We have a recurring feature in eNews, “Meet Our Members.” Doug Hoagland, a longtime Fresno Bee reporter, interviews members of our congregation so we can get to know each other better. New profiles run about once a month. (Depending on the privacy preference of the person being featured, not all profiles will appear on this webpage.)

Meet Our Members - Janet Capella

Janet Capella, member since 2013

Published in eNews on June 11, 2020

Tell us about yourself:

I grew up near Fresno High, and my family went to First Congregational. In 1964, when I was a sophomore at Fresno High, I was one of about 5,000 people who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Fresno.

The ministers at First Congregational had made me aware of political issues, but I didn’t yet totally understand the national and international impact of Dr. King. But we went to the march as a youth group, and we just kept getting involved in social issues. We did a lot of work with farmworker kids in the South Valley.

Your activism continued as you got older:

In the summer of 1968, I went to Europe – it was a time of great unrest. In Paris, the blood of protesting students was still on the streets of the Left Bank. I’ll always remember that – it was chilling.

At Fresno State, I was involved in the anti-war movement, and I recently wrote an article about that time for the Community Alliance newspaper (fresnoalliance.com, June 2020). In the early 1970s, I joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and I’m still active.

Tell us about your professional background:

I graduated from Fresno State with a degree in theater arts, and I’ve had a lot of jobs that centered around helping people. In the mid-1970s, I worked at Catholic Charities, helping resettle Vietnamese refugees who came here after the Vietnam War. I took big groups of men to factories trying to get them jobs.

At the California Department of Rehabilitation, I also worked on job placement. Then in the mid-1980s, I worked as the lone assistant for Karen Humphrey, who was then on the Fresno City Council. (She was later elected mayor.)

After that, I went to the Fresno County Public Library, where I ran the volunteer program and also worked in several branches. At the same time, I started substitute teaching, which led me to getting a credential. I taught for Fresno Unified for 20 years, mostly in middle schools.

Tell us about your family:

My daughter, Laurel Fawcett, lives in Oakland. She was baptized at CUCC when she was 12 along with my son, Josiah Maskaleris, who was a baby. Laurel lived in Fresno for a long time, working as a forest ranger. Josiah passed away in 2012, and his wife, Erica, died in 2013. I have a grandson, Shaylon Hovey, who’s 28, and a granddaughter, Citlalli Sanchez, who’s 20. I have two brothers, Bruce Morris in Sweden, and Randy Morris in Fresno.

What do you find special about Community UCC?

Our congregation is not only enthusiastic about worship but also about mission and outreach, welcoming new members, helping one another, and visiting one another. This church has always built bridges into the community. It goes back to Henry Hayden (founding minister) building bridges to Martin Luther King. We’ve always called very socially conscious ministers who were in tune with the times.

What brought you to Community UCC?

Over the years, I moved back and forth between Community and Big Red (First Congregational). For a time, we lived near CUCC, and we’d walk by, and Josiah would say, “Why don’t we go to this church?” I said, “I don’t know. That’s a good idea. Let’s go here.” At CUCC, I developed a stronger connection to Jesus when Helen Winkel and I, along with other women, would sit by the altar once a week to pray, drum, dance, and be together. We did it for years.

What’s your vision for the church?

That we would add younger families and we would become even more involved in community issues. I also would like our church to join other UCC congregations that are welcoming and supportive of people who have mental illness. It’s called the WISE movement. (WISE stands for Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged.) Our Missions and Social Justice Team is working to bring WISE to the congregation.

I also would like our church to help people learn more about the Bible and to continue our study of racism and white privilege.

Tell us about your love for the Syrian family, the Soukis (Pastor Ara connected the family to church members):

First, let me explain that my work with the Vietnamese in the 1970s led me to helping Hmong refugees in the 1980s. My parents encouraged us to be aware of other people who didn’t have as many advantages as we did.

I met the Soukis when they moved to Fresno from New York in 2019. I have become family with them. I go to their house and drink tea, and I have conversations with mom and dad, Mayssa and Taiseer, and with their six kids. We learn from each other about war, peace, education and what it means to love your neighbors. It’s a sacred time – sitting and sharing tea with them.

You have a special relationship with the Soukis’ oldest child, 18-year-old Sidra:

She just graduated from Fresno High and will start at Fresno City College in August. We’ve spent many hours on school work and figuring out things about her education. I advocated for her at Fresno High with her counselor. I love her very much. She wants to be a doctor, partly because of her experience in the Jordanian refugee camp where her family lived for three years after fleeing Syria because of the civil war. Sidra was extremely sick in Jordan and almost died.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Soukis?

They’ve been searching for a home – a safe place to raise their children – since leaving Syria. When Taiseer and I talk about Sidra going to college, I ask him, “What about the other children?” He says, “One by one, they will go.” I find them very profound, and very much like my family of origin because of the love.

What’s one thing about you that might surprise people?

I once worked as a lifeguard. And, I keep my financial papers in a ledger that my grandfather, Frank Morris, used. It still has blank pages.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

Friendly, studious, active in theater, played the cello.

Tell us about other interests:

I’m an artist and have been since I was young. From 2010 to 2020, I was part of Chris Sorensen’s studio near downtown Fresno. I’m now working on a national poster project for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. I also like to write and to garden.


Meet Our Members - Elizabeth Davis-Russell and Thomas RussellElizabeth Davis-Russell and Thomas Russell, members since 1989

We are telling the stories of Elizabeth Davis-Russell and Thomas Russell in a special two-part article. Published in eNews on April 2, 2020: Elizabeth. Next week: Thomas.

Tell us about yourself, Elizabeth:

I was born in Harper City, Liberia in west Africa. I was in school there until the ninth grade, when I went to a Baptist mission school in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. From there, my parents sent me to school in England, and then my brother convinced me I could go to university in the United States. 

What university did you attend?

I came to Oakland University near Detroit, Michigan and graduated with a degree in psychology. Then, I earned a master’s in educational psychology from New York University, a doctorate in counselor education from Yeshiva University in New York, and a PhD in clinical psychology from New York University.

Tell us about your career:

I started as a faculty member at The City University of New York, where I spent 16-17 years and earned tenure. Then Thomas and I moved to Illinois for family reasons. We were there for seven years, but I got tired of the cold. So we moved to California, where I started as an associate professor with the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles. 

What brought you to Fresno?

Thomas got a job with the Clovis Unified School District as coordinator of community relations. So we moved here, and I got a job as an associate professor at the CSPP campus in Fresno, working there from 1989 until 1999.

What was your next professional step?

In 1999, I was appointed a fellow with the American Council on Education, and I spent my fellowship year working with Dr. Marvalene Hughes, the president at CSU Stanislaus. It was grooming me to become president of a university. From there, I became provost and vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York at Cortland. 

While in New York, I was part of an educational team that visited Liberia to assess that country’s higher education system after 15 years of civil war. During that visit, Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, asked me to please return and help rebuild their higher education system. In 2008, I retired from Cortland and came home to Clovis for about two months.

Two months?

Yes. I then went to Liberia and was appointed to rebuild a college that had been totally destroyed. All that was left were some concrete walls and the bare earth. First, we rebuilt facilities, then we accepted students, and finally we turned the school into a comprehensive university, with six colleges.

What was it like to return to the nation of your birth?

I felt like a stranger. Except for some relatives, all of the people with whom I had grown up had left the country or had been killed during the war years.

Returning must have evoked many memories. Could you share one?

One day a man planning to return to the U.S. came to see me and handed me a book he had authored. He told me had it not been for my grandmother and great-grandmother he would not be where he is today. He said they had left the comfort of their homes to go into the hinterland and taught him and many others to read and write.

Rebuilding a university literally from the ground up posed challenges beyond belief. Could you tell us about that?

There were two major challenges: financial and human resources. I spent the first year traveling abroad to recruit faculty, staff, and administrators, and also raising money from international partners. They included various branches of the United Nations and foreign governments in Morocco, China, Egypt and other nations. (I have a Power Point presentation that I made to the Breakfast Group, if anyone is interested in viewing it.)

You stayed in Liberia to see the first three classes graduate. That had to be so gratifying:

It was extremely gratifying, especially to see the pass rates of the nursing classes on the national certification exams those first three years – 100%, 98% and 97%.

What was it like to return to Clovis in 2016?

I had this vision that if I sat still I would vegetate, and that’s not me. There were four things I wanted to do: church; the Tubman University Foundation, which supports Tubman and particularly women’s education; my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, which is service oriented: and the National Association of University Women, another service organization. So that’s what keeps me busy. 

How did you and Thomas meet?

We were both working at The City University of New York. Thomas was a director of financial aid, and I was a counselor and then a member of the faculty, teaching psychology. When I was a counselor, we had offices in the same building. His office was at the end of a hallway that led to the parking lot. He set his sights on me as I tried to sneak by on my way to the parking lot (laughter).

Tell us about your children:

Our daughter, Allison, is a physician. She and her husband, and their three sons, live in La Jolla. Our son, Scott, is an artist who supports himself as a waiter. He lives in Tahoe City.

What brought you to Community UCC?

 I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Thomas was raised Baptist. We tried both of those churches in Fresno, and neither was right. Then colleagues invited us to People’s Church. The pastor preached a sermon entitled “Woman Is the Root of All Evil.” He took the text from Genesis that Eve tempting Adam was the root of his downfall.  I thought, “I can’t sit here and listen to this.” Our friends pleaded with us to give it another try. The next Sunday, the pastor said he was grateful the church could send missionaries to places like Africa “to bring heathens into the light.” (Thomas, chuckling: “I had to pull her back from going up on the stage after that.”).

What happened next?

 We almost gave up finding a church. Then I went to a conference and the keynote speaker was Gail McDougle (co-pastor of College Community Congregational Church, as CUCC was then known). Thomas had heard her at another function, and we decided we should visit this church. It felt good – the theology felt right.

What church activities are you involved with?

I am currently chair of the Mission and Social Justice Team. Last year I served as moderator. Prior to that I served in several roles: vice moderator, Elders, Worship Planning, Pastoral Relations, and choir for many years.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

Gail’s sermons had a sense of scholarship, and they stimulated me intellectually. There wasn’t any talk of fire and brimstone. I also appreciated the church’s commitment to social justice. Those factors attracted me and have kept me here and made me give my time and money to help enhance those programs.

What’s your vision for the church?

Our emphasis on social justice shouldn’t just be a checklist – such as: “Oh, we’ve done the environmental thing. We now have solar and a xeriscape. Check off that box.” We need to stay true to our commitment so it’s steady, continuous, and long term, rather than doing things episodically. 

What’s one thing about you that would surprise people?

I am introverted, and people don’t see that. I’ve worked hard over the years to deal with that. When I get before a class, people see this person who’s engaged in the material. But put me in the midst of a social situation, and it’s different. Cocktail parties are deadly for me. I feel like a fish out of water trying to make small talk. 

How would classmates in high school have described you?

One of my classmates told me recently: “You always had your head in a book, and you still do.” Growing up, I read Perry Mason legal thrillers, and professionally, Freud’s original works were important to me. In terms of black literature, two favorite authors are Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. I also love the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and I’ve read almost all the crime thrillers written by James Patterson. I also like romance novels. People look askance when I say that. So you can see I have widespread interests.

Meet our Members - Alex and Armando Madrid

Alex and Armando Madrid, members since 2017

Published in eNews on March 19, 2020

Tell us about yourselves:

Alex: I grew up in Firebaugh – a very small and very sheltered community west of Fresno. I’m the youngest of five – four boys and a girl. My oldest brother died in a car accident when I was in the fourth grade. My parents still live in Firebaugh, and Armando and I visit them every Wednesday for dinner. I’ve worked the last four years at Noble Federal Credit Union, where I do internal audits. Before that, I was with Bank of America for eight years. 

Armando: I’m an assistant dean of students at UC Merced. I enjoy working with college students – it’s something I’m passionate about. I was born in Mexico, and my parents brought me over when I was 2. I grew up in Southern California, and I’m the oldest of four boys – the youngest two are twins. We’re a very close family, and Alex and I go to L.A. every month to see them. 

Alex and I recently got the news that our foster-to-adopt match has come through, and our 14-month-old son will soon be joining our family. We’re beyond excited and are so fortunate and grateful to have such a supportive community at church and beyond as we embark on this new journey.

How did you two meet?

Armando: We were both students at UCLA, and we knew about each other but never really talked. Then after graduation, we ran into one another at bar in West Hollywood. Alex was living in L.A. at the time, so it was easy to see each other. Then he decided to move to Fresno, which made things challenging. We made it work for a few years, but then we went our separate ways. When life brought us back together, we needed to be in the same city, so I moved here five years ago. We got married in 2018.

What brought you to Community UCC?

Armando: After the 2016 election, we went through some very emotional stuff. We took it very personally, knowing what was going to happen under Trump. It made us realize we needed a community of people and those connections. While we’d both grown up Catholic, that church wasn’t an option because it’s not open to gay couples. Then one day, Alex found a link to CUCC, and what Pastor Chris [Breedlove] had written on the website really spoke to him. On our first Sunday, we felt a connection we hadn’t experienced in a long time. It was uplifting.

What church activities are you involved with?

Alex: I’m chair of the Charitable Gifts and Endowment Team.

Armando: We enjoy serving as readers on Sunday mornings, and I enjoyed the short time I spent being part of the worship team.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

Alex: On our first Sunday, Robin talked in a sermon about the Women’s March in Fresno, which we had been to just the day before. It seems when many churches protest something, it’s about taking away somebody’s rights. But Robin and other church members at the march were doing something positive, and it really spoke to me.

Armando: I see the Children’s Sermons on Sunday, and I can envision the kids we want to have going up there and being part of that community. 

What’s your vision for the church?

Armando: I would like us to find ways of sharing the church’s story and inviting a diverse group of people to find a sense of community here. That’s especially important in another election year when things are bound to get shaken up. 

Alex: We have to find a way to appeal to the millennials, and I think it’s great that we’ve increased our online presence. That’s crucial.

What’s one thing about you that might surprise people?

Armando: I’m creative and love to paint. I started when I was a teenager.

We also won a cutest couple contest in 2018 on a Fresno radio station. Alex entered us, and we used social media to ask our friends, family and co-workers to vote for us. We got a trip to Disneyland and some money.

Alex: I’m shy, but I can be a big goofball. I sing in the car to the point where you’re annoyed. Lately, it’s been country music.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

Alex: I never belonged to one particular group but had one friend from every clique.

Armando: I was voted “Most Likely To Succeed,” so I was that nerd who was always trying to get A’s. Going to college was something I had to do.

Do you have a favorite TV show?

Armando: We’re huge fans of “Friends.” My favorite character is Phoebe because she’s quirky and high spirited. I could totally see myself being friends with her.

Alex: Phoebe is my favorite, too. Very carefree.

Felicia and David Rocha

Felicia and David Rocha, members since 2017

Published in eNews on Jan. 23, 2020

Tell us about yourselves:

Felicia: I was born and raised in Fresno.  I’m a preschool teacher, mother of two, wife to David and a lover of this church. I graduated from McLane High School at 15 and had a scholarship to go away to college. But I was too young to leave Fresno, and if I had, I wouldn’t have met David. Everything has a way of working out.

David: I was born in Puebla, Mexico, and came to the U.S. when I was 1½. My mom worked in the cotton fields and she met my stepdad – who I call my dad. They had eight children so I’m the oldest of nine kids. All my brothers and sisters have blond hair and blue eyes, but they’re my family, and I’m very blessed to have such a big family. I graduated from Clovis High School, and I work at Valley Children’s Hospital in the imaging department. I’m blessed to help children medically.

How did you two meet?

Felicia: We actually have a funny story. We met on Valentine’s Day, and I was on a date with another guy. David walked up to us, shook the hand of my date and said, “I’m so sorry to do this to you. But if I don’t do this now, I’ll never forgive myself.” Then he asked me out. 

David: She was wearing a Bjork pendant with really colorful beads. I’m a huge fan of Bjork, and the pendant was my cue. I’d seen Felicia around Fresno City College, but we’d never talked.

Felicia: When David asked me out, I turned to my date and said, “I am so sorry.” And I left with David.

David: We had so much in common and immediately had this beautiful conversation. I knew she was my soulmate.

What brought you to Community UCC?

Felicia: We both grew up Catholic, although David had a little more of a mixed background. As adults, neither us went to church. We ran wild for a little while and then settled down and had a family. Our daughter, Aravis, is 13, and our son, Rossi, is 12. 

David: But the Lord was always in our hearts.

Felicia: Some friends had a come-to-Jesus moment, and they wanted that for us, too. We felt the presence of the Lord when they were praying with us, and it was life-changing. We ended up at People’s Church, and we had a great time there. It was great for our kids – they have such a good children’s program. But after a while, we were biting our tongues. 

David: They’re not open to the LGBTQ community, and they weren’t open to progressive thinking. We’re very supportive of the LGBTQ community, and it’s a big part of our lives. 

Felicia: So we stopped going because it just didn’t feel right. We tried other churches, and we couldn’t find a fit. All this time, we were living across from Community UCC, and I walked by every day taking our kids to school. One day I saw the rainbow flag flying here, and a light bulb went off in my head. What it said on the church website spoke to me. We came one Sunday, and we left saying, “This feels like home.”

David: We felt so welcomed, and our children felt so welcomed. It was perfect. It was meant to be.

What church activities have you been involved with?

Felicia: I’m currently vice moderator. I have been chair of the Missions and Social Justice Team, and David and I are youth group leaders.

David: I’m also on the Building and Grounds Team.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

Felicia: This church speaks to my heart. I didn’t realize growing up that I’m a natural-born advocate for social justice. I spent my childhood, teenage years and young-adult years arguing with people, saying: “How do you not understand we’re all supposed to be advocates for justice?” When I came here, I realized that maybe I don’t have to argue with everybody. I can make a difference by being in this church. It’s everything I want for my kids.

David: One of the most beautiful gifts you can give your kids is a love for God, and I’ve felt that love here like I’ve never felt it. I almost get tearful thinking of the beauty this church brings into our lives. We’re so glad to finally find a place that speaks to us, is progressive, and has a beautiful relationship with the Holy Spirit and God. 

What is your vision for the church?

Felicia: I would love for us to grow. There have to be people out there who’ve walked away from religion, and I want us to spread the word to them and say, “Even when you think there’s no home for you, there is here.”

David: There’s a millennial community that’s not aware of the beauty this church offers. I want us to reach out to them, and when they come, this church will change their lives in ways they can’t even imagine. 

What’s one thing about you that might surprise people?

Felicia:  I have pretty bad social anxiety. The strange thing is, it never seems to manifest itself when I do anything church-related. God is awesome.

David: I’m a bisexual family man, and I live openly. I want others in the LGBTQ community to know the Lord loves them and they’re welcome here.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

Felicia: Wild (laughter). I was in high school during the ’90s. I was all about raves. I was a party girl.

David: I was a hippy.

Tell me about a favorite musician:

Felicia: David Bowie. I have a David Bowie tattoo on my arm. He has a partner relationship with us. (Laughter)

David: Absolutely David Bowie. When we got married, our wedding song was his “As The World Falls Down.” We have a David Bowie closet in our house. 

Felicia: The Bowie Closet has a huge woven tapestry of Bowie that covers the main wall. We have memorabilia, action figures, posters, you name it. It’s like a shrine without the praying (laughter).

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Meet Our Members - Jacque and Bob Garcia

Jacque and Bob Garcia, members since 2000 and 2008 respectively

Published in eNews on Jan. 2, 2020

Tell us about yourselves:

Jacque: I was born in Chicago and grew up in Whittier. I started college at Arizona State University, where I discovered I was a protester. It was 1969, and the Vietnam War was still on. I finished my bachelor’s degree and got my master’s degree at Cal State Fullerton. I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and taught at Southern Oregon State College. I moved to Fresno in 1980, working for several nonprofits, including more than 20 years as executive director at Comprehensive Youth Services. It provides mental health counseling and other social services. Bob and I both retired in 2014.

Bob: I was born and raised in Fresno (McLane Class of 1966). After high school, I attended Fresno City College and then was drafted. When I got out of the Army, I went to Fresno State and graduated in 1974. I worked in banking for 15 years and then owned a microwave store for five years. After I sold that business, I worked for the Small Business Administration and then served for 26 years as executive director of Cen Cal Business Financial Group, which specializes in small business loans. I have a son and twin daughters from my first marriage, and I have four grandchildren.

How did you two meet?

Jacque: Bob was chairman of the board at the Family Service Center, where I was executive director before going to Comprehensive Youth Services. We’ve been married for 20 years.

What brought you to Community UCC?

Jacque: I was raised in a Congregational church, but I stopped going after high school. There were other things to do in college. When Bob and I got married, I wanted a religious service, and Walt Perry at Fresno Metro Ministry officiated at our wedding. I asked him about a church to attend, and he said College Community Congregational (which became Community UCC) was the most progressive church in Fresno. Good to know, I said, and it was close to the house. So I started attending.

Bob: I was raised Catholic but didn’t go to church for many years. Jacque surprised me when she started going to church after we got married. Eventually, I started coming, and I brought the grandchildren with me. Everyone was so welcoming, and my grandson, Micah, enjoyed it so much. We became part of the church family.

What church activities have you been involved in?

Jacque: I’ve served as moderator and on trustees and also on the Pastoral Relations and Christian Education teams. I also chaired the search committee for the interim pastor when Dave Schlicher left. I’m currently on the Buildings and Grounds Team, and Bob and I are both on Deacons.

Bob: I’m also on the Finance Team.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

Bob: All these older people are firebrands. There are people who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. I love it. Also, the church is open and affirming to everybody, and I take that to heart. I have some conservative friends, and you don’t hear that from them.

Jacque: I feel intellectually inspired and challenged by the sermons. I like that we learn something, and things aren’t presented as simply black and white.

What’s your vision for the church?

Bob: I think Community has so much potential with its message. I want to see more people in the congregation and a bigger youth program. I don’t know why there’s not more vitality. That scares me.

Jacque: I feel the same way. I don’t know why the message doesn’t resonate with more people.

What’s something about you that might surprise people?

Jacque: When I was in graduate school, I taught nursery school and drove their little school bus.

Bob: I used to ditch class in high school.

How would classmates in high school describe you?

Jacque: I was on the fringe, and I hung out with an eclectic group of kids who were involved in theater.

Bob: I was not a good student, and I got into trouble. My classmates would be surprised that I got a degree and a good job, and I could retire.

What are your favorite movies?

Bob: I have movies I can watch over and over again – “Casablanca,” “Hoosiers” and “Citizen Kane.”

Jacque: I like “Body Heat” and “The Third Man.” We also like to go to New York to see Broadway shows. I love walking the streets of New York and being part of the mass of humanity.

Meet Our Members: Susan Chavez

Susan Chavez, member since 2014

Published in eNews on Nov. 7, 2019

Tell us about yourself:

I was born at the old St. Agnes Hospital, one of 10 children. I’m the fourth child and the oldest girl. We were a Catholic family, and I went to 12 years of Catholic school, graduating from San Joaquin Memorial High School in 1968. In high school, my friends and I opposed the Vietnam War. After high school, I worked at Yosemite as a waitress and a maid. I went to Fresno City College, but I wasn’t really serious about my education at that point. I lived in Santa Barbara, San Diego and Oklahoma, and when I came back to Fresno, I was a waitress at the old Richard’s Restaurant on Belmont. It’s a hard job, and I thought, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life.” So I went back to school and became a special education teacher. I taught in the Central Unified School District for 25 years.

And your family:

My husband, Leo, and I have 22-year-old twins, Michelle and Angela. Their mother is one of Leo’s daughters from his first marriage. She suffered from mental illness, and she let us adopt the girls. They’ve always been good kids. Michelle and her husband, Jessie, live in North Carolina. He was in the Marines, and they’re moving to the Phoenix area, where he plans to become a police officer. Angela lives in Fresno, and she works with children who have behavior issues at a Fresno elementary school. She’s a mentor to the kids and trouble shoots for the teachers. She’s a little thing – only 5-foot-1 – but I guess she’s pretty strict. I didn’t know this about her (laughter).

What brought you to Community UCC?

I’ve always been a liberal and really open. I went to an evangelical church for many years and over time I realized in many ways that church didn’t see the world as I do. I loved the people, and they loved me. That was not the problem, but especially when Barack Obama became president, oh my goodness, did I feel a difference. I was very open that I was proud to vote for him. I became more uncomfortable, and I knew I wasn’t going to change the church. Well, I was in a walking group with Vicky Wall. We went to high school together, and she told me about Community UCC. I visited one Sunday, and I knew this was the place I needed to be.

What church activities have you been involved with?

I’ve served on the Pastoral Relations, Extravagant Welcome, Worship, and Missions and Social Justice teams.  I’ve also sung in the choir, taught Sunday school, and served on the Interim Pastor Selection Committee.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

No matter who you are and where you come from, you’re welcome here!

What’s your vision for the church?

I would like us to have a more diverse membership, and I know the church wants that, too. I also want us to connect in a greater way with young people.

What’s something about you that might surprise people?

I’ve had so many jobs that I’ve lost track. When I was younger, I painted houses, and I worked in sales at a lumber yard. I also have roots in the Middle East. My paternal grandfather came to the United States from Lebanon, and he and my grandmother ran a market in Reedley for many years. Finally, next year I’m going with two of my sisters and a brother-in-law to walk El Camino de Santiago. It begins in France and ends in Spain and is hundreds of miles long. Many people walk it as a spiritual pilgrimage. I hear it’s great for the soul but hard on the feet.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

I was a free spirit and an activist, and that got me into trouble. One time, a nun got so angry, she threw a book at me. My mother went to see that nun, and after they talked, my mother told me that people have all kinds of problems and issues that we don’t know about. She was talking about the nun. My mother – Esther Allen – was a very wise woman.

What’s your favorite TV show and movie?

I really liked the show, “Lost.” The characters were flawed but redeeming qualities appeared over time! Hope was alive! My favorite childhood movie is “The Wizard of Oz.”

There’s a big change coming in your life. Tell us about it.

Leo and I are moving to Yuma, Ariz. in January. We have a house there, and up to now we’ve split our time between Fresno and Yuma. In mid-November, Leo and I are driving to North Carolina to help Michelle and Jessie get ready for their move to Arizona. I’m going to really miss Community UCC, but I plan to come back to Fresno every three months or so. I’ll stay for a month at a time with one of my sisters, and when I’m in town, and I’ll definitely be at church.

Meet our Members - Bryan Clark

Bryan Clark, member since 2008

Published in eNews on Oct. 17, 2019

Tell us about yourself:

I was born in Boston and lived there until I was 5, when my family (mom, dad, six brothers and one sister) moved to Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. My dad was in the Navy. After he got out of the military, we lived in San Francisco and then Stockton, where I went to high school and San Joaquin Delta College. I came to Fresno in 1990 for a promotion as an investigator in the California Department of Corrections. I worked for the CDC for 27 years and retired in 2014 on my 50th birthday. My husband is Brian Isbell. We met the summer after graduating from high school, and our friendship developed into love. We’ve been together for 35 years, and we married at CUCC in 2008.

You have a second career as a writer. Tell us about that:

In the last six years, I’ve written and published five novels: “Come to the Oaks,” “Ancient House of Cards,” “Diego’s Secret,” “Before Sunrise” and my latest, “Escaping Camp Roosevelt.” My genre is romantic suspense, and my main characters are gay men. My books deal with a moral dilemma the characters must overcome. I feel I’m creating something that other writers haven’t. I publish a new book every May, and they’re available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Target and Walmart. My next book is entitled “Far Away” and it’s about two lovers who reunite after many years. 

What brought you to Community UCC?

I was raised as a Catholic and had lots of questions about the Bible and the church, but it wasn’t OK to ask those questions. When I realized I was gay, I left the church because it didn’t feel like a safe place. I didn’t go to church for many years. But after we moved to Fresno, I felt I needed something more. Trying to be spiritual on my own wasn’t enough – I needed a church family. I belonged to First Congregational for 10 years. Then one Sunday, I visited our church and was so taken by people’s genuine greeting and hospitality that I decided this is where I should be.

What church activities have you been involved with?

I’ve served on Pastoral Relations, Elders and their successor, Extravagant Welcome, and I’ve also chaired several of those committees. I got the most satisfaction out of Pastoral Relations, a small committee that meets with the pastor quarterly. It’s a place where the pastor can be completely honest, and the committee members can be completely honest with him or her about what’s being said in the pews and the parking lot. We can give the pastor advice and, if necessary, we can talk to a person the pastor is having trouble with and try to smooth things out.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

Without question, the friendliness. You’re just not going to get that anywhere else. Our hospitality is unbelievable, and it’s real and not just designed to get new members. It’s also special that you can sit next to someone in church who has a completely different spiritual belief, but we’ve come to an understanding that we all have our own journeys.

What’s your vision for the church?

My answer is a little selfish. There was a time when I was very active in the church, and I saw the behind-the-scenes politics. I pulled back when Pastor Chris [Breedlove] left. When the day comes that I’m able to get more involved, I’ll do that. But right now, I just have to let the church feed me. My vision is for the church to understand that some people need to get fed, and that’s OK. Not everyone has to be a worker bee all the time.

What’s something about you that might surprise people?

I’m an introvert. Once upon a time, I was an extrovert, but over a 27-year law enforcement career, you start to go inward on yourself. You offer less of yourself to people, especially to strangers, and you find that strangers take energy from you. To get that energy back, I have to be by myself, and that’s when I recharge.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

Goofy, funny and they probably would have said, “Here comes trouble.” Not trouble in a bad way, but he’s up to something.

What’s your favorite movie and book?

The movie I watch over and over is “Steel Magnolias.” I’ll watch anything with Julia Roberts. Another favorite movie is “Fried Green Tomatoes.” I lean toward comedies because I get to laugh in a world that is so serious. My favorite book, hands down, is “The Front Runner” by Patricia Nell Warren. It came out in the early ’70s, and I read it when I was 15. It has a gay character wrestling with his sexual identity, and I was going through the same thing. The book was pretty profound for me, and I’ve read it many times over the years.

Meet Our Members Profile - Roger and Vicky WallRoger and Vicky Wall, Members since 2012

Published in eNews on July 3, 2019

Tell us about yourself?

Roger: I was born and raised in Oregon, and I came to Fresno to attend Fresno Pacific. I was a teacher in Fresno for 37 years – first at Rowell Elementary and then Hidalgo Elementary and finally at Kings Canyon Middle School, where I taught history and geography. 

Vicky: I was born in New Jersey. My father died when I was really young, and my mother moved to California because she had a brother here. My mom, brother and I first lived in Southern California, and we came to Fresno when I was 8. I graduated from San Joaquin Memorial. I worked as an instructional aide in Fresno Unified for 18 years. Before that, I did medical transcription at home after I put the kids to bed. 

How did you two meet?

Vicky: I was in high school, and some of my friends said they’d met some cute, nice Mennonite boys at Cafe Midi in the Tower District. My friends thought I should meet this guy named Roger and ask him to Sadie Hawkins.  When we got there, I noticed that Roger was really a good storyteller and had a good sense of humor. I didn’t ask him to the dance, but we’ll be married 49 years in November. We have five children – Sarah, Matthew, Andrew, Aaron and Adam – whose ages are 47 to 36. We have 14 grandchildren, including two sets of twins.  Our youngest grandchild is 2, and our oldest is 21.

What brought you to Community UCC?

Vicky: I was raised Catholic, and we both had always been in a faith family. But in the early 2000s we felt the Christian church, in general, had left us.

Roger: We had been in the Mennonite Church since we were married. The Mennonites have always been a peace church. But our Mennonite congregation had no voice for peace when the Iraq War broke out. Our pastor told me that sometimes God uses one nation to punish another nation. It was hard for us to be there.

Vicky: We didn’t go anywhere for about six years, but I really missed being part of a church.

Roger: During that time, I read a lot of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and John Spong. I got energized by that new approach to Christianity. When we lived part time in Grand Junction, Colorado – where our youngest son was going to school – we found a UCC church. They were talking about Borg and the others.

Vicky: It was like the clouds parted. When we came back to Fresno, we found Community UCC. We fell in love with it on our first Sunday.

What church activities have you been involved with?

Vicky: I’m on the search committee for the settled pastor. We both do Vacation Bible School. I’m not officially on a lot of teams, but I tell everyone –  Fellowship, Extravagant Welcome, Worship, Sunday School – I will do anything to help.

Roger: I’m on the Charitable Gifts and Pastoral Relations teams. And Vicky has the gift of writing notes and cards. She does that a lot.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

Roger: I like that people can be themselves, and there’s a diversity of people and thought – although I wish it was little bit more diverse toward the conservative side so everyone could feel they have a voice.

Vicky: There are opportunities to grow spiritually and theologically, and I appreciate that. And I like the relationships in the church – staying after church on Sunday and asking people how their last week was. That’s important to me. That’s a big part of church to me – being a family and caring about each other.

What’s your vision for the church?

Vicky: To continue to be who we are. That’s really important because we’re really an alternative – another Christian avenue that people are hungry for. People are leaving the traditional church left and right. I don’t think a lot of them know that a place like our church exists. We’re never going to be huge. We just have to accept that. 

Is there anything about you that might surprise people?

Vicky: We climbed Mt. Whitney with our youngest son. He was 15.

Roger: We’ve summited Half Dome twice. I also have a collection of Native American-style wood flutes. One is made from Oregon myrtlewood, which I bought in memory of my mom. She was from Oregon. I also play the guitar, piano, saxophone, fiddle and harmonica. At our old church, our family was the worship band. People called us the von Walls (a takeoff on the von Trapps from “The Sound of Music”).

Any other surprises?

Vicky: My mother was from Holland, and that’s where she met my father – an American soldier – immediately after World War II ended. My mother’s family was wealthy. They had a paper factory and a big home, kind of like Downton Abbey. During the war, the Germans took over the house as a headquarters. My mother was a teenager then, and she had stories of friends being taken away by the Germans. 

Roger: We sponsored five or six Hmong families in the ’80s and ’90s. We helped them with immigration, found places for them to live, and helped them navigate American culture. A Hmong girl asked me one day if I could teach her dad how to buy a Big Mac. 

Vicky: We took four semesters of Hmong to try to learn the language.

How would classmates in high have described you?

Roger: In high school, I hung around with the popular guys. Actually, I had two friends, and we would go fishing and play pool. At Fresno Pacific, I was a prankster. I wouldn’t even tell people today about some of my pranks. (Laughter)

Vicky: I was a majorette, and I think people would have said I was likable.

What’s your favorite book or movie?

Roger: I have a favorite author: Peter Enns. He has such a fresh approach to what the Bible is and what all of those words mean, and what they don’t mean. He is an Old Testament geek. If I was going to go fiction, it’d be John Steinbeck and Robert Ludlum. 

Vicky: I like Barbara Brown Taylor. She’s an Episcopal priest, theologian, teacher and author. 

Meet Our Members - Gio Mena

Gio Mena, Member since 2019

Published in eNews on June 6, 2019

Tell us about yourself:

I play guitar in the church band. I’m 29, and I’ve been playing for 15 years. I was raised as a Jehovah Witness, and my parents were very particular about my extracurricular activities. I wanted to play football, but they said no.

So I gave up on activities in elementary school. But in middle school, I started skateboarding with friends, and those kids played music, too.  At the same time, my parents were getting a divorce, and I needed to focus on something productive. My dad agreed to pay for guitar lessons. I started writing my own music, and I still do.

Are in you in other bands?

Yes. I have a band called Wee Beasties. We just played at Grizzly Fest at Woodward Park. We play alternative rock. I also work at Western Sierra Charter Schools. They have an elementary and a high school, and I teach piano, guitar and choir there. I give private music lessons, too.

How do you know EJ?

EJ is friends with Mike Bonner, the drummer at church. Mike and I met at Patrick’s Music in Fresno, where I teach guitar. One day Mike told me about an opportunity to play guitar for the church.

Why did you join the church?

It’s very welcoming. It allows me to be myself in a spiritual setting, and I like the people. The church allows me to have my idea of what it is to be spiritual with God’s people. I can have my earrings, and I’m not being judged or pushed aside.

What do you find different or special about Community UCC?

It’s not as strict when it comes to dress code. There aren’t as many expectations, and I don’t find the guilt that people like to serve to one another for some reason. Not to talk bad on other churches I’ve been to, but humans are imperfect, and I’ve noticed a lot of hypocrisy, and it just doesn’t sit well with me.

What’s your vision for the church?

I don’t know that I have one. I like what’s going on. I like that we’re having discussions that churches haven’t had or are too afraid to have. Discussions on sexual orientation and racism. The discussions are really important because they trickle down to who we are, where having earrings or tattoos is no big deal.

What’s something about you most people wouldn’t know?

I’m the first in my family to be born in the United States. My dad is from Mexico and my mom is from Cuba. Spanish was my first language. Also, I like to cook. My speciality is zuppa toscana – an Italian sausage cream soup.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

I was that long-haired rocker kid at Bullard. I played a lot of shows back then, and people started recognizing me. Starting in my sophomore year, my band started booking shows, and 350 and 400 people would come. I had three bands in high school: Torn Apart, Eleventh Hour, and Armada. I love being in bands, and I always learn from other musicians.

Your favorite band?

Right now, I really like Young the Giant. I got to play with them this year at Grizzly Fest. It was a little dream come true. Growing up, I listened to Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five, Journey and lots of ’80s and ’90s rock.

Favorite movie, TV show and book?

“The Lord of the Rings” — all three. On TV, I like “The Office.” Something funny to take off the weight of the day. My favorite book is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

What else do you like to do?

I like to relax at home with my dog, Pumpkin. She’s a Sheltie mix — kind of like Lassie. We go for walks in the park. And I still skateboard from time to time. Something happens with skateboarding that’s similar to music: it takes all of your focus. If you’re thinking about your bills, you’re going to fall. You’re in the moment.

Gio2Is Gio short for something?


Geovonna Casanova, Gio’s girlfriend, joined us for the conversation. She recently sang with the church band. She said:

We met online. The first thing he said was “I like your name.” It was all smooth sailing from there.

Meet Our Members - Phil Fullerton.png

Meet Phil Fullerton, member since 1958

Published in eNews May 9, 2019

Tell us about yourself:

I was born near Chicago. My father died when I was 8, and my mother taught piano to keep us going. When I was in junior high, we moved to St. Petersburg, Florida to live with my grandmother. I met my wife, Margaret, during our junior year in English class. I attended Duke University, where I was Phi Beta Kappa and editor of the newspaper. I then attended Stanford for law school, where I was on the Stanford Law Review and graduated in the top 10 percent of my class.

Your family?

Margaret and I have four children –  Leslie, David, Laurie and Anne. We also have 10 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren (a 13th due in August), four step-grandchildren, and five step-great-grandchildren. Margaret recently moved to Somerford Place in Fresno for memory care. phil-fullerton-1.jpg

What brought you to Community UCC?

I had graduated from law school, and we came to Fresno for a job. We wanted a city near the mountains so we could backpack. I loved the outdoors.  Once we were here, we wanted a liberal church and one with a nursery because we had two children at the time. We loved (founding minister) Henry Hayden. He was great on visiting people in the church.

What church activities have you been involved in?

I’ve served as moderator and on the board of trustees. I also helped plan for the Sunday school building when the church (then College Community Congregational) was on Shaw Avenue. I also helped start and then restart the Saturday Breakfast Club. (It now meets at 9 a.m. the first Saturday of each month.) From 1971 to 1978, I led an Easter week trip for our youth group and some foreign students to the Navajo reservation in Arizona. It was a cultural exchange.

What about activities in Fresno and beyond?

I served as chairman of the Catholic Charities Committee on Refugees in the San Joaquin Valley, was treasurer of the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast Committee, and was co-chairman of the American Field Service in the Valley, which places foreign exchange students. I’ve also been a guest columnist for The Fresno Bee and other publications. In 1992, I was elected to the “Who’s Who in the World” publication.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

I love and cherish the church’s liberal stand for humanity and the oppressed. We are a presence in a community where there are huge forces against these liberal ideas.

Tell us about your career as a lawyer:

After two years at a law firm in Fresno, I started my own firm, which became Fullerton, Lang, Richert and Patch. I was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, and I was elected to the American Board of Trial Advocates. Certainly one of the highlights of my career was serving as lead counsel for The Bee Four, four Fresno newsmen who went to jail in 1976 to protect a confidential source. I’ve always had a soft spot for journalists.

What’s your favorite book or movie?

I just ordered “Lawrence of Arabia” from Netflix for a second time, and I’m reading “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” an autobiography of T. E. Lawrence, the British soldier who’s the central figure in “Lawrence of Arabia.” I also love Hitchcock movies – “Vertigo” and “The Birds” are two of my favorites. I’ve twice read “A Distant Mirror” about 14th-century France and the split between two popes at that time.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

I was the salutatorian voted the second most intellectual in my class.

What’s something about you most people wouldn’t know?

We lived in France from 1984 to 1992. I was retiring, and I was very tired and wanted to get away to a beautiful place. In addition, our youngest daughter, Annie, need a better school environment than she had in Fresno, and we found it in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. At first we thought we’d stay for a year, but Annie thrived there. After eight years, it was time to come home.

Is there anything else that might surprise people?

Margaret and I traveled to 62 countries. I don’t have a favorite country, but in Africa we loved going on safari in Kenya, visiting the Roman ruins in Tunisia and going up and down the Nile. In Asia, we did a great trip on the Yangtze River in China and another trip to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. We also did a one-month cruise around Australia and took two trips to New Zealand. I’ve climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. (14,505 feet), and Glittertind, the second highest peak in Norway (8,087 feet).

God is calling Community UCC to do what?

To continue to be a witness in the battle for the dignity and equal rights of all people, not only American citizens. We have a mission to improve humanity little by little. We’re not alone in that task, but we’re a beleaguered minority.

Meet Our Members - Amy Kilburn

Meet Amy Kilburn, member since 2015

Published in eNews on March 28, 2019

Tell us about yourself:

I teach literature and history to eighth-graders at Reyburn Intermediate School in Clovis Unified. I also teach a peer counseling class at Reyburn, and I’m the vice president of the Faculty Senate in Clovis Unified. Teachers elect the Senate’s officers, and we’re in charge of committees that deal with topics like salaries and benefits.

What about family?

I live with my mom, Carol, and we’re within five minutes of my brother, Andy, and his wife, Barbara. They have four children, Ellie, Arthur, Abbie and Maddie. They come over a lot, and we have a good time. I also have two dogs – Poe and Dixie – that I love a lot.

How did you come to attend Community UCC?

My grandparents, Art and Barbara Drolette, were founding members. My grandmother was a social justice activist, and my grandfather was the guiding light in our lives. We lived with my grandparents when I was growing up, and my grandpa would listen to my frustrations and then say, ‘You need to remember to love everyone.’ He had tough times in his life. His mother didn’t like kids, and his father was an alcoholic. He grew up during the Depression, and he served in World War II. But he had joy. After he passed away, Pastor Chris was very kind to us. I remember thinking: ‘He doesn’t even know us, but he’s coming to our house and taking care of us.’ My mom and I started attending soon after Grandpa died. I feel his presence here.

What church activities are you involved with?

I’m on the pastor search team, and I help with worship planning. I’ve also emceed special events like Bingo Night. In the past, I served as interim moderator and vice moderator.

What do you find special about Community UCC?

I appreciate that Community is a church where people can question their relationship with God, and they’re still welcome to worship here. During Lent, the congregation made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for folks who are homeless. That’s an example of what Christianity looks like to me. I know people who can quote Scripture and go to Bible studies all the time, but they’re not inclusive. It’s like ‘if you don’t pray the way I pray, I’m not going to be friends with you.’ That never attracted me.
Complete this sentence: “God is calling this congregation to be …”

I believe God is challenging us to truly be open and welcoming. Sometimes, there are people who want to serve, and their personalities rub some people wrong. We don’t find a spot for them, and they don’t come back. That bothers me. I would say God is challenging us to look at some of our practices and decide what we need to keep and what we need to change. We have a great opportunity to do this with a new pastor coming in.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you:

I started to travel as a teenager, and I walked on the Great Wall of China when I was 16. I’ve also been to England, France, Germany, Mexico, Spain, Russia, the Caribbean, and most of the states in this country.

What’s your favorite movie?

“Sense and Sensibility.” It’s a very “heart” movie, and all of my favorites are like that. My favorite TV show is “This Is Us,” and my favorite book is “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett.

How would people have described you in high school?

I graduated from Buchanan in the first graduating class – Class of ’95. I was very quiet. I was into studying and working on the yearbook. It’s still a little hard for me to get up and talk in front of adults. I’m a little shyer than people would think. But if there’s a need, I don’t mind doing it.

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Meet Our Members - John Donaldson
Meet John Donaldson, member since 1956

Published in eNews, March 7, 2019

Tell us about yourself:

I grew up in Houston and graduated from Rice University, where my mother had earned her degree in 1922. After receiving a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Rice, I earned another master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Yale. In 1956, I came to Fresno to teach physics at Fresno State. I also had offers from San Diego State and North Texas State, but my wife, Shirley, and I loved Yosemite and the Sierra. I never hiked as a kid, but Shirley loved to so we learned to backpack and camp out. Shirley and I had four children: Nancy, Dorothy and twins, Jack and Jane. They’re adopted. I have five grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too. (Shirley died in 2006.)

What brought you to Community UCC?

I’d been the choir director at a Methodist Church in Maryland while in the Army, and I was looking for something like that in Fresno. I had just started at Fresno State when I saw an article in the campus newspaper. Henry Hayden was looking for a choir director for this new church (then known as College Community Congregational). Henry and I got together, and we stayed together for many years. I was the director for 40 years, and I still sing in the choir.

What other church activities have you been involved in?

I’ve been on trustees (now called the Finance Team) probably 10 times, and I headed the stewardship drive on several occasions.

What do you find special or different about Community UCC?

It’s one church I can belong to because it’s progressive and has been all along. I’m an atheist, actually. I had a marvelous course at Rice on the philosophy of religion, and I was embarrassed early in the class that I didn’t realize Genesis has two separate creation stories, and they differ considerably. It opened my eyes. But I can happily sing about things I don’t believe in. Somehow, in music it’s different. I know it’s a strange conflict, but I’ve learned to live with it.

What’s your vision for the church?

We are called to be a church of love, not hate; not discriminating against any sex, race or orientation.

What’s something about you most people wouldn’t know?

A lot of people have no idea how important sports were to me when I was younger. Baseball was my favorite growing up, and I thought I was going to be a ball player. But I never got in a game in high school. Then the track coach asked me to come out and throw the discus. I continued with it at Rice, and I was national discus champion my senior year. I kept throwing at Fresno State, and I competed several times in the West Coast Relays in Fresno. I forget whether I placed there, but by then, my best days were over. I also played volleyball after college, and I was an AAU All-American in 1951.

Is there anything else people might not know about you?

I was elected in 1972 and 1976 to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, serving for eight years. I’m also interested in astronomy. For many years, I hosted dinners for church members and then we went stargazing.

How would classmates in high school have described you?

Someone who loved to study and was unaware of what was going on in the world at that time. They also might say I was pleasant. I got my dad’s temperament.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I’m really impressed with our interim pastor, Ara. He’s come to visit me at San Joaquin Gardens since I broke my leg and had surgery. The first time he came, we must have talked for two hours. He’s a great guy.

How is your leg?

I’m doing well. I’m in physical therapy and improving rapidly. I hope to go home soon and start driving again.