From where the Rev. Ed McLeod stood, it was easy to see how much Raleigh and First Presbyterian Church had changed.
“First Pres,” as it’s known by members, normally meets for services in an iconic building at the corner of Salisbury and Morgan streets. But Thursday night, McLeod and hundreds of others walked across the street to the old state Capitol building with the tarnished dome.
It was the Capitol’s land where the Rev. William McPheeters and about 40 others – including William Peace, founder of the namesake university – launched Raleigh’s first Presbyterian church on Jan. 21, 1816.
Thursday night, about 300 of the church’s 1,200 members filled the lower bowl and upper balcony of the old House of Representatives chamber. Debates about the separation of church and state aside, church members felt right at home.
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First Pres has had a relationship with the North Carolina state government since its inception. State officials allowed the congregation to meet in the Capitol until the church constructed its own building in 1818. First Pres returned the favor in 1831 after the Capitol building burned down, allowing the state Supreme Court to convene at the church until the state opened a new court building.
Given that history and Thursday’s event setting, McLeod joked that the service felt like a State of the Union speech.
A large portrait of George Washington hung above McLeod as he, wearing a lavender tie and charcoal-colored suit, leaned in to a microphone. After reading a proclamation from Gov. Pat McCrory and a letter from Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, McLeod reflected on his church’s age.
“Two hundred years,” he said. “That is a testimony to God’s faithfulness to us and, I hope, a testimony to our faithfulness in God.”
The church has certainly faced challenges over the years. The Presbyterian church, like many denominations, struggled to keep members as Christians across the world grappled with social issues and a rise of secularism. Meanwhile, Raleigh has grown exponentially.
First Pres has remained relevant, church members say, because of its commitment to serving the Triangle and the world. Thirty percent of the church’s members joined in the past six years, said Jim Nichols, a church officer.
First Pres sends missionaries to Bolivia, Korea, Haiti and New Orleans. It has planted eight other churches in the Triangle region.
The church hosts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, interfaith programs and various ministries at its facility, which was renovated in 2012.
Perhaps its most well-known outreach effort, though, is its Friendship Fund. The fund, created by longtime pastor Al Edwards in the 1950s, provides financial aid to the working poor and elderly who need help paying for rent and utilities.
This community does as good a job of sharing life together as any I’ve seen.
Anna Dickson, associate pastor for evangelism and young adults at First Presbyterian Church
The fund is not linked to the church budget, so members donate to it apart from their offerings, said Carol Anne Moehring, director of outreach ministries. The fund has given away about $100,000 annually in recent years and last year helped 600 households, she said.
Moehring sees God’s hand at work.
“It never fails – the tough days when I get frustrated over something not going right are the days we’ll get a thank-you note from someone we helped, telling us we made a difference,” she said.
Church members are just as focused on helping one another, said Anna Dickson, associate pastor for evangelism and young adults.
“Whether they’re helping someone in the hospital or someone who’s going through a difficult season, this community does as good a job of sharing life together as any I’ve seen,” she said.
The state of the church is great, McLeod said. And to mark the bicentennial, First Pres is challenging its members to volunteer in the community for at least 200 hours.
For as much that has changed, an equal amount has not, McLeod said from the pulpit.
The world can still be a dark place – gripped by hostility, fear and hardship, he said. Jesus calls on his followers to strive for peace, to offer love and to provide hope.
“For as long as there are those who hunger and thirst, those who grieve, those who bear heavy burdens, there will be a need for a community of Jesus followers who have a word of gospel for the world,” he said.
“And we do.”