The Rev. Talitha Arnold of the United Church of Santa Fe speaks during a past peace rally on the Plaza.

When founders of the United Church of Santa Fe started the faith group 40 years ago, they didn’t have a building where they could gather to worship.

Instead, they met in a classroom at St. Michael’s High School and in backrooms of a long-standing restaurant at El Gancho. They held church school classes in the bar. Students went home with cocktail napkins, swizzle sticks and biblical teachings.

The lack of a proper meeting place for the first members of the congregation now seems appropriate as the church celebrates a milestone amid a pandemic, the Rev. Talitha Arnold said.

In those days, there were fewer than 10 members. Today, the church has over 300 and a couple of hundred others join regular services.

But they’ve been tuning in to webcasts from scattered sites as health risks from COVID-19 continue.

“We’re at our 40th anniversary, and we’re back to worshiping in our own homes or other places,” said Arnold, who has been the church’s minister for nearly 33 years.

Being apart is not going to stop church members from celebrating Sunday’s anniversary.

The livestreamed sermon will focus on the Pentecost — the celebration of the Christian spirit more than 40 days after Easter.

“Who would have thought that our greatest dream and vision this Pentecost would be simply being able to gather together again?” Arnold wrote on the church’s website.

The Bible is full of references to the number 40, making this year’s birthday party a special one for the church, Arnold said. Moses and Jesus both fasted for 40 days in the desert; the Israelites wandered for 40 years; and, of course, there was the 40-day flood.

Arnold said she knows the church building, first constructed in 1983 and expanded over the decades, provides a spiritual anchor for people accustomed to visiting it for worship and other purposes.

“Churches are made sacred not because they are labeled as a church but because people have come into these buildings and experienced something of God’s presence in their lives — something of beauty, something of comfort, something of strength,” she said. “People remember, ‘This is where my child was baptized; this is where I was for my husband’s funeral; this is where my children have grown up; this is where I learned to sing; this is where I got married; this is where I always sat.’ ”

United Church of Santa Fe began as part of the United Church of Christ, known as a progressive and inclusive denomination.

Founding members Tony and Sarah Sawtell, who moved to New Mexico in 1973 so Tony could attend law school at the University of New Mexico, recalled their surprise when they discovered Santa Fe was the only capital city in the U.S. that didn’t have a United Church of Christ congregation at the time.

They didn’t volunteer to start one, they said. They were instead recruited for the job.

“We were given some guidance about how to go about organizing a new church, so we put some ads in the newspaper and convened some people, and we had about eight or nine people at the very beginning,” Tony Sawtell said. “And we set about recruiting a minister.”

They chose Martha Ann Baumer.

Though financial challenges plagued the church in its early days, a faithful congregation and community support over time helped it gain and maintain a firm footing in Santa Fe, the Sawtells and Arnold said.

“Forty years seems like a long time ago, and it feels like yesterday,” Sarah Sawtell added.

The church — which Arnold describes as “unashamedly Christian and unapologetically inclusive” — helped found Santa Fe Habitat for Humanity in the late 1980s and the former Salazar School-United Church Partnership in the mid-1990s.

The latter developed into Communities In Schools, a nonprofit that provides resources and services for students most in need at public schools throughout the city.

For the past two months, the church has teamed up with Felipe’s Tacos to provide 200 burritos a week for residents of local shelters. Feeding the hungry remains one of the church’s main missions, Arnold said.

This weekend’s anniversary should resonate deeply with members who understand it is doubly important to “hold a celebration at a time when people cannot come together. … We have to remember God’s faithfulness,” she said.

“For me, any anniversary is a time to look back and wonder how we got over [challenges] and simply give thanks to God,” she added.

Arnold said she hopes United Church services can safely resume in June through smaller groups in outdoor settings.

In the meantime, she said, “God’s spirit unites us. So we will continue to be the United Church of Santa Fe — even if we are worshiping in our own homes.”

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General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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