As I looked over the crowd in the Mark Keppel High School auditorium during Church in the Valley’s first Sunday worship service in February 2013, I saw a number of unfamiliar faces. There were plenty of friends there as well, some I had known for a decade. But on that day, I was thankful for the strangers.
A packed worship service was wishful thinking two years ago, when 60 adults began discussing how to start a new congregation in the San Gabriel Valley. Now Church in the Valley is looking back on an eventful first year filled with hard work, answered prayers, and strangers who have become friends.
Our church has always valued relationships, and it's through relationships that the Alhambra congregation began. More than 25 years ago, two young church leaders, Randy Lanthripe and Neil Walker, became friends. Lanthripe was starting Church in the Valley in Diamond Bar, and Walker had just launched a student ministry, Christian Challenge, at the University of Southern California. Lanthripe and Walker supported each other in ministry, and many Christian Challenge students began to attend Church in the Valley, despite the 30 miles of freeway between USC and Diamond Bar.
I met Walker while attending USC in 2002, when philosophical explorations had gradually led me from atheism to faith. I started to attend Church in the Valley and discovered it shared the same values of personal growth and support that had drawn me to Christian Challenge. Like many of my friends, I moved to the Alhambra area after college — a compromise between jobs in Los Angeles and church family further east. But a significant commute to church was never the ideal. We invited friends and family to experience the community we loved, but for many, it just didn't make sense to drive that far for church.
In early 2012, Lanthripe led the effort to start a new church campus here in the west San Gabriel Valley. Adding a campus would enable our church to better impact each region, while maintaining common characteristics, leadership, and resources. This was about more than just saving money on gas—here was a chance to build something new.
Alhambra's diversity and growing appeal to young families made the city an appropriate place for our new campus. Our leadership team decided that Mark Keppel High School — with its large facilities, ample parking, and proximity to the 10 Freeway — would be the best fit for our new home.
“Alhambra is more established and urban, yet a very desirable place to live,” Lanthripe said. “That means it's also a desirable place to attend church.”
With the big decisions nailed down, dozens of volunteers began to focus on the hundreds of smaller details: setup, hospitality, kids ministry, outreach. We posted invitations on social media, mailed them to our neighbors, and spent weeks hand-delivering flyers and inviting community members to join us.
On Feb. 17, 2013, Church in the Valley opened its doors. As weeks passed, our group of 60 more than doubled. This is what we were working towards—welcoming new members, forming friendships, and seeing people connect with God and grow spiritually.
Looking back on this first year, we are especially thankful for the relationships that have extended beyond Sunday mornings. Eddie and Juli Almanza have lived near my wife and I for several years but we had never crossed paths before they began attending Church in the Valley. Since meeting them at church, we have enjoyed many fun times together, getting to know them as individuals and friends —and excellent cooks!
Like many of our members, the Almanzas were looking for a place like Church of the Valley long before it opened. “After praying for two years for a church to attend, the Lord provided!” Juli Almanza said.
It’s so fulfilling to see how our team's efforts are being used to make a difference in people's lives. Now that our startup phase is over, we're shifting focus to maintaining a healthy and growing community. Our hope is that over time our congregation can bring together a cross-section of our diverse city united by a common purpose, the same purpose that inspired Lanthripe and Walker almost 30 years ago—to see people worship and grow in faith with the help of a loving community.