I’m Laura Sanders Strunk, and this is how I’ve been living deeply.
“Writing, updating and researching the history of Cedar Springs, the church where I grew up, was a consuming 10-month process for me. The church asked me to build upon a previous history published 30 years ago by Helen McClellan Overcast, a church member who died not long after it was published. We ended up pairing my writing with Helen’s, resulting in the book Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church: A 225 Year Congregational Memoir. The church is making it available as part of the 225th anniversary celebration the last week of October. As I researched, I really was captured by the people, trying to imagine what their experiences of God were like by envisioning their everyday life: to imagine them on the farm, to look at a picture from 1941 and see who’s wearing an Army shirt and who’s wearing a Navy shirt, who’s a Marine and who’s missing because they’re off at war. And then to be able to look at the faces in the picture and see them staring back- to imagine their fear, grief, loss, hope, perseverance. Every part of the book, there were people to do that with. Because of Helen’s diligent research, we’re able to tell the story of every single pastor the church has had. And it’s all interwoven with the story of the congregation, which was much smaller than it is now for the majority of the life of the church- sometimes 18 people to maybe 100. Until the 1930s, we didn’t even have a full-time pastor. Then, with mid-20th century suburbanization, Knoxville moved west. All of that happened around Cedar Springs, so it was destined to become the center of growing suburban life around Knoxville. But it wasn’t that before. The main truth I embraced more deeply through this project? God is good and He’s going to do what He wants to do. Anyone who reads the book will see that the Lord enabled the church to persevere through perilous times when it wouldn’t have been expected, and without the significant resources we enjoy today. It’s a picture of God’s grace, of Him using all of us in spite of our fallenness, and sometimes even in and through our fallenness and brokenness.”
“I also saw this theme of God being good and doing what He wants to do in the transition from [senior pastor] Don Hoke in the ‘70s and’80s to John Wood in the ‘90s. Don was so publicly visible on the national and even international evangelical stage- big player in the Lausanne Conference [an international movement birthed in the 1970s to encourage worldwide evangelism] and Billy Graham events. When he came to Cedar Springs, he loved a big microphone. He wanted us to have as many missionaries all over the world as we could and he was so passionate about global missions. God used that to really expand the church’s impact globally. And yet, in the megachurch movement, we’ve watched now in the last handful of decades megachurch pastor after megachurch pastor take great falls, shatter their churches, shatter their followers- and they were all guys who wanted the microphone. They did everything they could to increase their brand, increase their footprint. But when John came in 1990, he resisted the allure of the limelight for himself and the church. He recognized the siren-song of upward mobility and was not seduced by its promises. So God used Don uniquely and then He used John uniquely, when they were totally polar opposites on an issue that shattered a lot of growing megachurches. Did any of this come because of some great strategy by the session or by anyone? No, it was just God doing what He was going to. And why has He chosen to keep Cedar Springs around this long? Because He wanted to. God is good and He’s going to do what He wants to do. We can try to respond and get in line with it, but it takes the pressure off of all of us a little bit when you embrace that.”
“But the most interesting part of all of this for me was getting to know Kate Walker, who lived from 1841 until 1923. We always accredit our missions emphasis with the 1970s, when the church’s first missions conference took place. Yet it really began in 1902 with the formation of what was then called the Ladies’ Aid Society. That was formed at Kate Walker’s house. As I did more research, I started to see Kate’s name other places. She had donated the land for the third church building in 1899. I’m like- How did she have land? This was 1899. Women didn’t have land, especially enough to donate an acre to the church. And the more I dug in and learned about her, I found out she was this cool and really prominent character in local history. Local folklore is that the man who owned what’s now the Baker-Peters house [at the corner of Ebenezer Road and Kingston Pike, near the present-day church], Harvey Baker, was murdered in the home during the Civil War. Well, I came to find out that my dear Kate Walker is the daughter of Harvey Baker. She was in the room when he was murdered. There’s more to the story, including Kate’s brother Abner’s tragic death a couple years later. Bottom line: Kate ended up being left everything in the family’s will. She inherited that home, and not long after, the Kennedy-Baker-Walker-Sherrill house [just to the west of the present-day church], which was owned by her uncle, who passed just two weeks after Abner. So that’s how Kate, a 23-year-old single woman, in 1865, finds herself the heiress of the two largest estates surrounding Cedar Springs; hundreds of acres. I just kept digging into her life. She had loss after loss– several babies buried in our cemetery, along with a 4-year-old son. Her husband became a Christian at Cedar Springs. Then, the day after he got baptized, their 18-month-old son died. Just imagine the grief. How does a woman who’s lived through that kind of grief donate the land for a church? How does that woman found a missions society that’s the foundation of our global missions today? Kate Walker is truly what, and who, captivated me the most about Cedar Springs’s history.”