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People rally to support Colville church after hate incidents

On Sunday, Oct. 25, and since, members of First Congregational UCC in Colville have received messages of support and solidarity following three incidents of hate directed at the church during October.

Expressions of support have come from Colville’s Ministerial Association, the Chewelah UCC, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Immaculate Conception Catholic of Colville and a former member.

Jim CastroLang, pastor there for six years, said he and Eric Ohrtman, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran for eight years, each received a letter in October written to sound like God speaking while overlooking Colville from the cross on hill. 

The writer referred to “the battle that is being waged over your community,” “chants, spells and curses of those who choose to walk in darkness,” and “war coming to your land.”

The writer spoke of two prayer services at the courthouse on the National Day of Prayer in May:  “One stood for the truth.  One embraced sin and called it good.” 

Colville UCC sign

Jim CastroLang believes ministers’ conversations upset some. Photo courtesy of Colville UCC

For three years on the National Day of Prayer, there has been a Christian event in the morning and a 5 p.m. interfaith gathering, which Eric and Jim have organized. 

“Ours, from a progressive Christian perspective, includes Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Islamic and Jewish prayers, chants, dances and readings,” Jim said.

Then on a Sunday after the church’s annual meeting, the moderator’s husband was standing outside. A man in his 20s asked if he went to the abortion-loving, LGBT (slur)-loving church of sinners.  He shouted obscenities in the member’s face. 

Another afternoon, when members were unloading food bank food, they saw the the words “lies” and “satan” taped over “Christ” in United Church of Christ on the church’s sign. Members took pictures and called the Colville police.  The officer said it was not a hate crime unless it was repeated.  They reported the letter and other incident.

Jim shared more history.  In 2012, Eric and Jim worked with the Inland Northwest Clergy for Inclusion to prepare a statement signed by 35 clergy, apologizing to the LGBT community for Christians shunning them and offering affirmation. 

“We read it from our pulpits as corporate confession during Lent. It ran in the weekly Statesman.  Letters to the editor were exchanged for two months. Other clergy published a statement in the newspaper.

Jim believes it is about more than being progressive Christian and inclusive voice in the community.

He said it may be because Eric and he have engaged with the Ministerial Association in monthly dialogue and discussions to help the clergy know each other better, understand the basis for their faith stands, and respect each other.

“We realize we have many areas of disagreement, but we do not disagree on fundamentals of God’s love,” he said.

After the 35-member Colville First Congregational UCC voted to be Open and Affirming in 2012, the Ministerial Association sought to pass a doctrinal statement in favor of traditional marriage.

“Because of relationships Eric and I had with other clergy, they wanted to understand how we came to our stands,” Jim said.

“That led to forums with each pastor sharing their faith stories and journeys confidentially, and ways others speaking their own faith language may have offended them,”he added. 

“Those conversations, and the opening and deepening of respect, may have been hard for some in the community,” Jim said. 

“Our hearts and minds are more open to each other across our religious differences. It is likely someone is afraid that these conversations may soften some from their hard core positions as other ministers become open to us and learn to love us.

“We agree that hate has no place in the church,” Jim said.

Jeff Moss, the president of the Northern Stevens County Ministerial Association, said that the Ministerial Association “wants to represent this part of God’s country, recognizing our differences and what we have in common as people created in the image of God. We are a Christ-centered organization supporting each other in living faith.”

Jeff said Ministerial Association officers “grieve with you over the abuse experienced” and “pray that Jesus Christ will pour mercy out on you to heal your wounds and strengthen us to overcome evil with good, respond to harm and abuse with grace and a zeal for justice.”

Expressing support on Oct. 25, Chewelah UCC’s moderator and a member said that as “neighbors in a rural area, it’s important to stand together,” and to honor our covenant as members of the UCC advocating for justice and seeking peace as models of Jesus’ love.”

Because it was Reformation Sunday, a member of St. Paul’s council presented a letter signed by that congregation, quoting Martin Luther:  “I cannot and will not recant.”

That letter recognized that members of both churches are family members, and “family sticks together.  You are not alone.  Our homes are yours.  Your need is our opportunity to respond. Do what you need in faith.  To do otherwise is neither safe nor sound.”

Fr. Tyler Smedley of Immaculate Conception Parish in Colville, wrote later to assure of the Catholic Church’s closeness, speaking of the need for Colville to remain “a place where differing views are respected and the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion are assured.”  He added that “despite all we have that differs, we can still work in common to strengthen our community, to care for those who are most vulnerable and to provide help for those in need.”

A former member, “Apanakhi” Jeri Buckley, a professor of education and psychology at Heritage College on the Yakama Reservation, sent a thank you to the church, delighted that it “still stands for principles I value.”  She was in the church from 1960 until graduating from high school in 1968, singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school and learning.

“First Congregational welcomed Jewish people into the church community when they had no place else in Colville to worship, Jeri said. 

She learned from the pastor about the Hanukah story, compassion and migrant workers. In college, she carried groceries for blocks to avoid shopping where boycotted grapes were sold.  Now half her students are Latinos who work in the fields. Her background is Irish, English, Swedish, Scottish, French, German, Choctaw and Haudenosaunee.

“First Congregational shaped who I am and what I have done with my life.  I’m sure, since you continue to have the courage of your convictions, that you are shaping lives today,” Jeri said. “Just think: there are people in this world who are kinder and more compassionate because of you.”

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Copyright © November-December 2015 Pacific Northwest Conference UCC News


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