“THE LITTLE CHURCH THAT COULD”
For nearly 70 years, the small white and blue church on Old Topanga Canyon Road has welcomed the community. Since 1993, the historic building—it’s an official California Point of Historic Interest—has been home to the Topanga Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational Protestant community. Although the name changed, the mission has remained the same: to provide a spiritual home for Topanga residents.
The church is a non-profit corporation governed by a Trustee board, including CEO Patricia Moore-Joshi and CFO Ellie Carroll, and many volunteers.
“People are sometimes surprised to learn that the church is privately owned,” Moore told the Messenger. “We run it as a corporation.”
An early effort to join a larger church organization was unsuccessful. “Their idea was to sell the property,” Moore said. Instead, the little church embraces a non-denominational Christian philosophy that strives to focus on the words of Jesus and doesn’t trouble itself with hierarchy or ritual.
Topanga Christian Fellowship’s doors are open to everyone. Three ministers, all ordained and fully qualified, alternate at the weekly 10:30 a.m. Sunday service in the plain, but flower-filled sanctuary.
“One of our congregation members, Diamond, goes to the Los Angeles flower market every Saturday morning for the flowers she uses to create the arrangements for Sunday’s service,” Carroll said. “She says it is her ‘gift to the Father’.” Services are accompanied by singers (“Joyful Noise”) and a variety of instruments, ranging from guitar and keyboard to banjo and ukulele.
“We have a mix of contemporary Christian, mountain music, gospel,” Moore said. “Southern gospel is our most popular,” she added. “And we’re planning a Christmas Carol sing along on December 21, 6-8 p.m. and a cozy evening around the Christmas tree with refreshments.”
In addition to services, Bible study, weddings, baptisms and memorials, the church provides rehearsal space for the Theatricum Botanicum and the Topanga Symphony. Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups regularly meet in the church hall and the space is also used for concerts, lectures, film screenings and even the occasional film shoot. In an emergency, it’s also the designated Red Cross evacuation shelter for people and domestic animals.
Once a year, in the fall, the After-Thanksgiving Potluck and Gratitude Gathering is a time of sharing fun, family and fellowship. Another annual event in the spring is the Blessing of the Animals. “We never turn anyone away,” Moore said. “Some deeply troubled people have found peace here.”
“Someone coming through the door for the first time once said it’s like walking into a warm hug,” Carroll said.
The church was the dream and longtime goal of Pastor John Utterback and his wife, Florence. According to “The Topanga Story,” the Topanga Historical Society’s encyclopedic history of the canyon, the Utterbacks started a Sunday school for the community’s children in 1932. The church that grew out of the Sunday school program was incorporated in 1943.
The New England-style church building was completed in 1953, with the acquisition of a bell. Moore explained that the 250-pound bell that still rings out in the canyon on special occasions, came from a Dutch Reform church in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and is thought to have originally been cast in Europe, possibly as early as the 17th century.
The bell pull hangs beneath a wooden sign carved with the message, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.” Carroll encourages visitors to pull the rope. “All the neighbors know when they hear the bell at odd hours that we have visitors,” she said. “The sound of the bell, the feel of it, is an experience that never leaves you.”
Carroll describes the church as her touchstone. “This is a lovely place for anyone to experience the Lord.”
“Its ancient teachings [are] for today’s chaos,” Moore added.
The Topanga Christian Fellowship is located at 269 Old Topanga Canyon Road, Topanga, CA 90290. For more information: topangachristianfellowship.org.