Getting to Know You: The Pantry Gang

A column dedicated to the folks in the pews.

Written by Dale Buchanan

In the spotlight this week are the members of what this scribe affectionately calls the “Pantry Gang.”  Now it is true that “gang” has some bad connotations and may refer to an organized group of criminals, hoodlums or wrongdoers. Now our gang is organized, but here the resemblance to the above definition ends. This Pantry Gang is a group of people organized for a particular purpose. My investigative reporting has led me to believe that this definition is perfect.

Is this to suggest that some one individual dominates. Of course not!  Or that they are subject to mob rule? Definitely not! They are—every one of them—passionate about their cause. They speak, they listen, and the result is an operational plan that moves them as a cohesive gang toward the common goal.

Once the blueprint is complete and clear goals are established, this gang goes to work as one to accomplish that one purpose that unites them. They share a clear vision:  to feed the hungry. That is it. Everything they do is focused on providing nourishment for the malnourished.

Notice that they are “people from the pews,” which meets the criteria of this post. For certainly this gang comes from the pews. You will observe that this report will have no names because this gang has emerged from the pews and the social nature of their mission has melded their identity into one cohesive social unit. This systematic arrangement did not just happen willy-nilly. It is the direct result of gang activity. Once a month they meet and arrange the next operation. And mind you, it is a planning session. The amazing thing is the orderly, methodical way that these pew people proceed.

The Pantry Ministry is labor intensive. The planning is essential. The meetings are necessary. The growth has been phenomenal. From a closet in a back room providing primarily canned and dry goods to a very few to now providing meals to feed hundreds, the Pantry Gang at Big Red is literally heeding the words of Jesus when he said: “FEED MY SHEEP.”

Have you ever thought about joining a gang?  Now is your chance! Show up at the next gang meeting. Take part in the gang’s work. You will find the joy of belonging to the Pantry Gang a great experience.

Dale Buchanan is a member of FCCF with a passion for stories and writing. In between penning his own memoirs, he is helping us get to know our members, one pew at a time.

Beating the Bounds

By Pastor Raygan

Of the many ways I could jump into this work at Big Red, I want to start with relationships. All of the work of the church is grounded in relationships. In many English, Irish, and Scottish parishes, there is an annual tradition known as “Beating the Bounds,” though it has other names as well. In this centuries-old custom, on “Beating the Bounds” Sunday, the minister and congregation walk the boundaries of the Parish. Walking the boundaries helped them reinforce the boundaries of the parish, even if they had to walk through people’s yards and farms, and wade through rivers and other obstacles to do so. One church in Oxford still carries on this practice today, even though they have to go through restaurant kitchens, department store shoe displays, and several locked gates and people’s private property in order to do so. This odd practice helped the church pass down their knowledge and traditions to younger generations, and reminded them of the specific set of space that they were called to serve.

I am excited to finally be here at First Congregational, and to join you in the work of doing creative and transformative ministry in our community, but I’m also aware I’m starting 135 years into the Big Red Church’s story. So, I have a bit of getting up to speed to do; much like merging onto a freeway where traffic is already moving a bit above the speed limit.

Now, at Big Red, our boundaries aren’t so neatly defined, which has its benefits and complexities, but that doesn’t make the work of becoming acquainted with our community any less important. Rather than parish boundaries, we have people. So as I get started and get up to speed with you all, a better way of showing me the community we’ve all been called to serve will be actually meeting with as many of you as possible. I know I will gradually get to know many of you through the many ways you are involved at Big Red, but I’d also like the chance to get to know you at an individual or small group level, too. I want to meet with all of you; longtime members, new members, associate members, visitors, friends, and whatever other categories of involvement you may have with Big Red. I could not be more excited to be here because I see great potential and many exciting things in the Big Red Church, and I want the work we do to be grounded in our connections with each other.

To schedule these meetings and gatherings in a way that simplifies the logistics for me, I’ve set up this online schedule with the times I am making myself available over the next couple of months, and where you can sign up:

If none of the available or proposed times work for you, or you prefer not to use the computer or Internet, we can find something that will work if you call me at the church office.

I’m looking forward to meeting, working, and serving with you all.

Pastor Raygan

Getting to Know You: Joel Bright

a column dedicated to the folks in the pews

Written by Dale Buchanan

Our pew person this week is Joel Bright. He is one of those behind the scenes members of our church family who quietly goes about the business of getting stuff done. Joel is of recent vintage at the Big Red Church, but that has not prevented him from being involved in all sorts of projects and also participating in the lay functions on Sunday morning worship. On Father’s Day, he, along with several other pew folks, will be preparing a meal for the church family after worship in the Fellowship Hall. I tried to do my reporter thing and get him to give me a scoop on the menu. Joe’s surname is not Bright for nothing, he did a bunch of doublespeak, and I have no advanced news of the Father’s Day luncheon menu.

I asked Joel for a short biography. It went something like this, “I have been married to Tracy for 21 years. She is the love of my life and the mother of my two children: Georgia, eighteen, is on her way to Santa Clara University this fall, and my son Spencer is thirteen and enrolled at University High School this next semester. I have worked for Albright Electrical for 20 years. I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and lived there until I graduated from Memorial High School in the class of 1984.”

I requested a short biography and this is what I got! I did not push for more and obviously there is a lot more. My thought was to encourage you, if you have not done so, to shake this family member’s hand and ask, “Joel, where were you during the time between Madison and Fresno?”

I met Joel soon after he and Tracy arrived at Big Red. Not because I was particularly outgoing or friendly—they were! Mayo Goliti introduced us and we were off to the races. Smiles, hugs, bright and cheerful conversation, quick witted humor, along with clever and intelligent retorts drew me to them immediately. Take a chance and get to know Joel and Tracy. You won’t regret it.

I am running out of space but I am not out of notes. It occurs to me that the best way to get a handle on Joel and his behind the scenes mission is to understand that, like his surname, he makes everything he touches “bright.” Currently this bright, lively gentleman is working on illuminating The Big Red Church by upgrading all of the overhead lights in the sanctuary. And Joel Bright said, “Let there be light.”

Dale Buchanan is a member of FCCF with a passion for stories and writing. In between penning his own memoirs, he is helping us get to know our members, one pew at a time.

Getting to Know You: Joel Greenberg

a column dedicated to the folks in the pews

Written by Dale Buchanan

Joel was born and grew up in Los Angeles. He came to Fresno to finish his education and after graduation was a social worker specializing in counseling for forty years.

“What motivated you to make this your career?” I asked. Joel replied, “I have always liked people and been extremely interested in what makes them tick.” My next question was, “Joel, have you, in your search for what makes us tick, found a common denominator that explains why we all act like we do?”  His answer was, “It seems to me a two-part answer. One, we are human, and two, we are each and every one of us distinct and unique individuals.” 

I talked for two hours with this venerable gentleman. My questions kept coming and with each answer I had another question which was patiently and thoughtfully answered. My notes flowed onto the paper—page after page of rich insights into this sweet and gentle man who has quietly occupied a pew at Big Red for decades.

Did I mention that Joel is a gifted poet? Joel’s poetry reflects a darkness when it speaks of his childhood. At a very young age Joel’s father died of cancer. Without a trace of bitterness or hate, he looked me in the eye and said, “My mother suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped wanting to be my mother. When I was eight years old my twin brothers and I were locked up for three years in a camp where we were abused in every imaginable way from beatings to verbal abuse and deprivation.”

“Joel, how did you survive all of this?” “I was crazy at first,” Joel replied. “Therapy helped and when I am blue Linda comforts me.”

Linda was raised by
good enough parents and family:
I learned to walk on
my knees as a child
in hollow loneliness

(from “Simple Things”)

And this profound description of aging:

Cheeks and foreheads furrowed
in wrinkles,
thinning hair, grey beard, yellow teeth,
arms not strong enough to lift
grocery bags or scrub floors. . .
The young dance with possibilities. . .
We elders are walking libraries. . .

(from “All in All”)

This poem speaks of all of our inner struggles to achieve:

I'm dried out; my poems
are fallen crisp leaves drained of
sap. . .
The green fuse that drives
the flower ushers our creativity.
We are tender red roses bathed
in petals of sunlight and fog. . .
Stop this self-serving complaining. . .

(from “The Blessing to Time”)

Joel met his wife Linda for piano lessons. It took about a year for lessons to blossom into love. He confided that he only learned to play a little. The love has lasted a life time.

Dale Buchanan is a member of FCCF with a passion for stories and writing. In between penning his own memoirs, he is helping us get to know our members, one pew at a time. 

Getting to Know You: The Music Makers

a column dedicated to the folks in the pews

Written by Dale Buchanan

On a Sunday morning not long ago, I put Gayle on an airplane for St. Louis. After seeing her off, I had a choice. I could go home, wait 10 minutes, and then drive to church, or drive to church and wait an hour for the service at 10 a.m.

I went directly to church and parked in my favorite space near the front door. I was surprised to hear music from inside the sanctuary. I peeked in the front doors thinking maybe I was late. The pews were mostly empty, but the chancel was teeming with life. The choir or the music makers were there and in full swing. I eased down into a pew, and I was allowed to share with five or six other early comers, a preview of the morning’s music—an experience I highly recommend. Some Sunday morning in the fall when the music makers again occupy the chancel, buy a cup of coffee, slip into the Big Red Church, and be blessed with your own private concert.

The stated purpose of this column is to get to know those who labor from the pews. The music makers in our church are a diverse and varied group, rich with individual stories which I hope to be able to chronicle. However, it occurs to me that they function as one. And it is this oneness that is remarkable. This oneness comes from their dedication to service and hours and hours of practice and rehearsals. They are in fact a team.

It is summer and the choir has disappeared. My first summer here at Big Red, I was shocked the Sunday the choir vanished. The music makers were my favorite part. They still are!

So where do they come from in the fall and where do they fade away come summer? After an extensive search and serious investigation, I found the missing choir. They aren’t missing at all. They take off their choir robes and return to the pews from which they came. Listen carefully and you will hear them lifting their voices in communal praise with the rest of us.

They are from the pews. They occupy a unique and special place in our midst. They come as individuals from our pews volunteering to serve the church as a group. They become one in their dedicated service. Our music makers are not unsung heroes—they are singing heroes.

Dale Buchanan is a member of FCCF with a passion for stories and writing. In between penning his own memoirs, he is helping us get to know our members, one pew at a time. 

Getting to Know You: Kymberly Lindsey

a column dedicated to the folks in the pews

Written by Dale Buchanan

In my opinion the most remarkable thing about the Big Red Church is the diversity found among the family members whose stated purpose is that we are “a caring and affirmative church.” As I compile my list of the multitude of behind-the-scene heroes who labor tirelessly and unrecognized from the pews of the Big Red Church, I continue to be amazed. That caring and affirmative slogan is not just a slogan, it is a way of life.

Our pew person this week is Kymberly Lindsey. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Southern California, she moved here with her wife Debra in 1991. They have been married for 38 years! From our more or less simultaneous arrival at the Big Red Church, we have experienced a symbiotic, spontaneous friendship—a black woman from L.A. and a white, red-necked fundamentalist—the best of friends. There is something wonderful going on here at the Big Red Church.

Let’s switch gears. Kymberly is that smiling woman you see moving around hugging and greeting folks in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Get to know her like I have and her edgy sense of humor will keep you in stitches. Multi-talented, Kymberly writes, tells charming stories, and makes music, but her passion is cooking and baking.

I asked her how she became so passionate about cooking. That question gave me insight into her home life. I learned in narrative form about her mother, father, and siblings. I saw through her words a clear picture of the children taking turns washing dishes. I heard her mother saying, “It is time for you to learn how to cook.” Her resistance to this added chore became the joy of her life.

It was as we talked about cooking and baking, that I gleaned a bit of Kymberly’s philosophy. Right from the git-go she told me in no uncertain terms that her philosophy was, “Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.” With that expression, I stopped trying to tiptoe around and just asked my pointed questions, and she answered without hesitation.

Jesus was good friends with two sisters—Mary and Martha. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus. Martha cooked, cleaned, and served. Thank God for the Martha named Kymberly in our midst.

Dale Buchanan is a member of FCCF with a passion for stories and writing. In between penning his own memoirs, he is helping us get to know our members, one pew at a time. 

In the Beginning…

From Pastor Ara Guekguezian

…of the summer of 2017, I began preparing for a series of sermons on Genesis, particularly considering three of the most interesting and instructive people in our scripture: Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Israel, and Joseph.

My endeavor led to a study of Genesis by a couple of folks at Big Red. We still have not moved past the first eleven chapters of the Beginning. After every hour, the comments invariably include ‘we are still not finished with the discussion of (a very particular issue).’ And I smile and thank God for such people in my life. We ‘get’ each other. Not every question gets a final answer. Life is not a bigger or realer version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ Genesis is a particular community’s response to a universe full of hardship, challenge, and pleasure. God’s people, the Hebrews, thoughtfully and intelligently propose a way to live, a particular perspective that in the right hands, continues to work today.

The task of translating a word from 4000 years ago to be understood today is the most exciting and engaging challenge. And this brings me to the three aforementioned heroes of the Bible. I have moments of identification with Abraham and Jacob. I struggle to embrace God’s call to me on a daily, even hourly, basis. There are many moments of a conflicted response to God’s call to me and my understanding as shepherd as God’s call to my people.

But Joseph is a superior human. Read his story from Genesis 37–50 during the month of August. Take time to imagine and reflect upon your response to the external circumstances of his young life. Joseph not only endures but flourishes in horrible circumstance, beginning with the betrayal by his brothers. How? That is the easiest of the questions to answer. Joseph was convinced that everything that happens in his life is part of God’s grand plan for his life. This conviction gives him the strength, the focus, to endure. I have found Joseph to be most instructive for my life and life of the congregations I have served.

We at the Big Red Church have had a long life, full of challenges, hardships, and great joys. We have enjoyed seasons of abundance and seasons of drought. Here we are. How? God has a particular call to us. In this season of a renewed emphasis on the tribe, we continue to bear witness to God’s call of welcome to all. Come in as you are: broken, heavy laden with burdens of the day. We will welcome one another. We will not take the burden away, but we will share it. We will exhibit the kindness, the compassion, the strength, the endurance to walk together under God’s love as long as we have breath.

Aspiring to emulate Joseph as a community, I pray and hope.


Pastor Ara


Flying the Flag: A Vision of Social Justice at Big Red

From Pastor Ara Guekguezian

It has been over one year that we at the Big Red Church began the process of considering who we are and where we need to be as a faithful congregation. It has been over six months that we’ve known that great change is coming and we needed to be a part of it. There are  the normal changes that time brings: retirement, new interim pastor, loss and change of support staff. Then there are the changes brought by new deeper, broader vision. As I was listening on the Day of Discovery, it seemed clear to me that the Social Justice Vision group would take off immediately. It is July and it is still in the organizing stage.

What happened? Nothing and a lot! We continue to fly the flag, both literally at the Pride Parade (change there, too: longer flag next June), and figuratively. Dozens of us at the Big Red Church are involved in groups and activities that are engaged in extending justice to more people in this valley and the world, just not via a new vision group. And that is more than ok. Active members of Big Red organize and lead two of the five Indivisible groups in our area, one nested at the Church; various groups working for a more just society for LGBTQ+ people are peopled with our folk; sanctuary issues of every type engage many of us; any City Council or County Commission meeting I attend is attended by my people.  The Interfaith Council—I don’t attend regularly—is regularly and faithfully attended by my sister who lets me know what we should be doing as a congregation to fulfill this part of our vision to make peace and establish justice; and there is much we do here on site that gives comfort, aid and encouragement for those who suffer because of social injustice.

All the stuff we are doing is because we have a long abiding commitment to working toward a more just society. Our efforts are broad in that we extend ourselves not only to progress but to minister to those harmed by social institutions in the meantime. One great area to illustrate: Hunger in the valley that produces food for the world, but not enough to those who live within its bounds—we engage our legislators locally and in Congress to better, we are active participants in the CROP walk, we support the Community Food Bank, Poverello House, and we have established a Pantry that offers fresh and non-perishables, and other household needs.

So, while we get our Social Justice Vision group going, the faithful work continues.

May God bless us with continue strength and vision to fulfill God’s will for our life together and for this world.


Pastor Ara

Broadway On Van Ness 2016

Broadway on Van Ness

Sunday, March 13, the next edition of the Fresno Grand Opera Chorus’ Broadway on Van Ness will be presented in collaboration with our church. Tickets are available online at (service fee involved); or ordered through their box office at 559.442.5699. Tickets also can be ordered at church during coffee hour. All gross tickets sales will be evenly split between FGO and First Congregational Church’s general fund. A pre-concert reception and silent auction, as well as post-concert dessert come as part of the ticket purchase. All proceeds from the Silent Auction go straight into our general fund- one of the primary fund-raisers to support our 2016 budget.

4:00 pm – Pre-concert reception and Silent Auction
5:00 pm – Broadway on Van Ness performance
6:15 pm – Post-concert dessert and close of Silent Auction

This year we are also asking First Congregational members and friends to help identify sponsors in underwriting this event. The “Broadways on Van Ness” planning team led by Ben Ewell have prepared forms which are available in the church office, or can be sent electronically from the church office, for use with potential sponsors. They encourage our members and friends to help in this vital aspect of
supporting this significant cultural and fund-raising event.