Historical Beauty Meets Modern Needs, and First Congregational Church Riverside’s uses capital improvements to help serve their community

Southern California is a place of contrasts. Vast wealth coexists with devastating poverty, natural beauty works in concert with Hollywood illusion, and hundred-year-old Mission architecture abuts new condo developments. At the center of these contrasts stands First Congregational Church Riverside.

Built in 1913 and designed by revered architect Myron Hunt, FCC Riverside is a stunning example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Mirroring its aesthetic, the ministries of FCC Riverside are also timeless—feeding the poor, offering a welcoming home for worshippers, and working hard to serve the needs of their community.

One of the church’s key ministries is Project Food, a weekly sit-down meal offered to the community. “Anyone who wants a meal is welcome,” says Sandra Soares, the Chairperson and Volunteer coordinator for Project Food. She emphasizes that Project Food serves a range of community members, from the marginally housed to families or seniors on fixed incomes.

“Regardless of why they come, we’re there every Wednesday.” The weekly meal is served restaurant-style by volunteers. The food is served on real plates with real flatware. Entertainment is provided. This added level of care and comfort sets Project Food apart, allowing it to be a true community gathering based in the spirit of kinship. That attention to service and dignity has proven meaningful to the community. The project continues to grow as it hits its 35th year in service.

“Too many families in our community struggle with the question, ‘Do I put a roof over my head or do I buy groceries?’” says Soares. “Our goal always has been to provide some sort of solution to the homeless crisis. Affordable housing is one of the issues. Mental health is one of the issues. Addiction is a HUGE issue.” Soares insists solutions need to address people holistically. “We need to stop thinking of it as one specific problem, and more of a multifaceted issue. ‘I’m a vet, I’m an injured vet, I’m an addicted injured vet.’”

To serve that approach, Project Food has expanded to include distribution of supplies and clothes, as well as a biweekly free clinic provided by UC Riverside’s medical school. This expansion delights the FCC congregation and the Riverside community, but it brings with it one particularly challenging contrast: an aging building that needs to adapt and grow. FCC Riverside’s church was added to the National Register of historic buildings in 1997.

In 2014, Cornerstone provided funds to expand the kitchen to maintain the growth of Project Food. Today, the building needs retrofitting so that it is earthquake-safe. Just as no one should have to choose between keeping a roof over their head or buying groceries, FCC’s faces an impossible choice between serving needy congregants and maintaining the safety of their building. Cornerstone has once more partnered with FCC Riverside to establish a line of credit to help retrofit the church and preserve the iconic bell tower.

The church is also running their own capital campaign to cover the costs of the work. “We were fortunate to receive a number of donations including a large grant from the Old Riverside Foundation,” says Reverend Hannah Cranbury. The church also set up a GoFundMe to accept private, smaller donations. “We were pleased to receive donations from community members outside of the church, which helped us feel the support of the community around us,” Cranbury says.

“We don’t know how to fix [the tower], but we know how to feed people,” Soares added. With a little support from congregants and community, they’ll be able to do both.