Rev. Derril Peabody strolls the grounds of United Congregational Christian Church, making his way through the garden as he points out crops of squash, Brussels sprouts, green onions and various peppers, all of which will be donated to the hungry and homeless if Lodi.

United Congregational Christian Church was born when the First Congregational Church and First Christian Church merged together in 1987.

First Congregational Church opened its doors in 1872, and First Christian in 1893, according to Peabody. The original two churches had their first service together in April 1986, finalizing the merger the following year.

On Sunday, UCCC celebrates the 145th anniversary of First Congregational Church with music and food following a special sermon by Peabody.

Peabody originally served as pastor from 1986, during the merger, until 1996, when he traveled to Modesto, Wisconsin and Nevada. Following a brief retirement in 2015, he returned to UCCC to resume his service as pastor. UCCC was Peabody’s first church as a fully ordained minister, having previously worked in broadcasting in Kansas City for 17 years.

“We have always been at the point of the plow when it comes to social issues,” said Peabody of his church’s policy of inclusivity towards all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or belief system.

According to Peabody, UCCC is an Open and Affirming (ONA) church, meaning that they welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals into their congregation with open arms. UCCC falls under the United Church of Christ (UCC), the first denomination to ordain a gay man, Rev. William R. Johnson, in 1972 according to the denomination’s website.

Peabody explained that although his church has always been dedicated to combating injustice whenever possible, they officially announced their ONA status to their congregation, as well as the greater Lodi community, in 2015, becoming the first church in the city to do so.

He also expressed feeling honored to officiate a same-sex marriage later this month, a ceremony he says will affirm the couple’s commitment to one another.

Besides providing a safe and welcoming environment for LGBT individuals, Peabody says that the church’s garden donates 6,000 pounds of produce to Lodi’s homeless population each year, a number confirmed by office manager Dianne Nantt, who personally delivered onions to the Lodi Community Center on Friday morning.

Nantt, who has run the garden since the first seed was planted in 2010, grew up in the church and was present for the First Congregational Church’s centennial in 1972. The church’s Mission Outreach and Evangelism (MORE) program also provides assistance to the local branch of the Salvation Army, as well as the Grace and Mercy Charitable Foundation.

Tending the garden has been the church’s main project for the summer, although Peabody says that they recently received approval to install a new parking lot, and that they plan to install three large television screens in their main sanctuary room in the coming week. The sanctuary utilizes chairs instead of the traditional wooden pews, a decision that Peabody explains is representative of the church’s commitment to embracing change as opposed to resisting it.

“We want people to be real, to be who they are, and welcome them,” Peabody says.

He then explains that his church is affirmational, not doctrinal, meaning that their goal is to accept people as they are and help them grow spiritually, instead of giving them a list of rules to follow to gain entrance into Heaven. His goal for the future is to make his strong church stronger, reaching out to the community and letting them know that they are welcome, no matter who they are or what they believe.

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