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Where’s the stained glass? Here’s why this church had a clear vision

Parishioners lingered in the sanctuary at Old Mission United Methodist Church, 5519 State Park Road in Fairway, after services Aug. 20. The church is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month.
Parishioners lingered in the sanctuary at Old Mission United Methodist Church, 5519 State Park Road in Fairway, after services Aug. 20. The church is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month. Special to the Star

Through the 10 tall arched windows of Old Mission United Methodist Church in Fairway, sun and moon alike cast their beams.

From their pews inside, church members can see daylight, dusk, snowflakes, rain and clouds. Seasons change and cars rush by on Mission Road.

The clear glass of the 20-foot-high windows leaves the view unobscured.

The windows are not colorful. Nor are they plain. The clarity of the view is a statement.

“It was a decision we made, not to shut the world out with stained glass windows,” Michael Gardner, senior pastor, told the congregation at a Sunday service in August. “The design invites us to look out to the world around us because God is connected to the world around us.”

So important to the church are the windows that a recent capital campaign raised more than $230,000 to replace all 10 sanctuary windows and two in the bell tower. The campaign is part of the church’s 75th anniversary celebration.

“The windows were 60 years old,” said Scott Long, chairman of the board of trustees. “The glass had become hazy, the panes had cracked.”

New energy-efficient windows were installed in August and the view from the pews is now even clearer.

On Saturday and Sunday, the public is invited to join the church in celebrating its 75 years with a block party and special worship services.

The Sunday service includes the performance of an anthem commissioned especially for the 75th anniversary.

Billed as Homecoming Weekend, the two-day celebration invites all previous Old Mission members, as well as the community.

Ben and Ruth Ann Smith are coming from Seattle for the weekend. They’ve been gone since 1975.

Ben Smith, 72, said he is looking forward to seeing the kids he knew when he was director of church youth programs from 1973 through ’75.

But they won’t be kids now.

“They’re old enough to be grandparents with children of their own,” Ben Smith said.

He is also eager to see the church’s Early Education Center. He was instrumental in establishing the center in 1973 as a day care and preschool.

Seeing the need of working parents for full-time care for their children, BenSmith asked the senior pastor for permission to pursue the day care concept in June of 1973.

“The idea was to reach out to other people, to be of service to the community,” he said.

He acquired the necessary state approval and licensing for the center to provide full-time day care and a preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“From the beginning, the emphasis was on education, not babysitting,” Smith said.

The emphasis, too, was on welcoming children from families of all faiths throughout the community.

When the center opened in September of 1973, “the vast majority of kids were not from the church,” he said.

Forty-four years later, that’s still the case. Only about 5 percent of the children enrolled at the center come from Old Mission church families.

A familiar face Ben Smith will see when he returns is that of Betty Leonard-Perez. He remembers interviewing her for a teaching position in 1974.

And she’s still there. In 1977, Leonard-Perez became director of the center.

From the 60 to 70 children who were there when she started, Leonard-Perez has seen enrollment grow to a maximum capacity of 100 students, educated and cared for by a staff of 17. All teachers have college degrees.

Teachers educate toddlers and children from 2 to 5 years of age. Classrooms are set up with areas for art, math, puzzles, science, reading, writing, computer use, music and other subjects.

But the content isn’t strictly academic.

“We want the children to know that they’re loved and cared for here,” Leonard-Perez said. “We think that’s the best way to teach a young child about God.”

The center is very much a part of the church literally.

The church chapel is used for Bible study on Thursday morning and all Sunday School classrooms are used by the children throughout the week.

“We’re all over,” Leonard-Perez said. “Our indoor play area is an adult Sunday School class.”

Working as a teacher at the center was Leonard-Perez’s first job after graduating from Kansas State University more than 40 years ago.

Why has she stayed all these years?

“Where else could I go that I’d get hugs all day and gifts of lovely pictures?” she asked.

The founding of the daycare center as a nonprofit in 1973 is part of the church history written by Harold E. Bingham, a charter member.

Bingham compiled a thorough history from the founding of Old Mission United Methodist Church in 1942 to 1989: “A Story of People Finding God.”

The first worship service was in the Fairway Theatre, now Houlihan’s restaurant, and 165 people signed on as charter members. They continued to meet there until the church was built in 1946.

The name chosen for the new church was a reference to the former Shawnee Methodist Mission, operated in the mid-1800s by a Methodist minister and his wife. Located in the area of Mission Road, 53rd Street and Reinhardt Drive, it is now known as the Shawnee Indian Mission.

The historic stone church with its distinctive windows is a Fairway landmark.

Carolyn Tebow, 97, remembers “getting a warm feeling” driving by the church years ago when she and her husband, Ken Tebow, came to Kansas City from Chanute.

The Tebows often brought a carload of students from Ken Tebow’s classes to games, the symphony, Starlight and other attractions.

“Every time I’d go by that church, I would hope that we could stop and visit it someday,” she recalled.

The Tebows did more than that. They joined the church in 1959 when they moved to Roeland Park.

And the Tebows’ own carload — two sons and two daughters — was expected to attend church every Sunday morning with their parents.

“We’d tell the kids, ‘That car leaves the driveway at 7:45 and there’s supposed to be six people in it,’” Carolyn Tebow recalled.

For 10 years, Ken Tebow served as director of music at Old Mission and expanded the one church choir to several different singing groups for children, for high school students, for men and for women.

During the 58 years they’ve belonged to Old Mission, they’ve both been active in the church. Ken Tebow has been church treasurer and chairman of the board of trustees. Carolyn Tebow has served as president of the women’s organization and volunteered in the church’s preschool.

Their two daughters were married in the church and the Tebows celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary there.

Now at 97, Ken Tebow still attends a prayer group that he helped start in 1960. The group meets at 8 a.m. every Saturday.

Such longstanding dedication is not uncommon.

Like the Tebows, organist Gloria Slagle dates her association with the church back to 1959. Every Sunday for 58 years, she has been playing the pipe organ. She still remembers being thrilled with the new organ, purchased in 1969.

Slagle, 83, participates in an adult Sunday school class that she joined right after she was hired. The class has about 100 members, all about the same age, she said.

“We are a very close-knit group,” Slagle said.

She has seen members move away but drive back faithfully every Sunday for that class.

“The church serves the needs of a lot of people,” she said.

Old school values was the message in Gardner’s sermon at the church’s service on Aug. 20. Gardner talked about the Charlottesville, Va., protests and the obligation of Methodists everywhere to speak up.

It was something that needed to be said — and heard, according to L.D. Schnake, 79, Overland Park.

“I was glad to hear him bringing in the situation in the country now,” Schnake said. “People need to hear that if you’re following the teachings of Jesus, you’re not doing neo-Nazism.”

L.D. and Barbara Schnake have been members of the church for 33 years. They moved to the Kansas City area from Manhattan, Kan., in 1984. They joined Old Mission because the minister, Charles Bennett, was transferred from their church in Manhattan.

“Dr. Gardner does a great job of relating the Bible to everyday life,” said Jeff Breon, who has been a member for 20 years.

He and his wife, Keri, were married in the church in 1997 and their two children have been baptized there.

“I’ve grown up here,” said Jacob Breon, a senior at Olathe East High School.

Students, backpacks and school colors filled the pews and the praise band sounded like a pep rally at “Back to School Sunday” on Aug. 20.

Cynthia Hartwell, 26, a teacher at Shawnee Mission South High School, was among church members enjoying a pancake breakfast in the fellowship hall after the service. Hartwell joined the church two months ago after attending for a year and a half.

“This church promotes community between generations,” she said. “It’s important to not separate ourselves by age.”

Claudia Dawson of Olathe attended the breakfast with her children Amaya, 2, and son, Roman, 10 months old, and her mother Nancy Weaver of Prairie Village.

“We love our church family,” Dawson said. “I’ve made lifelong friends here with other parents.”

As church attendance grew over the years, additions were built to accommodate more members.

Membership reached a high of some 2,800 members in the 1960s and has been stable at about 1,200 members for the last 20 years.

Three worship services are held on Sunday and attendance averages 400.

“We’ve never been a small church,” said Gardner, senior pastor. “We’re large enough to connect to the community.”

This summer, for example, more than 200 children attended Vacation Bible School and some 100 volunteers helped out.

Nationwide, church attendance has tended to decline and some churches have closed.

Gardner attributes that to several factors: a more mobile population — a connection with only one community across a lifetime is unusual; options on weekends have multiplied — retailers are open, students are involved in sports and other activities; a disenchantment with religion due to extremists like Fred Phelps.

Old Mission has made an effort to adjust and adapt to changing needs and norms.

A contemporary worship service, for example, is offered at 9:45 a.m. between traditional services at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Its informality, drums, tambourines and casual dress appeal to younger members.

Sensing a desire of young adults to come together as a community outside the church setting, associate pastor Karen Nyhart organized Life Groups about five years ago.

Ten to 12 college students and recent graduates meet once a week in one another’s homes to discuss the sermon, Bible studies and a guide prepared by Gardner.

“My hope is that they’ll not just meet as a Life Group but they’ll build lifelong friendships,” Nyhart said.

By all accounts, Old Mission is thriving and Gardner predicts that the church and its new windows will see a 100th anniversary.

Homecoming weekend

When: Sept. 16 and 17

Block Party

4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday

5519 State Park Road

Featuring tents, food trucks, children’s games and activities.

Worship Celebration

9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. on Sunday

In church sanctuary

Music-filled worship services.

Old Mission United Methodist Church

5519 State Park Road

Fairway, Kan., 66205