Happy birthday to Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this weekend.

Northbrae was founded Feb. 7, 1914, when a handful of local families held a service in the home of William and Mary Pressley at 1003 Mariposa St. (The Sunday school was held in the garage.) Services continued in various homes -- and for a while in the Mason McDuffie Real Estate sales office -- until 1920, when, under the leadership of Northbrae's first minister, Frank Brush, the church building was erected at the corner of Los Angeles and The Alameda.

Though Northbrae was founded as a Presbyterian church, people were already calling it "Northbrae Community Church," reflecting the philosophy best expressed by Brush's successor, Laurance Cross: "This church will take into full membership a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu -- anyone who will promise to do good and be good." It officially became a non-denominational congregation in 1943.

Brush retired in 1924 and was succeeded by Cross, one of those larger-than-life characters who would be unbelievable if you read about him in a novel. He supported the teaching of evolution in the Scopes "monkey trial," preached racial tolerance to the John Birchers, and, as chairman of the Berkeley school board, cast the deciding vote to allow Paul Robeson to use the Berkeley Community Theater for a concert after San Francisco and Oakland turned him down.


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From 1929 to 1939 he hosted a daily radio show, "Crosscuts From The Log O' Life," which was broadcast nationwide on NBC. And to top it all off, he served two terms as Mayor of Berkeley from 1947 to 1955.

When he died in 1966, he was a hard act to follow, but Northbrae found the perfect candidate: Craig Jessup, who had just been fired by his church in Alameda for supporting integrated housing. That would have been the kiss of death for most churches, but for Northbrae it was the highest possible recommendation.

He justified their confidence by drawing on his own experiences as a soldier in the Korean War to preach the virtues of peace, a timely message during the Vietnam War. After his retirement in 1977 he joined the Peace Corps and taught farming in New Guinea.

The fourth minister was Dave Sugarbaker. On his watch, Northbrae opened the doors to other denominations, where they could worship while they were building their own homes, including two Jewish congregations: Congregation Netivot Shalom and Kehilla Community Synagogue. He also conducted more than 1,000 weddings for couples who didn't have a church or whose church wouldn't marry them for whatever reason (i.e. because they were gay or were marrying someone of a different faith). After serving for 27 years he was succeeded in 2000 by Ron Sebring, who created the Rite of Passage program, a coming-of-age ritual for young people, like an ecumenical bar mitzvah.

Sebring retired in 2011 and was succeeded by a string of interim ministers until the current minister, Mike Burch, took over last year.

Northbrae will celebrate its centennial on Feb. 8 with a banquet featuring Rev. Jessup's son, Craig Jr., as emcee. The next morning it will kick off its second hundred years with a service of celebration, and the public is cordially invited.

Northbrae might be short on dogma, but I have never met more Godly people. It's not easy to live up to Rev. Cross' admonition to "do good and be good," but these folks really try.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.