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The Oak Tree gathers people interested in justice

Named for the Celtic understanding of an oak tree as a door between physical and spiritual realms, and with its logo image of deep rootedness and branches reaching out into the world, The Oak Tree is a new approach to faith life that several West Central Spokane clergy and lay leaders have started.

However it’s defined—movement, faith community, activists’ gathering—it’s designed to draw people concerned about social justice and reconnect them to an awareness that people of faith are engaged in transforming the world.

Participants emphasize that “how we live, what we do, how we treat people and what choices we make in this world are at the heart of 21st-century faith life,” said the Rev. Deb Conklin, pastor of St. Paul’s and Liberty Park United Methodist Churches.

She helps lead The Oak Tree along with the Rev. Liv Larson Andrews, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church; Lynda Maraby, lay missioner with Salem and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church; Matt Phillips, an attorney offering access to legal services at Salem, and Joel Williamson, whose “church” is The Oak Tree.

“The Oak Tree invites people to explore spirituality even though they may not go to traditional churches,” said Deb. “It engages people in a faith-based community to live the social justice teachings of Jesus.”

People come to study and work for social justice, to understand issues and processes so they can change what is broken.  Sometimes it leads people to faith and sometimes it doesn’t, Deb said.

In gathering, study, story-sharing and reflection, people become aware that systems create conditions that make people hungry and deprive them of basic necessities, creating widows and orphans.

Joel Williamson

Joel Williamson helps develop The Oak Tree.

Joel’s story exemplifies what draws participants.

“I now realize Jesus was a systems thinker, attentive to people’s needs and aware of where the power was and what leverage was needed to bring change to improve people’s lives,” he said.

Joel now believes a powerful faith community can transform the world, as well as individuals.

In the fourth generation of his family at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which his great grandparents helped found, he went to Sunday school at St. Stephen’s until he was about 10.  Attending churches with friends in his junior high through college years, led him to think religion was about a checklist of what to believe.

“If you could check the boxes, good things would happen to you in this life and after.  I couldn’t believe ‘the facts’ listed, so I was ‘left behind’ with questions.”

Joel, who graduated in 2005 from Eastern Washington University with a bachelor’s in theater, went to Los Angeles.  He spent four years doing lighting design with a touring theatre group.  Its members wrote and performed a play about their experiences of racism as an African American, a Hispanic and a Filipino American.

He began to see how systems cause injustices that stir people to re-present the injustice to others through art to challenge them to see causes.  He began to read about politics and economics.

“I had an ‘aha’ moment when I became aware that my family’s story was linked to political and economic systems,” Joel said.

He had thought his parents’ rose-growing business and marriage had failed because they had not worked hard enough. 

“I realized the business closed because conglomerates owned grocery stores that previously bought roses and other goods locally. Free-trade agreements with Central America and cheap transportation meant the stores could buy cheaper roses from thousands of miles away than from local growers,” he said. 

That injustice meant he would not be a rose grower.

“At that moment, I wanted to come home and reconnect with my family,” he said.  “I had blamed them rather than realizing how hard they had worked.”

Back in Spokane, Joel began searching for ways to make the city a better place.  Learning about the Spokane Alliance, he walked into the office in 2009 and said what they did sounded like what he wanted to do: to build power to change Spokane.

He wanted to be involved even though he was not a member of an organization that was a member.

Soon Joel was walking the South Perry neighborhood with Deb, going house to house to tell about SustainableWorks doing retrofits to reduce energy waste.

“I didn’t think I had anything in common with pastors, but found that this pastor deeply cared about what I cared about,” Joel said.  “We shared the same values.  She said they came from Christ and the Gospel.  I thought the Gospel had nothing to do with ‘this world.’ 

“Pastors and people of faith of different denominations showed up at alliance meetings and shared how the story of faith connects to the things I’m concerned about here and now,” he said.

Joel began to see that Jesus started a movement to develop leaders, change systems, bring jubilee, redistribute wealth and free slaves.

“Many reject faith because they don’t know commitment to Jesus is about social justice, as well as salvation,” said Deb.

Now Joel finds a spiritual connection that empowers him through the Oak Tree.  Large-group monthly meetings are a chance for him to connect with people, the stories that have shaped them and how their stories connect to the world.

Joel began volunteering with the Spokane Alliance and then worked for it.  Now he works as legislative assistant with Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder. 

In today’s culture, people like Joel might not respond to an invitation to be part of a traditional church, but would go to a seminar.

So since February, The Oak Tree has offered Thursday seminars, inviting people through Facebook and drawing some from Occupy Spokane, the Peace and Justice Acton League of Spokane and the participating churches.

Seminars meet from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Thursdays, followed by conversation at a pub or coffee house.

In February, about 20 began a six-week study of Agenda for a New Economy by David Korten.  They meet in Salem Lutheran Church’s fireside room. 

After the study, a task force formed to research why the economy is broken and what can be done.  Some are exploring developing an anaerobic digester to create alternative energy from methane to heat a greenhouse in the winter and produce compost for growing local food.  Joel is coordinating that effort.

In the spring, Kris Christiansen, who is on the ministry team at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and is one of the founders, led a class that focused on GMOs (genetically modified organisms), as well as destructive agricultural and food production practices.

Out of that session, a group began looking at community gardens, growing and selling local and organic food.  They are negotiating to maintain some Department of Transportation land by growing community gardens.

Liv led the third seminar in May on “Spirituality: Bodies of Worth,” on how media images about bodies affect self-images and relationships.

Its summer series showed social justice films at Liberty Park United Methodist Church.

A fall seminar studied worker owned co-ops and started research on creating an alternate economy with a worker-owned co-op in Spokane.

In December, Advent Sunday evening services at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church will use the service of evening prayers from Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in the North Cascades.

In January, there will be a film series on environmental justice.

To nurture spiritual community by adopting weekly covenant discipleship groups, The Oak Tree also has groups of six to eight people who meet for self-reflection and mutual accountability in balancing 1) prayer and meditation, 2) public worship, 3) acts of charity and 4) social justice.

For information, call 251-4332, check facebook or email

Copyright © December 2012 - The Fig Tree,