By Carol Kearns
DOWNEY – As congregants lingered after Sunday service to chat with friends and thank the visiting pastor, a group of trombone players quickly began setting up music stands in the sanctuary of the church and warming up with their bell-toned instruments.
The Moravian Trombone Choir was rehearsing for its participation in the closing service of the Downey Moravian Church on June 4. Music is a strong tradition in this Christian church whose heritage predates Martin Luther and the Reformation.
After 63 years, the congregation of this Downey church, with its distinctive belfry, has shrunk to the point where it can no longer maintain the facilities. The property is up for sale.
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“On our own tithing,” says office manager Megan Smock, “we could not keep the buildings open.” Smock estimates the congregation at about 100 on paper. Only 26 attended services last Sunday.
Even with renting space to three other churches, four AA groups, and a few community-based groups, the situation was not encouraging.
Unable to support a pastor, they became a lay-led church when Rev. Christie Melby-Gibbons departed in 2014. Retired ministers, such as Rev. Dr. David Tomlinson (Episcopalian), were serving at the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
“We realized that we were just being property managers,” says Smock. In September of last year, the congregation requested permission to close.
“It’s emotional,” says Emily Niemeyer, a teacher at Warren High School. “I was raised in the church, baptized here, married here. I taught Sunday school and Vacation Bible School.”
Like so many thousands of people, Niemeyer’s grandparents moved to California during the explosive population growth of the 1950’s. Family lore has it that founding pastor of the newly dedicated church came to the door with flowers when he heard the family was expecting a new baby. Niemeyer’s family has been active in the church ever since.
Joan Fry, who has lived in Downey for over 50 years, describes a similar introduction to the church. Arriving in 1965, Fry and her husband found the church “friendly and family-oriented."
Downey was the site of the first Moravian church established west of the Mississippi. Its U.S. headquarters are in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where a settlement was established in 1741. The name Moravian indicates the church’s heritage from Bohemia, which is now the present-day Czech Republic.
Dedicated in 1954, the Downey site was followed by churches in Banning, on the Morongo reservation, Covina, Yorba Linda, and Arizona. Smock and her family had joined the Yorba Linda congregation when it opened in 1994.
But the Moravian denomination has had difficulty maintaining its western presence. With the coming closure of the Downey parish, only the Morongo church will remain open for members in California.
Smock describes the Moravian church as a “mission” church, and this may be a clue to its shrinking presence in the western United States.
“We’re not good at proselytizing,” says Smock. “It is through service to other people that we demonstrate our relationship to Jesus Christ.” In other words, expanding membership is not as much of a focus as it is with some other churches.
However, the Moravian church is not alone in its struggle to maintain membership in a changing world with shifting demographics. Smock says a recent conference she attended reported that community churches were not thriving. Lifestyle changes such as youth sports on Sundays are a challenge for every church.
“Church leaders are struggling to figure out new ways to bring the message,” she says.
The Moravian emphasis on mission and service is evident in the church’s history. Worldwide, the majority of Moravian members are in eastern Africa. There is also a very strong Moravian presence in the Caribbean basin, including islands such as Antigua and Jamaica, and the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. Several of the Downey congregation are from Central America.
“I’m a born Moravian from Nicaragua,” says Downey church member Hilda Matamoras, “brought up in the Moravian church, baptized, and confirmed.” Matamoras and her family joined the local church in 1987 when they came to the United States. Like the others in the dwindling congregation, Matamoras says that after next Sunday she and her family will be exploring other churches to find a good fit.
Despite the church’s closure, the atmosphere seems to be one of calm acceptance. Smock says, “We’re looking to still be a Moravian presence in Downey, just with partners, and not on our own.”
The denomination already partners with Christ Lutheran Church on Florence Avenue and will continue the Wednesday morning food sharing program for those in need. Smock says that St. Mark’s Episcopal Church has also reached out to assist the Moravian congregation.
For music fans of all faiths, the signature Moravian Trombone Choir plans to continue performing throughout the area for special occasions.
Music is a strong tradition in Moravian services. The local brass ensemble was founded in 1965 by Jeff Reynolds, who was the bass trombonist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed with conductors such as Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Current Trombone Choir Director Steve Humerski has been a church member for ten years. “It was the music that got me hooked,” he explains.
The trombone choir’s repertoire is traditional, consisting primarily of chorales, sonatas, and occasional renaissance and baroque pieces. Humerski estimates a choir of 15-20 musicians for the final service on Sunday.
The closing service of the Moravian Church will be June 4 at 10:30 a.m., 10337 Old River School Road, Downey 90241. Fellowship will follow.