MOSKOWITE CORNER — The Lucite pulpit was empty, a cloth was draped over the keyboard, and all the padded chairs were stacked against the back wall.
It was the first Sunday in 52 years without a service by the Community Church of Lake Berryessa. In the coming weeks, the furniture and books and articles of worship were to be removed – down to the cross-topped wooden pedestals a member had hand-carved as symbolic Stations of the Cross for Easter services – and this storefront-style space in a cream-colored one-story building would no longer be a chapel but an empty room.
A week after worshiping there for the last time, half a dozen members returned Sunday to share memories of their congregation, and the bonds it had forged. They had found other places to attend services, in Napa or Vacaville or just down the road, yet all hoped that friendships – and a shared sense of purpose – would long outlive their church.
“The building is not the church,” said Judy Johnson-Forseth, who attended services during its final two years. “The people are the church.”
Set among the marinas, campgrounds and resorts ringing Lake Berryessa, the church emerged in 1965 as a summer-only congregation whose members were led by Napa-based Presbyterian ministers near a cemetery in the Spanish Flat area, amid the natural scenery that drew thousands of tourists to the region.
“There was a roadside sign that said ‘Catholic Mass on Saturday night, Christian services on Sunday,’” remembered Carolyn Nelson, a Napa native who joined the congregation in 1974 when its members gathered outdoors only from Memorial Day to Labor Day when vacationers flocked to Lake Berryessa. “They had these green benches, trees that went out that way, a pulpit and a little pump organ they used to bring in.”
As more people began settling in what began as a resort community, church members followed suit, hiring a pastor, switching to year-round worship and moving to Moskowite Corner in 1985. Their sanctuary was no cathedral – a nondescript carpeted space flanked by small offices, with a wooden cross topping the sign mounted over the front door – but it remained Lake Berryessa’s only permanent house of worship for nearly two decades, drawing as many as 40 people for Sunday worship.
Over the years, some members came to see the nondenominational church as much more than a place to pray and sing. To some, the church and its minister Bob Lee, who arrived in 2005, has been an instrument to help Napans in need – and even to get their own lives on track.
“I got really sick, and my family knew Bob and he came to see me” in the hospital, remembered Angelo Tuvo of his first encounter with Lee in 2013, after Tuvo was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. “The doctors gave me six months; Bob visited me during that time and I’ve come here ever since, and he’s been a real help to me.
“I’m going to miss this place, dearly,” said Tuvo, whose wooden carvings came to adorn the church’s sanctuary – including cross-topped platforms to symbolize the Stations of the Cross during the Easter season.
“I moved up here in 2016; I’d gotten sick and I found this church – broken body, broken spirit,” recalled another member, Johnson-Forseth, who at one point was given only a week to live due to cirrhosis. Meeting Lee for the first time and asking him if an Alcoholics Anonymous group met in Lake Berryessa, she was told no, but received a bag of food and an invitation to church – and now is studying at Napa Valley College to become an addiction counselor.
“This whole congregation has been instrumental in my walk with God,” said Johnson-Forseth, who has since began a new AA group in Capell Valley. “It’s my family. When you’re sick as I was, you need a strong support system.”
Members said their aid has included rent and utility assistance for those in need, whether in the church or not, as well as weekly food collections, a community Christmas dinner and a twice-yearly Napa ministry for the developmentally disabled.
“What I try to teach is the love of Christ,” said Lee, “a love of service … to build a family that can rely on one another under the leadership of God – not only to make their lives better, but the lives of their community better.”
Such assistance has often strained church finances, however, and the Lake Berryessa group’s small size has made for a tiny fundraising base. “We’ve always been hurting a bit financially,” said Bonnie Radi, who joined the church in 2011. “I never really understood how he kept the doors open.”
The 2003 opening of Valley Christian Church nearby left the two congregations catering to the same small, isolated community, although Lee described relations between the churches as friendly enough to cooperate on many programs.
But members said a combination of the late-2000s recession and a declining resort industry in Lake Berryessa – resulting in the loss of jobs and full-year residents – may have done more to pressure the Community Church, where Sunday attendance dropped from a peak of 30 or more to barely a dozen in its final year.
When Lee decided to retire from the pulpit and floated the idea with the church board last fall, its leaders decided to wind down the congregation. “One of our thoughts was that it was better to have one healthy church than two that struggle,” he said of the Community Church and Valley Christian, which continues to operate in Lake Berryessa.
Lee, a longtime Vallejo Police officer before entering the ministry, plans to stay in the community for the time being, though his next mission remains undecided. Some of the church members already have made the move to nearby Valley Christian, a similarly tight-knit nondenominational group.
But in his church’s final service on New Year’s Eve, the pastor sought to assure members that the good they had accomplished together can go on, even if the church itself cannot.
“For my last sermon, I told them, this church is closing, but nothing can take away what we’ve created, which is a family,” he recalled a week later. “And that’s something we’ll carry with us all the rest of our lives.”