Oaks of Righteousness
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The ordination committee requested that I volunteer outside of my own congregation as a pastoral intern. Having never been an intern, I emailed the General Presbyter who put me in touch with half a dozen pastors serving urban congregations. Among these pastors, only Pastor Chris responded and he quickly arranged a visit to First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.
Because my younger sister, Diane, and her husband lived in Americana Drive for a number of years, Annandale was familiar; unfamiliar were the Hispanic day-workers hanging out on Little River Turnpike in front of the McDonalds. The pavement on Little River Turnpike seemed worn and the bedding plants around the houses seemed overgrown. I remembered a youthful and neatly trimmed Annandale populated by crew-cut veterans and maintained by ever-vigilant Eagle Scouts. Like an old scout, Annandale had aged.
In the late 1970s when my sister and her husband purchased a garden condominium on Americana Drive, Annandale was an affordable, up-and-coming, suburban town inside the Beltway, close to Washington DC, with good schools. In the early 1980 they were joined by my other sister, Karen, and her husband who purchased a brand-new townhouse on Campanionship Drive. By the 1990s Diane and her husband had resettled in Philadelphia; Karen resettled in Florida. By 2007, the year before I entered seminary, Diane died following complications during a second round of breast cancer. When I visited Annandale in May of 2009, my Annandale memories were no longer fresh and, on the way over to the church, Americana Drive eluded me.
Driving up Newcastle Drive, the grounds of the brick church greeted me with enormous oaks, marked out and steady. Unsteady trees, like white pine or popular, can grow 30-40 feet in a few years, but steadiness requires the patience of an oak. A straight, tall oak, hearkening to a time before missionaries brought the hope of salvation to fearsome and heathen Frisians, adorns the Hiemstra coat of arms. Disarming pin oak is my father’s favorite, but formative white oak—faithfully rooted, humbly set—guarded the spire of First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.
At the end of the long, winding driveway, First Presbyterian Church of Annandale offers many doors to enter the building and, for those in need, the shelter of a roof on rainy days. Sunshine, not rain, was my fortune on that first visit and I instinctively ducked under the roof to the door across the hall from the sanctuary. The sanctuary beckoned me with a large white Celtic cross on fire with an avian image of the Holy Spirit that hung behind a modern pulpit. Modern red and yellow stained glass hung overhead and to the left, but wooden organ to the right of the cross captured my attention first. Baptized in the shadow of a pipe organ, confirmed by a Handel chorus, and offered communion by melodies still craddled in my mother’s arms, memories of organ music comforted me. Annandale was familiar before a word was spoken and I knew I was not far from home.
Pastor Chris found me before I found him. He granted me a tour of the many classrooms, the day-care center, the kitchen, the library, and the staff offices. With the facility came a church’s proud history—the building was dedicated in 1960 and expanded in 1963; by 1970, the church had 575 children in Sunday school; two years later membership peaked at 883 active members; and in 1974 the organ was added. More recent history, however, peaked my interest—the church had evolving partnerships with First Korean Presbyterian Church of Virginia (since 1965) and a Pakistani mission congregation, found in few other congregations. And neither partnering congregation was a mere tenant; multilingual worship services took place on special occasions during the year.
I was hooked. For the next year, I served as a pastoral intern at First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.