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Pastor connects what happens in church walls with life outside

Tammy Bell returned last year to minister in her home church, First Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) in Colville, where at 16 she preached her first sermon.

There she facilitates a ministry that values each member’s gifts and dreams as it reaches out to partners in Germany, children in foster homes, peace activists, high school youth and domestic violence victims.

Tammy Bell
The Rev. Tammy Bell reads scripture.

“We are more than a church at the corner of Maple and Second.  We are interconnected.  All we do here ripples outside our walls into the world,” she said.

For example, she wove insight from her recent visit with people in Tegel Prison in Berlin into use of Matthew 25 as a theme for outreach last Advent.

Traveling to Berlin in November with Janet Kovalchik, church moderator, Tammy represented the Pacific Northwest UCC Conference at the 25th anniversary of the national UCC’s partnership with the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany.

At Tegel, she asked three English-speaking prisoners about their lives.  They told how they miss their families and work to send money to them.  When she returned, she received a letter from a prisoner.

Inspired by that contact, she invited her church “to be Christ to their community.” Using Matthew 25’s call to see Christ in vulnerable people, members set up five action centers:

• Beneath a tree with gingerbread-children ornament tags—specifying items for overnight bags for local foster children—people put such gifts as pajamas, socks, school supplies and diapers.  A red poster by it read: “I was homeless, and you took care of me.”

• By a tree with tags picturing items for the food bank, people left food.  A poster said, “I was hungry, and you gave me food.”

• Blanket tags on another tree invited fleece blanket donations to be distributed through a local agency, Youth.com, which works with homeless and runaway youth.  The poster read,  “I was cold, and you gave a blanket to keep me warm.” 

Children who made eight fleece blankets at a slumber party brought them forward as an offering one Sunday, setting them in a life-size manger surrounded by bales of hay.

• A center marked, “I was lonely, and you visited me,” was the collection point for baskets of gifts for home-bound members.

• The fifth center was a bulletin board on a room divider.  On purple stars, people wrote prayers for “self, community and God’s world,” including blessings in letters to Tegel prisoners.  The prayers were read at the candlelight Christmas Eve service.

Connecting activities inside church walls with life outside is central to Tammy’s ministry.

Pinatas
Members fill piñatas for children's birthdays.

For her installation in April 2005, composer, performer and storyteller Ken Medema of San Francisco wove the congregation’s hopes, dreams and history into a musical covenant for ministry, “Come with Me on a Great Adventure.”

Tammy hopes the church is, as the song conveys, “a place where love grows wild, where tears are understood, where children are free to lead, where elders’ wisdom is honored, where people are not afraid to ask questions or make a difference in the community.”

“We seek to integrate generations and honor our different traditions and music—music older people like and current, lively, upbeat music to appeal to young people,” she said.

For the installation, members also brought 60 cake mixes for the food bank to give for children’s birthday parties. 

Pinata procession
Children and youth process with piñatas.

Children processed into the service carrying piñatas.  Members later filled them with candy for distribution by Rural Resources, the food bank and the Stevens County Foster Children’s Kids’ Camp in summer 2006.

At 14, Tammy first began attending the church with her widowed aunt. Despite experiencing sexual assault and abuse as a teen, Tammy felt called into ministry at 16.

After graduating from high school in 1984, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and religious anthropology in 1987 at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

In 1988, she joined a UCC conference delegation visiting churches in East and West Germany.  While in Berlin, she visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp with a woman who had been there as a child.

“I often sat by our guide on bus tours. She told me of the SS coming to her home and taking her father.  Then a five-year-old, she hid behind a red wagon, trembling.  She never saw him again.  Later they took her, her mother and a sibling to Sachsenhausen.  She never saw them again.”

Tammy Bell
Tammy Bell

By sharing her own story, Tammy won the woman’s trust.  So she agreed to go to Sachsenhausen with Tammy.

“We stood outside the gate for an hour, my hand in hers, before we entered.  She led me where she needed to go.  Her hand trembled, but gradually I could feel her healing.  I reminded her she was safe, and I was there for her.  Otherwise, we did not speak until we were outside the gate.  She wept and thanked me,” Tammy said.  “I know the importance of having a safe place and healing.

“Our lives are our ministries,” she believes.  “Every step is a witness to God’s power to transform us and make us whole.”

Believing ministry is about authentic relationships, Tammy shares her weaknesses to encourage others to be less embarrassed about frailties.

“Because we love each other in our vulnerabilities, we can be stronger, both giving and receiving,” she said.

In  1989, Tammy was program director for Knotenpunkt Buch, an international retreat center in the Hünsruck area of West Germany.  It hosts study groups on peace and justice, and works with victims of domestic violence in the U.S. military.

After eight months, she came home because of health problems, and then worked until 1993 as a residential treatment counselor for sexually abused teens, as a high school volleyball and basketball coach, and as a high school substance-abuse counselor.  She left those jobs to accept a scholarship to study at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

After earning her degree, she served Westview United Church of Christ in Spokane, where the youngest member was 67.  She guided them from 1998 to 2001 through a reflective process of closure, which the members had decided to do.

Then she worked in volunteer ministries, did pulpit supply and closed her mother’s business and café in Colville after her mother’s death and before being called to the church there. 

Colville members
Fellowship within church walls extends in to community.

In her first year of ministry, she helped people—who already knew and trusted her—explore who they are and where they wanted to go.  She found church leaders ready to “pass the baton” to the next generation to experience something new.

To build lay involvement, Tammy connects what happens within church walls Sundays with what is happening in the community and the world.

“If Sunday is just about us, it’s not enough.  Everything we do praises God, celebrates God’s abundance and asks what difference it makes to believe,” she said. “We cannot change lives without crossing the church’s threshold.”

So some youth are forming a peace and justice group to address bullying at school.  Others are involved in a youth band, a ministry to homeless youth, gathering food for the food bank, learning about Sudan, and visiting and doing home worship with shut-ins. 

The church recently started a “Generational Mentors” program matching 15 youth with a “foundational” member, involved for 25 to 70 years.  Each pair is to be in contact each month for intentional support, to learn about each other and each other’s generation—sharing music they like, telling life stories or just encouraging each other.

“I am blessed to work with youth with hearts of compassion, who notice and care about what’s going on in the lives of their elders,” Tammy said.

The church is starting to work with the Chewelah United Church of Christ, Rural Resources and the Family Support Center to develop a faith-based response to Stevens County’s high rate of domestic violence, child abuse and dating violence.  The program will educate clergy and congregations to be safe havens where people can come to talk about violence and find resources.

“Our goal is also to create social change, working with police, emergency response teams, nurses and people in social agencies on caring response,” Tammy added.

“If the church is not a safe place, there is no safe place.  As a pastor, I seek to help those who are silenced speak and regain their humanity.”

Encouraging members to value each other’s gifts means, for Tammy, going beyond assumptions that everyone knows everyone in this rural community with an economy based on summer recreation, hunting and fishing, timber, retail and some small businesses.

“Often church people feel that only a few people do anything,” she said. 

To challenge that last spring, she led a litany to help members recognize each other’s gifts.  

Tammy Bell
Tammy on Worldwide Communion Sunday.

She asked people to write down how they said “yes” to the church—filling piñatas, playing piano, repairing plumbing, praying at home, reminding of God’s spirit in a child, giving an offering, serving as trustees, even just being a quiet presence each Sunday. 

“Everyone will say ‘yes,’ if we ask them to do what they care about,” she said.  “Actually, most people say ‘yes,’ so the issue is for others to realize the different ways each says ‘yes.’”

Before the litany of gifts and names, each worshiper was given several pieces of paper with names of other members.  As Tammy read the litany, those with the names mentioned came forward, put the names in a basket and lit a candle—creating awareness of how each contributes.

“No gift is insignificant, even sitting in a pew,” she asserted.

For information, call 684-4213.