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Magnolia education leads to community action

Monthly learning sessions on homelessness, racism and food insecurity inspire congregation to action

In January, Magnolia United Church of Christ in Seattle chose to focus their intention and attention around learning about the causes and potential solutions of homelessness in their community.

Building team from Magnolia UCC helps build a tiny house, one way to address homelessness in the Seattle area.
Photos courtesy of Betsy Fornoff

In February, their focus was on racism, picking up from previous book studies.

In March, the focus was on food security and the congregation and its scout troops collected food for Ballard Food Bank.

Magnolia opens the learning sessions the church to the PNC, the Magnolia ecumenical community and the greater Magnolia community, said senior pastor Marci Scott-Weis.

For the first session on homelessness Greg Colburn, an assistant professor of real estate in the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, spoke on the causes of homelessness.

Greg, author of Homelessness Is a Housing Problem, researches housing policy, markets, affordability and homelessness, and is engaged in community efforts to address the Puget Sound housing crisis.

Betsy Fornoff

In the second housing session, Andrew Constantino, manager for Tiny Home Villages, gave the history of Tiny Homes telling how the villages run and communities support them.

Magnolia also sent a team of 12 to Sound Foundations for one day to build Tiny Homes. Several members continue to volunteer with building.

The church set a goal to raise funds to cover the cost of building a Tiny Home. 

Betsy Fornoff, a member of Magnolia UCC—also on the PNC Justice and Witness Ministries Committee and the PNC Dismantling Racism Sub Committee—became involved after the education sessions.

She worked with the team, her daughter and on her own to build Tiny Homes for the South End Tiny House Village, which opens in April on the 9100 block of Martin Luther King Way South with 40 tiny houses.

“Greg said the root cause of homelessness is the housing supply—real estate—not drug abuse and mental illness,” she said.

Betsy is impressed by the success of tiny villages moving people into permanent housing.

“Sound Foundations builds the homes, and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) sets up villages,” Betsy said.

LIHI brings in electricity and community showers, bathrooms and kitchens. Each tiny house has one room with a bed, a hanging rack, two windows, heat and a door to lock.

Betsy and church members have also helped at the Interbay Village Port of Seattle land. It started in 2015 as Tent City 5 on Seattle City Light property and moved to the Port of Seattle in 2017. Now 76 tiny homes have replaced the tents—30 of which were added in November, 2021, Betsy said.

Six Magnolia and Queen Anne area churches help Interbay Village with meals, and collect clothes and household items for when people move to permanent housing. As they established relationships while serving meals and meeting people, Magnolia residents saw the Tiny Home Village as part of the community.

“Building tiny homes and volunteering in a tiny home village is an incredible way to do something concrete to help people get off the street,” said Betsy, whose husband is involved through the Episcopal Church and the diocesan Homeless Task Force.

Each Tiny Home village has a Community Action Council (CAC) that involves members in decision making with LIHI. An Ecumenical Group includes a member of the CAC, interested members from each church and one pastor.

Betsy, whose parents were charter members, grew up in Magnolia UCC. She studied nursing at the University of Washington, worked at Virginia Mason Hospital and Skagit County Health Department after graduating in 1975 and returned to the UW for graduate studies in nursing from 1977 to 1979.

After six years as a nurse practitioner with the Okanogan County Public Health Department in the Methow Valley and then with the Pierce County Health Department, she worked eight years with the Washington Department of Health immunization program in Olympia and TB program in Seattle. She then worked with Providence Health in Seattle and with Public Health-Seattle and King County’s immunization program, TB program and primary care clinics until retiring in 2019.

Living three blocks from the church, she returned to participate there.

While she wondered how to help with homelessnessin a tangible way, Betsy now sees hope in the tiny homes that are built to last 20 years.  LIHI’s data show that people stay an average of 115 days before moving to permanent housing, so each house helps three people go from the street to safe housing each year.

“A tiny house takes people off the street into a safe space where they can be warm, dry and lock their things. Villages offer services and transportation to help people move forward, compared to staying in a shelter three feet from the next person,” she said.

“In a village, people gain stability not only with services but also by finding community with neighbors as they serve on committees and solve problems,” she said.

In February Magnolia UCC’s Learning Session featured Cheryl Cooke, who spoke on “What is Critical Race Theory and Why are Folks so Upset About it?”

In her practice as a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, she treats children with ADHD and autism, as well as children and adults with anxiety and depression. She has researched the impact of incarceration on individuals, families and communities. She also discussed the experiences of people of color in nursing and academic leadership.

Betsy said Magnolia previously had book studies on Zoom, reading So You Want to Talk about Race by Idoma Uluo a Seattle author; Hot to Be Anti-Racist by Ibraham Kendi, andCaste by Isabel Witherson.

“After reading books we wanted to move to action and partner with black, brown and indigenous people on projects,” said Betsy, who completes her term on the Justice Witness Ministries Committee in April.

Magnolia began meeting in person in January. During the pandemic, most participated in livestream worship.

Now living in Lynnwood, 14 miles from Magnolia, she still attends Magnolia—online during the pandemic and now in person again.

For information, call 206-283-1788, or email or


Pacific NW Conference United Church News - © April 2022


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