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Metaline Falls pastor, mayor and theatre director is three persons in one

As mayor, pastor and theatre advisor/director in Metaline Falls, the Rev. Tara Leininger is attuned to which hat she’s wearing and when her roles overlap.

Committed to serving the community, she said each role calls for the empathetic listening skills she honed in college and for knowing community concerns and resources.

Tara Leininger
Tara Leininger

“As mayor, I know people want to say something and be heard,” said Tara, who was elected in November 2007 and began her two-year term in January 2008.

To facilitate listening, she is at Cathy’s Café for lunch on Thursdays, when they serve steak-and-mushroom soup.  People come to talk to her—about everything from dogs to administration.

“Some days I walk out of the grocery store and someone will say, ‘I want to talk to you.’  I adjust for what hat they want to speak to,” Tara said.

“The planters in the street are not watered enough,” one woman told her, so Mayor Tara called the city maintenance man.

While she was shoveling snow recently in front of the church, someone expressed concern about how the streets were plowed.

“As long as I know who I am, I’m okay,” said Tara, who spends a quarter of her time in theatre work, quarter-time as mayor and half-time as the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Metaline Falls.   “I’m also a wife, and have children and grandchildren in Idaho.”

She has been wearing the three hats since Teck Cominco announced in December that a temporary closure of its Pend Oreille Mine and a lay off 167 workers begin Feb. 16, because the price of zinc fell from $2 to 50 cents.

While she anticipates the closure’s secondary impact on the community’s businesses, restaurants, social services, churches and the school, she knows there were plans for a committee to envision the region’s economic future after the mine would close when there was no more zinc.

Expecting that mining would not last forever, the Pend Oreille River Tourism Alliance promotes tourism—drawing people to cross-country ski, hike, fish, hunt and enjoy the natural setting—and the Tri County Economic Development District is envisioning ways to foster local business growth.

Mine and community leaders have called a community meeting to talk about the closure, people’s fears and visions for possibilities.

Some, like Tara and her husband, Donivan Johnson, love living there and hope to stay.  Tara and Donivan moved to Metaline Falls 18 years ago, thinking they would stay five years.  He teaches music for the school district.

In a previous economic downturn, Tara was laid off as half-time teacher 10 years ago, became pastor and was ordained two years ago. 

As mayor and pastor, she is busy with phone calls.  As mayor, she has been talking with the manager of Teck-Cominco, other area mayors and business people.

As pastor, she finds that many people have started the grieving process that begins with disbelief and moves through anger and resignation to “the other side.”

For the theatre programs, Tara wonders how the loss of mining jobs will affect them.  She hopes volunteers and participation in the theatre remain strong.

She expects the community will emerge from this downturn as it has other difficult times.

When the food bank hit hard times in recent weeks, churches spread the word, asking for dry goods, canned goods and cash.  The community responded.

“As mayor and as pastor, I talk with people in need and know what emergency resources are available,” she said.

Tara described the area’s demographics.  Miners live in Metaline Falls, Metaline, Ione, Newport, Colville and other communities.  Some grew up in the area.  Others moved there because of the mine.  Many rent apartments and stay in hotels, because mining is uncertain.  They leave their families in one place and work on contract in different places. 

Some brought their families and bought homes. 

Job opportunities are limited, so it’s uncertain how many of the region’s population of nearly 1,000—258 people in Metaline Falls, 479 in Ione, 162 in Metaline and more outside the towns—will stay.

The Selkirk School District might lose 80 of about 350 students and the state funding that comes with them. 

Tara said few miners are in the churches.

Her church and others have experienced a decline because young and middle-aged members have moved away for jobs and older people for medical care. 

Recently, she and several pastors formed the North Pend Oreille Ministers’ Association to address why only 30 percent of the people in the area attend churches and to seek ways to help them in their lives and spiritual journeys.

“Many have no tradition of church in their lives and no sense of need to be in a church,” said Tara, who performs marriages and funerals for many of them. 

One dynamic the association has been considering is how face-to-face relationships and community have declined with access to the internet and email.

 “We see that many students go home and sit in front of the computer rather than visiting friends in person,” she said. 

Tara values sitting down with the city council in person to discuss the emergency plan, infrastructure maintenance, zoning and other issues.  She also uses email to connect with state government officials and other mayors.

The pastors recognize that church attendance is no longer the social norm as it may have been in the 1940s and 1950s.

Tara observed that even in that heyday, few 1950s TV characters went to church, and despite religious themes of ‘Seventh Heaven’ and ‘Touched by an Angel’ in the 1970s, people preferred watching a show about angels rather than talking about angels at church.

A proponent of separation of church and state, Tara added that being mayor does not draw more people to her church.

Sometimes her roles overlap.  Invited to the Veterans’ Day Dinner at the American Legion as mayor to honor the volunteer fire fighters, she was asked on arriving to bless the meal as the pastor.

“I pray often for guidance for each role I’m in, but do not lead prayer at city council,” she said.

For information, call 446-3301 or email mfcucc@yahoo.com.

Copyright © January 2009 - The Fig Tree