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Overlapping generations of members provide continuity in 100-year-old congregation

Overlapping generations of members in the century-old Manito Presbyterian Church in Spokane have provided continuity through tough times in the Depression, its heyday from the 1950s to 1990s and as a remnant through its split in 2001 into a period of redevelopment.

Retired journalist Jim Price, a member only three years, is working with Eunice Snyder, a member since 1956, applying his research skills and fascination with history to co-authoring the church’s centennial history booklet.

While he is part of the church’s present and future, he defers to long-time members for the legacy. 

Manito Presbyterian
Early photo of Manito Presbyterian Church

Jim told of the church’s founding in April 1908.  That February, Bethel Presbyterian at 7th and Arthur bought three lots on the Southeast corner of 29th and Latawah for the mission church with 23 founding members.  Many lived near 32nd and Perry and found it hard to go by car or buggy around the cliff to Bethel.

Eunice and he have identified 85 people who were church members for 50 or more years.

While many facts for the centennial book come from the 75th anniversary book, Jim and Eunice as editors must add 25 more years of information and photos that reflect church life.

Jim Price
Jim Price

“We seek a personal focus in stories of the church’s development and its pastors,” said Jim, who researched Whitworth University archives for information on individuals and pastors to feature.

Because a list of living members, who were members more than 30 years at the time of the 75th, would not fit in the 100th book, they are listing people in any generation who were members for 50 years or more.  They found that Burton Belknap was a member for 73 years, one month and 14 days from April 3, 1921 to May 17, 1994—probably the longest membership.  He overlapped 36 years with the first recorded member, Emma Thompson, a member for 58 years from 1910.

That longevity, Jim said, is a sign of a healthy, viable organization, with continuity through overlapping generations, stretching in a stream from those who joined the first day to present members.

Among those still active in the church is Lloyd Lamb, 84, who joined as a teen in 1942.  He and his wife, June, whose three daughters were married in the church, were active in the Couples’ Club, and he helped establish Camp Spalding.

He spoke of the importance of working through the bumps of church life to be sure the church continues.

Eunice, 82, and her late husband, Robert, were drawn to Manito by the Couples’ Club.  They moved from the North side to be nearer the church, where she served on the session and the women’s association, helped with worship services at Union Gospel Mission and nursing homes, taught Sunday school and delivered Meals on Wheels.

Having left for nine years before the split, she returned in 2003 to be part of redeveloping their church.  She is committed to sharing the church’s history and roots with newer members to assure continuity.

Another long-time member, Barbara Top Rockwood, came in 1938 when she was nine and her father, the Rev. Evert Top, came as pastor.

Barbara played Manito’s organ from 1944 to 1948, from 1957 to 1988, and on occasion since, when she is home from retirement travels of the United States.  Her mother had played off and on, and Barbara’s daughter, Elizabeth Gale, played for eight years.

Barbara said that the church’s music and its organ, dedicated in 1960, drew people to the church.

For years, Manito’s organ was used as a teaching organ.  Organists who learned there now play all over the country, she said.

Evert came when the church was left with few members after the Depression, said Jim.  Twelve of 21 voted in the spring to continue as an independent church with a budget of $2,500 and called Evert in the fall. 

When he arrived, the church was the 12th largest in the then Presbytery of Spokane.  In a decade, it became the third largest and when he died in 1958, it was the second largest, according to church records. 

For decades, First Presbyterian was largest and Millwood Community Presbyterian was second largest.

Records say Evert was beloved for his preaching, his relationships and being willing to do whatever he asked others to do—dig the basement with a team of horses, pitch rocks or plant a garden.

“It was the Depression.  Most were in the same boat—not well off,” Jim said.

Impressed by Evert’s energy, people invited friends and neighbors, Jim said.

“In World War II all churches grew, related to the stresses of war.  After the war, growth escalated further when the men came back.  Manito Presbyterian grew faster than and declined slower than the trends,” he observed.

Records attribute growth to Evert and his successors, Ray Moody (1959 to 1975) and Erv Roorda (1976 to 1988), who maintained growth while churches were declining nationally in the 1970s. 

The church exceeded 1,700 members in the mid-1950s, with 700 children in Sunday school. It was about 1,200 in the 1970s, and remained over 1,000 in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Like other large churches, Manito Presbyterian was an umbrella for men’s, women’s, youth and couples groups.

“Churches began to falter when they failed to keep up with societal changes,” Jim observed. 

Formerly a sports writer and announcer, he noted the decline in part coincided with the National Football League airing games on Sundays during that decade.

 “People began joining health clubs.  Churches started to provide more small group activities in the 1980s and 1990s, he noted of churches like First Presbyterian, which he and his wife, Ann, attended since shortly after moving to Spokane in 1970 until they moved to a house in walking distance of Manito Presbyterian.

As people lost interest in being in a large organization, large churches began offering more retreats, Bible study groups and men’s prayer breakfasts, he said.

Doug Waggoner was pastor of the church for about 13 years from 1988 to 2001.  He kept church membership at more than 700 members, by emphasizing programs for families and children.

“It was a healthy, multi-generational church, but split over Presbyterian Church USA polity, philosophy and social issues,” Jim said. 

Members who disagreed with the pastor began leaving, but new members joined.  Divided, 541 members voted at Saturday and Sunday services, Sept. 8 and 9, 2001, and 461 decided to leave the denomination.  Eighty wanted to continue in the denomination. 

In Presbyterian polity, the property belonged to the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest, and Manito Presbyterian continued.

Doug and most members formed South Side Christian Church, which still meets in the former Lincoln Heights Theater, but continued to run a school for K-8 grades in the Manito education wing until the school became independent in 2002.

“The Sunday after Sept. 11, 109 adults and three children came to Manito and, by the end of the year, there were 152 members.

For Jim, the nucleus that remained “speaks of the resilience and persistence of members.”

Now, more than six years since the split, there are more young families, but still a disproportionate number of older members, who invested years there.

The Rev. Scott Starbuck came as pastor a month after the split and led a two-year process helping the congregation discern why God wanted the church to survive.

Scott Starbuck
The Rev. Scott Starbuck

They found that neighbors wanted a multigenerational church that would be engaged in serving the neighborhood and the world.  So rather than dividing members into affinity groups based on age, gender and style, all generations gather for one worship service and a midweek gathering.

About 150 to 180 of Manito’s 230 members attend worship each week. They have a blended worship with contemporary and traditional elements, music and styles valued by the different generations to speak to those generations and to the various social-economic groups in the church, said Scott, who also teaches Hebrew and Old Testament at Whitworth University, and has previously taught at Gonzaga University. 

Another core value of the congregation is to be “missional,” which means the church has survived ebbs and flows through  the years to exist for its neighborhood, city, region and the world.

Neighborhood outreach includes a Mothers of Preschoolers group, the Midweek at Manito gathering, a day-care center in the former library across the street and visitation of residents in the Manito Garden Apartments.

Over the years its outreach included a food bank and resettling about 80 Hmong and Laotian refugees through Church World Service.  In recent years, two to eight members have joined three presbytery delegations to Guatemala.  Manito Presbyterian is also a host church for homeless families through the Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Scott said that instead of committees, the church has nine ministry units with half their responsibility within the church and half for mission.  He mentioned a few of the nine as examples:

• Buildings and Grounds cares not only for the church’s property but also helps neighbors with needs for maintaining their homes and yards. 

• Finance and Stewardship also offers neighborhood programs on debt relief and budgeting. 

• Music and Worship also provides opportunities for people to join in worship outside the church’s walls.

• Congregational Care strengthens  relationships within the church through empathetic listening and conflict resolution, and helps people in other churches and the community address conflicts in their lives and work.

“Today the church is thriving,” Jim said. “Members may disagree with each other, but we are a long-lived family of God.”

For its anniversary, Manito is inviting descendants of pioneer families, especially members for more than 50 years and church leaders.  There will be a hymn sing at 4:30 p.m., Saturday, April 26, and worship and a reception at 10:30 a.m., Sunday, April 27.

Manito joins about 22 other more than 100-year-old churches in Spokane—including Spokane Valley Baptist Church, which celebrates its centennial April 11 to 13.

For information, call 838-3559.