“The feeling is like losing family.”
Back in late May, when Milpitas resident Guy Haas heard that the Sunnyhills United Methodist Church (SUMC) would be discontinued, he simply couldn’t deny his sense of loss.
Many SUMC members felt the same.
As 90-year-old Thelma Wilber put it, “It came as a big shock.”
SUMC had been a fixture in the historic Sunnyhills community for nearly 6 decades.
Located at 355 Dixon Road, the church came into being during a time when Milpitas was really starting to develop. SUMC offered a space where ideals of social justice and progress could flourish; an environment where black and white individuals could be found worshipping side by side, a sight that was relatively uncommon back in the day.
It was also a place developed and brought into existence with the help of one Ben Gross. Gross was the first African-American ever elected to the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) Local Bargaining Committee, in 1950. Several years later, when the Ford Motor Plant moved from Richmond to Milpitas, Gross moved as well, and became instrumental in creating the Sunnyhills development, the first planned racially integrated neighborhood in the United States. (Gross would later go on to become a Councilmember for and Mayor of Milpitas in the 1960s.)
Gross, who had been part of Easter Hill Methodist Church back in Richmond, wanted to establish a church in Milpitas’ Sunnyhills neighborhood.
And so, as years were put into building the church, people in the neighborhood improvised: running services in neighbors’ homes, in the back of a truck, and even in an old airplane hanger. When the UAW hall was built, church services happened there, until the first couple church buildings were completed and ready for use in the early/mid-sixties. SUMC’s final phase of construction was completed in 1967.
A Dwindling Congregation
In recent years, the size of the congregation started to drop. In its final months, SUMC had 60 members on its books, though not all of them showed up to services regularly. A good Sunday brought in about 25 members, though on a regular Sunday, it was more like 12-15.
Apparently, this was why the plug was pulled.
The church property is owned by the United Methodist Church, which is organized into conferences. SUMC is part of the California Nevada Annual Conference, which covers California, from Bakersfield all the way up to the Oregon border, and also includes the State of Nevada (minus the southern triangle).
SUMC’s conference is governed by Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who works out of an office in West Sacramento. Carcaño, who could not be reached for comment, has a Cabinet made up of District Superintendents. (The conference that SUMC is a part of has 5 districts, with a District Superintendent overseeing each one.) As the property belongs to the conference and not the individual congregation, the Bishop and superintendents decide on which congregations should be discontinued, and also which pastors will be placed at certain churches.
The decision to discontinue SUMC was made final at the Annual Conference Session of the Cal-Nevada UMC in Modesto this past June. Genesis Church, another United Methodist Church located in Milpitas, on Main Street, was also voted to be subject to discontinuation.
Some SUMC congregants expressed discontent over how the United Methodist Church is the authority in deciding who goes and who stays. Not only that, but some were unhappy about how quickly the conference asked them to move out, offering little time for them to smoothly adjust and prepare for the transition of losing their spiritual home.
Peace Moves In
Although they were only given about a month to wind things down and transition out of the church space, the Sunnyhills congregation was able to make it happen. And so, by the end of June, they had moved out.
And a new church congregation swiftly moved in to fill the space…
The new congregation is known as Peace United Methodist Church (UMC). They have about 200 members, and had been having all of their services out of their church in San Jose. The Bishop and her cabinet had made the decision to approve Peace UMC’s move.
The growing congregation held their first service in the Sunnyhills space on July 7. Pastor Charles Tran, who has served as Pastor for Peace UMC these past 6 years, is thrilled to be in Milpitas.
With Peace UMC growing at a healthy pace, it was decided that they would also keep their San Jose campus; now they have 2 spots.
The San Jose location primarily has services in Vietnamese, to suit the majority of their members. Pastor Charles spoke of the congregation’s intention to open more services, due to the need to represent even more foregin languages and cultures: “We’re trying to build a multicultural church…with services for people who speak English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino…”
Pastor Charles sees the community of Milpitas as an area that is perfect for outreach to all different people.
“I can see their point, wanting to bring them [the Peace UMC congregation] here,” said Bob Roll, who’d been a member of the Sunnyhills’ congregation since ’77. Looking at the bright side, Roll added: “I think it will give me a chance to retire…”
Roll had been serving as SUMC Treasurer and Chair of the Administrative Council. He was also part of the choir with Haas. (Haas was the lead tenor, Roll a bass.) Haas, who had been a congregant at SUMC since 1981, was the Lay Leader and also served on the Board of Trustees. He also chaired the Staff-Parish Committee.
Emilio Sazon will go down as the last Pastor of Sunnyhills’ United Methodist Church. Known to all as “Pastor Emil,” he had served SUMC for the last 3 years and was confident that the spirit of the church would not be diminished: “The United Methodist Church is a connectional Church,” shared the Pastor. “We belong to this church wherever we go and with that spirit, Sunnyhills UMC will discontinue its administration as a new church comes in to bring new ministries…and we’re hoping, to continue the legacy of Sunnyhills.”
Pastor Emil was made Associate Pastor of Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Fremont, and began his services there at the beginning of July.
From Here…to Where?
Although Peace UMC is already in the space, a few loose strings have been left dangling. Currently, other organizations are leasing space on the church property. Although the District Superintendent has allowed for each entity to stay in the location until September 30, it’s uncertain as to where they’ll go after that date. These entities are: the Milpitas Parents Preschool, Success Learning Center, the Santa Maria Virgen Old Catholic congregation, St. Mary’s Philippine Independent congregation, and a First 5 Family Resource Center.
Thelma Wilber will carry a great deal of memories with her, and is heartened by all the many relationships she had formed through the church over the years. She used to be a part of a small team that created stunning art pieces with paper and other materials; once created, the pieces would be hung up during church services for all to enjoy. At 90, she was the church’s oldest member.
When she first discovered the church with her husband, who has since passed away, it was in the early 70s. From the very first service, Wilber felt as if she was “home.” One of things that she felt made SUMC so special? “The church opened its doors to everyone, no matter what their ethnicity was, or what their thinking was…” she said.
Known as a reconciling congregation, Sunnyhills United Methodist Church welcomed all individuals, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
“We had hit a low spot with our membership,” said Wilber quietly, her eyes shimmering with decades of memories. “I had hoped it would come back… but that’s how it goes…”
The final service for Sunnyhills United Methodist Church was held on Sunday, June 30.