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Downtown church engages neighbors near and far

The Rev. John Sowers considers it “a holy joy” to work with people engaged in doing ministries they feel called to do.

John Sowers
The Rev. John Sowers, First Presbyterian Church

As senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane since 2007, he seeks to continue the teaching and opportunities that connect people with ministries.

Through his preaching, at meetings as administrator, and in planning with program staff, he reminds the people of Scriptures about “God’s call to love our neighbors with our whole being and to live out our faith.”

“It’s a delight to preach that and to have the congregation respond,” John said. 

Members are involved in such community ministries as Christ Kitchen, Christ Clinic, Habitat for Humanity and the Liberty Park Day Care Center.  Many members  live out their vocations in helping professions, as teachers, doctors and mental health workers.

“People do their work out of a sense of Christ’s call to care for others.  It’s a privilege to be shepherd of that flock,” he said.

 “We have made strides in recapturing our legacy of Christian discipleship,” John said, noting the church’s history of educating adults, children and students.  Former Whitworth professor Dale Bruner used to teach hundreds in an adult Sunday school class that infused a “living relationship with Jesus.”

The church still benefits from the availability of teachers from the Whitworth University faculty such as Terry McGonigal, Keith Beebe and Jerry Sittser.

“Our goal is to deepen discipleship and expand apostleship, turning a living relationship with Jesus, nurtured in the church, into life in the world as active witnesses of Christ’s kingdom,” John said.

Convinced that the mission statement of First Presbyterian, like that of many other churches, was too long, he worked with leaders to develop a four-word mission:  “Internally strong, externally focused.”

The internal strength comes from discipleship, and the external focus is apostleship, he said.

The Greek root of “disciple” means learner.  The Greek root of “apostle” means messenger or ambassador.

“There’s much activity happening in and through the church, not for the sake of the church, but as a conscious effort to be witnesses to Jesus,” said John, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history and theater in 1988 from Whitworth University, expecting to teach.

Involvement in leadership at Whitworth Presbyterian Church during college, however, led him to studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, followed by 12 years at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.  That congregation of older people set aside some of their traditions so they could grow spiritually and numerically to include families who sent children to a preschool at the church, he said.

John gave an overview of some ways First Presbyterian Church ministries connect members with the community and world.

“How do we become a loving neighborhood church?  Christ calls us to see how we can engage the downtown core where God has planted us,” he said.  “How can members take their vocations and everyday skills to be witnesses of Christ’s love to their neighbors and people with whom they work?”

Youth are involved locally to globally.  For about 20 years, the church has sent more than 50 students each spring to Tijuana, Mexico, to build homes for homeless families and to relate with children in an orphanage.

In addition to the Tijuana mission, 25 junior high youth go to San Francisco every year for an urban plunge, working in a soup kitchen, leading vacation Bible school for a downtown church and doing a street ministry.

Fourth to sixth graders do “Kids with a Mission” ministries of compassion in Spokane.

“As children grow in faith, they gain ministry background,” John said.

 Every year, junior high students do a 30-hour fast fund raiser through World Vision.  Funds help people who suffer because of poverty, hunger and illness.  Learning that 26,000 children around the world die every day of water-borne illness and starvation, the youth raised $1 for each child, $26,000, hoping to provide the equivalent of one day when no one would die from hunger or thirst. 

They raised more than any group in the nation, according to World Vision.

 Members find their niche.

“One couple has prepared food and taken their two young sons three times a week to serve it to people under the freeway bridge.  They just wanted their boys to experience the fullness of life,” John said.  “In the winter, the couple led a six-week symposium on street people, with speakers from different social service agencies.”

Members also relate with international partners in Thailand, Kenya and Ethiopia.

First Presbyterian provides financial support for a woman pastor who runs an orphanage in Thailand, rescuing children from sex slavery.  In April, 12 adults went to work at the orphanage, to meet the children and deepen the relationship with the pastor.

The church is starting a college student ministry, Blood Water, building wells and medical clinics in Lwalla, Kenya, which two church members visited.  Jenna Lee, a Whitworth graduate and former intern at First Presbyterian, is now in Nashville, Tenn., serving as the national director of Blood Water.  Volunteers go to villages to do AIDS education—the “blood” part—and sink wells for clean water.

The church has ties to Ethiopia. First Presbyterian’s Christian School, with 180 pre-kindergarten through third grade students, has a sister school relationship with partners in Gambella, Ethiopia, where there was a genocide in December 2003.  Anuak refugees who are church members called attention to the genocide, and church members rallied to assist and advocate for justice.

John went to Gambella with a team that included four others in February.

“It was eye-opening,” he said.  “We identified needs of the schools that are run by the East Gambella Bethel Synod, and delivered resources and supplies to two schools, which have concrete walls and no windows.”

He learned that children clamor to be in the church schools rather than government schools, because teachers love the students and help them learn.

John said most of the church leaders are young, “prematurely pressed into leadership” because the older leaders were killed in the genocide.

“In the middle of drought, pervasive poverty, tribal tensions and government pressures, they rely on Christ’s love.  The churches are growing in ways that put U.S. churches to shame,” he said.

When he asked the pastor what the church prays for, the pastor said:  for ending smallpox, which still occurs there; for a new millstone so women do not have to beat the grain with sticks and rocks, and for the survival of evangelists who leave at midnight Saturdays to walk six hours to preach Sunday mornings at village churches.

“It’s clear that they rely on God and God alone for their sustenance.  They are focused on hope,” he said.  “They live in a culture that is suspicious of Christian faith, but instead of being defensive, they live the values of the Gospel.

“God will not leave the people of Gambella,” he said.  “Even in the midst of the steady hardships of those lives, they know that God will not abandon them and that God pursues them, so they live into that hope.”

Every week, people from around the world who are resettling in Spokane come to Barton School, which meets in the church, to learn English and American culture.  Teaching them are volunteers from the church and community.

“It’s a quiet ministry, doing Jesus stuff that changes lives,” he added.

Events draw the community.

The annual fall Jubilee Sale also brings the world to the church.  Members invite fair-trade vendors and host alternative Christmas shopping, while supporting craft makers around the world.

The Spokane City Forum, now in its 10th year, brings community people to the church for conversations on strengthening Spokane.

The first Sunday in October, First Presbyterian will make its commitment to outreach clear through “Serve the City Day.”  Worship will consist of people in the church going to help throughout the community—helping fix a shed, clean up the river, beautify parks or do repairs in downtown residences. 

“Their mission will be to represent the love of Christ for the community tangibly and physically and to exhibit compassion and care for the city,” said John, who hopes it will become an ongoing commitment.

He began a 6:05 p.m., Sunday evening worship in an “emergent” style—a service night for 60 to 80 people—hearing scripture, receiving communion and going into the neighborhood with food to engage and comfort street people or to visit shut-ins.

“Many are college age.  For them, faith without action is not faith,” John said.

Because the church is drawing more young families, it started its school as “a back door” to involve more families.  Scholarships help assure there is diversity.

The church also offers a praise service at 9:30 a.m. Sundays and a traditional 11 a.m. worship service.  John preaches regularly at those services and a third of the time at the “6:05 service.”

John leads a staff that includes two associate ministers, the Rev. Janeen Steer, pastor for congregational care and emergent worship, and the Rev. Jeremy Sanderson, pastor for adult discipleship ministries, community life and missional living.

Other staff are responsible for youth, music, community life, children and the school.

For information, call 747-1058 or email johns@spokanefpc.org.