Wayne Riggs served as a Navy chaplain from 1957 to 1988. Two years later, he put his collar back on and took over at Plymouth Church. The sleek collection of buildings fronting University Avenue was run down, and he found himself painting over graffiti several times a week. There were 15 worshippers on Sunday, and there was $100,000 in debt. “We were not going to be able to rebuild an inner-city church as a family church,” he realized. “So our mission statement became, ‘To serve God by serving the people of this community.’”
Three years after Riggs formulated a bond offering to handle the $100,000, the church was debt-free. Today, three other churches meet for worship in the spare, modern chapel with the close acoustics — one is Korean, another Hispanic. Six AA groups hold meetings onsite. Riggs opened the school building to Head Start; toy basketball hoops dot the church courtyard. Supportive Parents Information Network, an organization devoted to helping people from welfare to self-sufficiency, has its office upstairs. On Fridays, an East County farmer sends a truckload of produce to the church, “and the folks from SPIN make the calls for people who need it to come in and get it.” The paint on the buildings is bright and pristine.
“Congregationalists have really been what some would call ‘social activists’ forever,” said Riggs. “We’re the ones who helped with the Underground Railroad in the South. Feed the hungry, heal the sick; ministering to people is how I see the mission of the church. It does involve politics because poor policy affects poor people, and so you have to change policy. I’m part of something called the Caring Council, and we’re trying to get the [San Diego County] Board of Supervisors off peoples’ tails. We’re the worst county in the nation for food stamps — 35 percent of the people who qualify actually have them, and it’s because of the County Board of Supervisors’ extreme screening practices. We’re the only county in the state with these requirements.”
The activist streak showed up in the service as well, during the Prayer Concerns. Said Riggs, “I want to commend again to your prayers the 46 million people in our country who are without health care. I was part of a delegation from Right to Work — four from San Diego and 36 from California — who went back to Washington and talked to our elected representatives. As number 37 among industrialized nations in health care, something must be done. I ask you to keep that in your prayers.”
Jack, a congregant, rose and asked to speak from his pew. “I ask for your prayers today for Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is waffling on this issue, not because there’s anything revolutionary, but because it’s consistent with our faith.” It was not the first or last time we heard from the congregation. They took every other verse on the first Scripture reading from Leviticus: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly...” And they joined in the Prayer of Dedication: “Our Heavenly Father, may what we give and what we keep, what we own and what we desire to own, be conformed to Your Holy Will.”
Throughout the service, the focus shifted from God to man and back again. After glorifying His name in song, Riggs welcomed a congregant back from the hospital and announced the September birthdays. Then it was back to praise and the Gloria Patri before an account of ailing congregants in need of prayer. “We thank You...for Your presence, and for the presence of one another. Our faith is encouraged by the fellowship of this body of faith, and we pray that You will strengthen us.”
The mix of heavenly and earthly concern reached its apotheosis in the sermon, which focused on the Golden Rule, laid down by Christ during the Sermon on the Mount (just after His promise of “Seek and ye shall find...”): “In all things, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the law and the prophets.”
“The Golden Rule,” preached Riggs, “says that we can have a part in creating a world where people think and say and do the things for others that they know, in their heart of hearts, are right and good and fair.” But, he warned, “unless we link this to the core of our spiritual being, it is not enough. If we are to find the gold in the Golden Rule, we must stay in touch with the God of the Golden Rule, as an asking and seeking people” — simply because “it involves the whole person” and “it’s not an easy achievement.”
What happens when we die?
“We believe in eternal life,” said Riggs.
Denomination: Congregational Christian Church
Address: 2717 University Avenue, North Park, 619-297-3289
Founded locally: 1912
Senior pastor: A. Wayne Riggs
Congregation size: about 50
Staff size: 2
Sunday school enrollment: around 10
Annual budget: $137,000
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to formal
Sunday worship: 9:45 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour