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John Olson, who helped Spokane’s faiths bend history, died Dec. 3, 2006

The Rev. John Olson, who connected, implemented and initiated many programs now in place in the region during his 22 years as executive director of the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, died on Dec. 3 at LaConner, Wash., where he and his wife, Marie, moved after he retired in 1998.

When he began in 1977, the Spokane Christian Coalition, the council’s name then, did the legislative conference, Thanksgiving service, Easter sunrise service and a directory of churches and agencies, which he continued.

John acted as an at-large minister to the community, organizing programs through the coalition.

For a while, he worked half time with the coalition and half-time with the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council, which he helped start.  Other times, he worked half time as pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran, interim at Millwood Presbyterian Church, interim at Westview United Church of Christ and then 11 years as pastor at Grace Lutheran Church.

He was involved with the Interstate Task Force for Human Relations, which brought together representatives of Jewish, African-American and Hispanic organizations, law enforcement and concerned citizens.  They worked in collaboration with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations to challenge the Aryan Nations, formerly in Hayden, Idaho. 

The Interstate Task Force sponsored educational forums on racism and helped create the Spokane Human Rights Commission.

John also helped start and lead Camp PEACE (People Everywhere Are Created Equal), anti-bigotry training for teams of youth from area high schools.  The Interfaith Council continues this program.

Through Nightwalk Ministry, John interacted with people in downtown Spokane at night.

As human services for low-income people were cut in the 1980s, John helped organize churches and agencies to form Love Church Services to pool churches’ emergency funds.

He was among those who helped form Friend to Friend for visiting and befriending lonely people in long-term care facilities, the Calling and Caring program for training teams of church people to visit church drop-outs, and Childwatch tours to inform church leaders of programs dealing with child abuse.

Through the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, John helped form the Greater Spokane Coalition Against Poverty (GSCAP) to address economic justice by drawing together community and business leaders to meet with low-income people to share stories that developed into programs of mutual awareness and benefit.  John became part-time staff for GSCAP and helped organize the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium and two “Roof Over My Head” conferences.

John also supported the early efforts to start The Fig Tree, to cover religion news, which was then being neglected by mass media.  He was clear that it was to have that independent function—not be the public relations arm for the ecumenical council.

“The council was originally designed to be a behind-the-scenes facilitator, not an out-front prophetic ministry,” said John, who often drew from an ecumenical understanding expressed by British Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, who spoke of the local church “being truly united when it becomes for its place what Christ is for the world.”

John believed the “place” included a community’s economic, cultural, political, social, educational and religious life.

He also believed that if “the church sees the world as God sees it,” the church will help revitalize communities and neighborhoods, and will have an influence to reduce poverty.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © January 2007