, this is the day that the Lord has made," she proclaimed. "Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

The guy in the black jeans and T-shirt tickling the ivories looked like he'd gotten lost on his way to the jazz club. He was pianist Larry McDonough, a Legal Aid attorney who's been playing his music in churches more often since he began rearranging pieces such as "We Shall Overcome" and "Amazing Grace."

The latter was a jazzy, melancholy interpretation that turned hopeful once he started singing.

"I think those tunes become more inspirational the closer one listens to them," said McDonough, who has dedicated proceeds from his new CD, "Tuscarora: Short Stories for Jazz Piano," to Wellstone Action.

The sermon by seminary candidate Pat Gruber, director of children's and youth ministries, focused on the discipline and persistence required for people to pattern their lives after the example of Jesus Christ. A reading earlier from the Book of John had illustrated the disciples' betrayal. "Those who left valued their intellect more than faith," Gruber said. "Those who stayed trusted Jesus -- even if they didn't know all they could about him."

Weaving secular stories amid biblical tales, Gruber described how Albert Einstein would approach the task of finding a needle in a haystack. Where the average man would stop once he found what he was after, Einstein would search the entire stack to uncover every possible needle.

"That's commitment," Gruber said. "When we stand firm and refuse to compromise, we reap the abundant harvest of joy and peace that lasts forever."

• First-time visitors: Handouts were plentiful and informative, including one that spelled out the church's vision statement. "People of all ages," for example, means that everyone from children to seniors is welcome to participate. "Loving" means that members of the church strive to be compassionate and caring. "Serving the world" means outreach to the local community and the larger society.

A book display outside the sanctuary focused on hidden poverty in our prosperous country: "Nickel and Dimed," "Homeless Mothers," "Hidden Rules of Class at Work" and, most poignant, a children's book called "The Lady in the Box."

• Programs and services: The church's Web site lists activities for men (a weekly 7 a.m. study group), women (a sewing circle and monthly Bible study in members' homes) and families. The latter is broadly defined, since First Presbyterian considers itself a family. Bingo nights, game nights, and trips to baseball games and the theater are among the activities offered.

Photos of four Habitat for Humanity houses that members helped build are on display in the vestibule. A mission trip to Romania took place in August, and a brochure for Neighbors Inc. in South St. Paul shows the depth of need in the middle-class neighborhood: nearly 15,000 people served annually by the local food shelf, clothes closet, holiday assistance program and others.

• Memorable moment: The 150 people at First Presbyterian, most of whom were on the long side of 60, sang one of the most poignant anti-war hymns I've heard in my "Seeker's diary" travels the past eight months.

"Today We Are Called to Be Disciples" featured a century-old arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with contemporary lyrics by H. Kenn Carmichael: "God made the world and at its birth ordained our human race to live as stewards of the earth, responding to God's grace. But we are vain and sadly proud; we sow not peace but strife. Our discord spreads a deadly cloud that threatens all of life."

Amy Gage is a writer in Northfield. Contact her at