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Downtown church opens doors to homeless people

By Deidre Jacobson

The City of Spokane has contracted with First Covenant Church at 212 S. Division to serve as a warming center, allowing homeless people to spend the night in its gym when the temperature drops to 17 degrees or lower.  

Rob Bryceson

Rob Bryceson welcomes homeless in warming shelter.

Two other locations do that: Hope House for single women and Salvation Army for families.  For three years, House of Charity was the warming center for single men, but turned down the contract this year, said Rob Bryceson, pastor of First Covenant.

City funds will pay people to work when the warming center is open.  Union Gospel Mission will provide staff. 

First Covenant has space to accommodate up to 95 men and will be available every night except Monday, when SNAP at 2nd and Wall will be open.  The warming center is not required to have a place for the men to sleep.  They may stretch out on the floor or sit through the night.

The church already serves homeless people, hosting about 150 people for meals, mostly men, on Sundays, except first Sundays.  On cold, rainy Sundays there may be 200 guests.  In addition, Union Gospel Mission also serves Friday evening meals at the church.

Rob Bryceson streetwise

Streetwise is ministry of church.

First Covenant calls its ministry to the homeless, “Street Wise!”  It raises funds from donors to support meals, which cost $2 each—about $300 an evening.  Outside groups help serve.

 The church, which was established in 1888 when Washington was a territory, built on its present site in 1905. Swedish Lutheran immigrants started the national Evangelical Covenant Church in the late 1800s.  In the early 1900s, First Covenant was a large, well-attended church.  It built a new sanctuary in 1950. 

For many years, the dwindling, aging downtown congregation has discussed closing.  

When Rob arrived four years ago, returning to Spokane from California, only eight families were consistently involved. 

“We need to minister to this neighborhood, or sell and move,” he told the church. They wanted to sell and move.

The church, appraised at $2 million in 2007, lost value and by 2009 was valued at $1.3 million.  When the property was on the market it received only one offer—for $750,000. 

The congregation wanted to draw young families.  Most of the neighbors, however, are homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts and downtown mentally ill.

In September 2009, his wife, Tonia, baked a pan of cornbread and made a pot of chili.  Rob went through the alleys and streets, inviting people to a free dinner and to watch football.  The first night, 35 came.  Soon, 150 came. 

The rules were to be polite, not ask for money, and not come high or drunk.  The last rule didn’t work, but the first two remain.

Of the original congregation, just 10 remain but, on average, 70 attend worship.  Of them, 40 are homeless or downtown dwellers.   Some new members, drawn by the mission and worship, have joined the congregation.  Not everyone attending is sober. 

They say: 

• “Rob hears stories of the homeless.” 

• “This is the first time in 30 years I’ve been in a church.” 

• “I can’t come to church, because I cry too much.” 

“People have been over-preached to,” Rob said.  “Some are jaded against the Gospel.”

So he asks them to share their stories, and they keep coming. 

In February 2011, the church ran out of money as payments from selling the parsonage ended. 

Rob met with national denomination leaders and reported that by April the church would close. Then a homeless person left the church a $10,000 gift that would keep it open a few more months.  By then, the denomination decided to support the church’s work for three years with a $200,000 building equity loan that has helped fix the building and support the ministry.

When that’s gone, he said, “faith kicks in.”  In a poor church, the offering may be to clean up cigarette butts outside or mop the floor, but that doesn’t pay the bills.

“The mission is sometimes frustrating and lonely,” Rob said.  “We are serving a third-world church in Spokane.”

His approach is to love people until they ask him why.  Then he shares his experience of Christ.  

A friend’s drowning during his freshman year of high school propelled Rob to search for God.  He attended several churches.

After he graduated from Cheney High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and education at Eastern Washington University. 

At Calvary Chapel in Spokane in the mid-1980s, he began leading contemporary worship, which led him into youth ministry, playing base guitar, singing and writing Christian music.  Rob also worked at Hume Lake Christian Camp, where he performed for 10,000 youth each summer. 

Unable to answer some questions young people asked, Rob went to Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore., and then earned a master of divinity from Western Seminary in San Jose.  He was ordained in the Baptist General Conference.  

He was teaching pastor at a San Francisco Bay area mega church. In 2000, he switched to the Evangelical Covenant Church, which he found more in harmony with his beliefs, especially on social justice.  He served a church in Pleasanton, Calif., then led contemporary worship at a Presbyterian church for four years.

In 2008, Rob moved his family to Spokane, looking for a new beginning.  They stayed rent-free in a friend’s rental home.  His wife looked for work and suggested he take his resume to churches. 

He took it to First Covenant, which hired him as associate pastor to bring in young people.  He worked nine months with the senior pastor, Lawrence Hudson, and became senior pastor when Lawrence left. 

For information, call 747-2818 or email

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