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Freeway sparks new ministry options for church

In a hypothetical 1970s seminary discussion on what a church needs to do to stay vital, the Rev. Paul Rodkey had suggested that churches close every 50 years.

Paul has served 22 years at Bethany Presbyterian, which has been at Third and Freya for 100 years.  It replaced its 1909 building with a new one in 1953. 

Paul Rodkey
Paul Rodkey carrying cross from
Bethany Presbyterian Church.

The congregation has known for 15 years that North-South Freeway plans included an off ramp where their church stands.  This year they sold the building to the Department of Transportation and held a closing worship service on Sunday, Oct. 18.

In their Exodus-themed service, they received 10 new members, bringing the membership to 90.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, at 2715 S. Ray, agreed to share their space, which is smaller than Bethany’s building, giving Bethany and  Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church a place to go.  Emmanuel, which has met at Bethany for seven years, moved on Oct. 4.

During Bethany’s 100th celebration July 18, Paul told about the conversation he had at San Francisco Theological Seminary during the 1970s.

“As we walk away from the 100-year-old church site, we can rethink what kind of church we will be into the future,” said Paul, who grew up in Spokane, attending St. Paul’s United Methodist and First Presbyterian. 

He graduated from Whitworth  University and did youth work in Kelso and Tacoma before going to seminary.  His first church was in Madera, Calif., before coming to Bethany in 1987.

When asked if he would deconsecrate the ground, Paul said that even though the land will become an off ramp for the North Spokane freeway and a pillar will stand where the sanctuary is, “the ground remains holy.”

The congregation will save the funds from the sale until it decides its future path.  In January, members will begin conversations on demography, cultural shifts and public service needs.

“We will look for new paradigms, talking with local people and national leaders.  Members will do field trips to observe what churches in other cities are doing,” he said.

Bethlehem Lutheran, which has about 65 worshiping on a Sunday, held conversations on its future recently, asking “what God was calling us to do next,” said the pastor, the Rev. Erik Samuelson.

They seek to make the 1960s building and property more inviting, accessible and welcoming for the community.

Darci Bierman, the daughter of a Bethlehem member, Rose, is Bethany’s secretary, so they knew the church was looking for space to rent when Paul stopped in to meet with Erik.

“We had made a commitment to make it clear that everyone is welcome and we wanted to help everyone encounter God in this place,” said Erik.  “We had been exploring what God was calling us to do with our property, seeking ways to make it usable for the community beyond the preschool that has used three rooms in the education wing for three years.

“One of our guiding principles is that everyone is welcome,” he said.  “We had no idea this is what God had in mind for us.”

In 1951, the former United Lutheran Church decided to plant a church in that area.  About 34 adults began meeting in 1954 in the former Betterment Hall, now the Southridge Community Assembly of God Church, across the street to the north.  In 1955, Bethlehem Lutheran organized with 50 charter members.  They bought the present property in 1956.  The building was completed in 1960.

Erik Samuelson
Erik Samuelson

After studying ways to be welcoming, Bethlehem did some renovations, installing new doors, planning a new sign and commissioning a stainless-steel art work by Ken Spiering of Jesus welcoming and teaching children.

“We wanted the art to say what we do here to people driving by on Ray,” Erik said.  “We also plan to add a contemplative garden and labyrinth.”

Erik, who grew up in Everett and graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma in 2001, completed seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley in 2005 and earned another master’s in 2006.  This is his first parish.

While Bethany will pay rent, he said the congregation considers they are “sharing their space” for an interim period.  Bethlehem is also welcoming the 12-step recovery groups and mental-health support groups that met at Bethany, arranging for schedules around AA groups that already meet there.

Paul said Bethany will “use the time as a gift to ask questions.  Bethany will stay together as a congregation, because we have a message and ministry to the community we want to continue.”

Bethany seeks to continue its commitment to the Sheridan neighborhood, he said.

Sheridan Elementary School was also built in 1909.  In recent years the church has offered an after-school program.

One ministry is the church’s signboard beside the freeway.  Paul said it was “an ideal location for sharing messages to stir people to think, to pull them out of blindness and to start conversations.

“We are selling our signboard and look forward to having a new electronic one at Bethlehem,” he said.  “We will continue our conversation with the community.”

The sign has had challenging messages related to wars, terrorism, racism, health care—the many issues of the day.  The goal has been to “lift up mature understandings of what the faith community can be.”

Examples are: “Each war sows the seeds for the next war.”  “Who would Jesus exclude from health care?” and Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

While some have been distressed by messages, “a vast majority of calls have expressed appreciation for the thought as an opportunity to grow,” Paul said.  “Some people said they drive out of the way to see the sign.”

The Rev. Bill Ailes, retired presbytery executive minister who is serving as interim until January, said at the closing worship that the first two weeks the sign was up, people called asking if he could “do something” about it.  First, he suggested they call Paul.  Then he would ask what the sign said.  Usually he would reply, “It sounds biblical.”

Bill said he is impressed by Bethany’s radical openness, welcoming black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor.

On practical issues of sharing space, Paul and the lay pastoral leader Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church, Wayne Schull, will share an office.  Paul also is part time campus minister with United Ministries in Higher Education at Eastern Washington University.

Bethlehem Lutheran worships at 9 a.m. and has Bible study in its education wing and fellowship hall while Bethany worships at 11 a.m. followed by education. Emmanuel worships at 5 p.m.

Along with flexibility about use of the space, Wayne said the three churches will look for potential ways they can combine their ministries, such as having a joint youth ministry.

The 40-member Emmanuel is no stranger to moving.  It began in 1982 at Glover House, moved to a stone church on Lidgerwood and then to a chapel in the former education wing of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ at Fourth and Washington.  Wayne came in 2004 and became pastoral leader in 2006, having grown up in the church and being primarily involved in music.

Dirk Vastick
Dirk Vastrick built an ark

On the first Sunday of sharing space, Oct. 25, the three congregations held a joint worship service celebrating Reformation Sunday and Octoberfest.  Because there is not space within the sanctuary to hold everyone, they set up a tent with heaters on the church’s lawn.

Dirk Vastrick, one member of Bethany, built an ark and put sacred items in it—the pulpit Bible, communion set, baptismal bowl, communion table cross and salt for the journey as a reminder that a little faith can change the world.

“There are Exodus tones in taking the ark from Bethany to Bethlehem, and having the joint worship in a tent,” said Paul.  

The pews, the big cross and other furniture were moved to the North Fork Nez Perce Presbyterian Church at Ahsahka, Idaho, which rebuilt after a fire last December.

To organize the move, Bethany members put green dots on items that would go to North Fork Church, blue dots on items that would go into storage, red dots on items to auction Oct. 28 and yellow dots on items they would take to Bethlehem.

Beside sorrow, Paul said there is energy and excitement about moving into the future.

“As churches, we easily ‘feed the beast’ that buildings become, putting money into keeping them warm, cold and repaired rather than for ministries,” he said, noting that buildings may lock a congregation in an era and  way of doing ministry that has passed.

“Our building was expensive to heat—not green or conducive to technologies,” said Paul.

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