The Rev. Elena Larssen – Senior Minister
The Rev. Elena Larssen has served as the 13th installed Senior Minster of The First Congregational Church of Long Beach (United Church of Christ) since 2013.
A graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz and Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union, Rev. Larssen studied theater at Occidental College. Ordained to the campus ministry at Stanford University, she previously served two local churches as Associate Minister (Palo Alto, CA and La Grange, IL) and was Associate Conference Minister for the Minnesota Conference from 2008 to 2013; in that role, she was the youngest regional executive in her denomination.
Nationally, Rev. Larssen is a Presidential Fellow of her denomination, Vice President of the Board for the Christmas Fund, and deeply engaged in leadership development for new clergy. Locally, Rev. Larssen is actively engaged with CCEJ, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, and member of the current class with Leadership Long Beach. She is passionate about the power of congregations of all faiths to fight poverty, keep the arts alive, and build a just and tolerant society.
Rev. Larssen is married to the Rev. Mark Pettis; they have one son and a basset hound.
Curtis Heard – Director of Music
Curtis Heard has been leading the music ministry at First Church since 2010 and has been involved with church music for as long as he can remember. Growing up, he attended Hawthorne United Methodist Church, where he sang in the children’s and youth choirs. He began his church choir directing career at La Habra United Methodist Church and has also served at Bixby Knolls Christian Church and Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Tustin.
Curtis is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, where he received a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance and a teaching credential in choral/vocal music. He has been the choir director at Wilson High School in Long Beach since 1992. He is also the musical director of the Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company and has been involved with all of their productions. Other shows include Brundibar, presented by CANTO in association with the Long Beach Opera, Gypsy, Oklahoma, Anything Goes, and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. As a pianist/keyboardist, he has performed with the Pacific Symphony, the Cypress Pops Orchestra, Musical Theater West, the Long Beach Mozart Festival, South Bay Civic Light Opera, and other musical organizations. He also performs regularly with vocalist (and spouse) Lisa Bode Heard and saxophonist Jeff Sisil as the Time-Out Trio.
Curtis, Composer-in-Residence at First Church, has written numerous compositions for choir, solo piano, organ, chamber ensembles, and the theater. His setting of October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepherd, the award-winning book of poems by Lesléa Newman, has been performed several times in Long Beach and by the Heartland Sings Chorale in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has also composed a Christmas cantata, Immannuel: God Within Us and Among Us, using texts by Tina Datsko dé Sanchez. He was commissioned to write songs for an elf-themed holiday musical workshop by the Center Theater Group and was a recipient of a COLA grant for his one-act opera, Permissable Union, premiered at California Plaza in Los Angeles. Another of his operas, The Last Resort, was performed at the NOW festival at the Redcat theater at Disney Hall. His choral compositions have been performed by the Notre Dame Glee Club, the University Choir of Cal State Long Beach, the Long Beach City College Women’s Chorus, the Singer’s Club of Cleveland, and the combined honor choirs of the Long Beach Unified School District. He has collaborated with performance artist Ken Roht on several shows, including An Enjoyable Evening with Three Special Girls, Larry Swell’s Big Bang, Seven Seals and a Riding Monkey, Growing with Ghosts and the 99-cent only productions. Other theatrical works include the opera Knight of the Dark, based on the secret society of the Knights Templar, Harry Thaw Hates Everybody for the Mark Taper New Works project, and Leopold and Loeb, a Laugh Riot! (LATC and Seattle’s On the Boards Theater). His compositions also include several published choral works, piano and organ pieces, an Easter cantata for choir and woodwind quintet, handbell music, and other chamber pieces.
Tracy Halter-Balin – Director of Children’s and Youth Music and Assistant Director of Music
Tracy grew up in this church and loved being a part of the children’s and youth choirs. She was encouraged by the Rev. Mary Ellen Kilsby to form the All Seasons Choir in 1989, so she did with just a handful of kids that met in a corner of the Ramsay Dining Room. While pursuing her Bachelor’s of Music degree, she worked in the early childhood education field and honed her love of working with kids. She received her Music Education Credential from California State University, Long Beach, where she sang in the choirs and rang handbells with the University Handbell Choir. She has been ringing with Pacific Bells Handbell Ensemble for over 30 years. She was motivated to share her love of handbell ringing with the church’s youth and started Beloved Bells in 1992. To expand the musical multi-generational fun to more ages, Charming Chimes (a chime group for younger children) began in 2003, and an adult handbell choir Bellissimo in 2005, followed by Jubellance (an adult beginner group) in 2015. The bell groups have enjoyed going on musical trips to share the love of handbells to places such as Berkeley, Hawaii, San Diego, and Connecticut.
For the past 15 years, Tracy has been deeply involved in the life of the Southern California/Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ. She has been the Music Director and Summer Program Director at Pilgrim Pines, the camp she grew up attending through FCCLB. She volunteers for summer and winter camps, serves on the SCNC/UCC Conference Outdoor Ministries Team, and is a past adult advisor of the Conference Youth Roundtable.
Besides her church life, she loves participating with the Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company’s productions, singing with the Sanctuary Choir and with Just Cuz (a female quartet), and ringing bells with Pacific Bells. She enjoys having a few piano students with the hope of encouraging an on-going love of music as a whole. Otherwise, she works with her husband Matt Balin at their independent auto repair shop, Matt’s Imports, and with her cousins Heather and Melody (and non-cousin Mike) at their long-time family business now known as Heather R. Chambers CPA, Inc.
Marc R. Dickey, Ph.D. – Organist
Dr. Marc Dickey has been organist at First Congregational Church since December 1992, serving as the principle keyboard player for worship services, as well as participating in numerous recitals and other special musical events. In addition to his duties at First Church, he has performed as organist in the Long Beach Bach Festival, the Long Beach Mozart Festival, and for Temple Israel ‘s High Holy Days. He has given at least one annual brass and organ recital with brass students from California State University, Fullerton annually since 1990.
Since 1988 Dr. Dickey has served as a faculty member at California State University, Fullerton, where he oversees the School of Music’s highly regarded instrumental music education program. Dr. Dickey was elected to four consecutive terms as chair and director of the School of Music, serving from 2005-2017, and he conducted Cal State Fullerton’s Symphonic Winds for more than ten years. He also oversaw the re-envisioning and installation of E. Power Biggs’ “Cambridge Portative” Schlicker touring organ in CSU Fullerton’s Meng Concert Hall in 2012.
He holds Ph.D. and B.M. degrees from the University of Michigan, and the M.M. degree from Northwestern University. He previously served on the faculty of Oregon State University as Associate Director of Bands and a specialist in music education. In addition to his keyboard abilities, Dr. Dickey is a professional bassoonist, having performed with the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Symphony Orchestra for several years. He has worked with public school instrumental music ensembles from 24 states and three Canadian provinces and has published his research in several significant research and professional journals.
Ruth Warkentin – Office Manager
Ruth Warkentin has worked in the office at First Congregational Church since 2000. Her duties include editing the newsletter, keeping the church calendar, booking events for outside groups, updating the website, coordinating mailings, and maintaining the database. She holds an M.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine and is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach.
Yvonne SaMarion – Maintenance Supervisor
Facilities Coordinator, Yvonne SaMarion joined the church staff in April 2003. Her chief responsibilities are making sure that rooms are set up for various events and classes. She schedules custodial help for the facility and tries to ensure that everything remains in working order. A native New Yorker, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in biology from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She has done advanced coursework in wildlife management and in early childhood education. She moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to take the position of trainer for a fast food company. She eventually became the training manager for their west coast region. She left the position to work with young people from the inner city as a director with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. She is an avid reader and lover of all wildlife – except pigeons!