Celebration of 140th is time for Spokane's oldest church to look to future
As Spokane's oldest church, Westminster Congregational UCC, celebrates its 140th anniversary, at 2 p.m., Sunday, May 26. Its celebration is lifting up not only its history but also its present and future.
Westminster has invited Spokane's Mayor and City Council members, other congregations, colleagues in town, as well as members of the Pacific NW UCC Conference to join in the celebration. Former and current choir members will sing music commissioned for the event.
There will also be an exhibition of local artists with work on "How our Spiritual Journeys Inform Our Art."
When it was chartered as First Congregational Church on May 22, 1879, in the home of Henry and Lucy Cowley, it was the first church in Spokane. It changed its name both in 1893 when it merged with an early Westminster Presbyterian Church and in 1961 when it voted to become part of the United Church of Christ.
The Cowleys were missionaries from New York State, serving among the Nez Perce Indians in Lapwai. They moved to Spokane in 1874 to work with the Spokane Indians and set up a school for Indian and settler children. Two members of the Spokane Tribe were among the first members.
The church first met in the school and then built a church at the corner of Sprague and Bernard. From 1890 to 1893, they built the gray stone structure on the present site at the corner of 4th and Washington.
One of seven plaques set in the pavement at Inspiration Point in Riverfront Park in 1974 to commemorate local Christian pioneers records that this was the first church organized in Spokane.
Other early congregations in Spokane include Central United Methodist, November 1879; Our Lady of Lourdes, 1881; First Presbyterian, 1883; Salem, Emmanuel and Our Savior Lutheran churches, 1888; Holy Trinity and St. David's Episcopal, 1890, Grace (formerly North Side) Baptist, 1890.
From 1920 to 1946, the church grew to 2,000 members. They built the Cowley Memorial Youth Building on Fourth and Bernard in 1958 to accommodate programs for the "baby boom" generation.
As the number of children and youth declined, the building housed the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, Pacific Northwest UCC Conference offices, the Spokane Guilds' School, Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church, a food bank, a clothing bank and Discovery School. It was sold in 2005 and has been torn down.
In 1963, Westminster voted to join the United Church of Christ denomination, a merger of the Congregational Christian, and Evangelical and Reformed denominations nationally. About 500 members voted "no." Some of them formed Plymouth Congregational Church in Spokane.
The church's past, present and future show its commitment to be involved with the community and world.
"As a downtown church, we are committed to the city," said Andrea (Andy) CastroLang, who has been pastor since 2002. "In recent years we researched leaving that corner, including looking at a site on the east end of Spokane Valley, but the congregation voted to stay downtown.
"A downtown church is who we are in our outreach, mission and ministry," she said. "It's our identity. While some traditional, mainline Protestant churches have left downtown, we are letting the city know we are here. We're a progressive church that ministers ecumenically at the city's core. We are activist both in terms of doing charity and advocating systemic change."
It is not only LGBTQ inclusive, but also involves people of all ages who seek an inclusive church. It recently welcomed eight new members.
"With UCC churches scattered on the West Coast, we work ecumenically and interfaith with other congregations, organizations and people," said Andy.
It helped found the Mid-City Concerns Meals on Wheels and recruited volunteers for many years.
With the Spokane Alliance, it engages in community organizing with education institutions, unions and other faith groups.
Each month, members cook meals when the Spokane Friends Church hosts homeless families in its building through the Family Promise Bridges program.
Members support homeless women at Hope House and homeless youth through Crosswalk, two programs of Volunteers of America of the Inland Northwest. Its annual Jam for Bread concert has raised funds for Crosswalk.
Recently the church opened as a neighbor to people living in an apartment building next door after a fire. The Red Cross worked in the church to find housing for people."
It also opened this winter as a warming shelter for about 20 homeless young adult men and women each night through April in conjunction with the City of Spokane.
It helps organize the annual community Tree of Sharing at three malls to provide gifts to about 8,000 needy people.
For years, women met regularly with sewing machines and knitting needles to make layettes for babies.
Many members have been among those in the community involved with editing, mailing, delivering and producing the 35-year-old The Fig Tree ecumenical/interfaith newspaper.
Westminster members carry a banner every year in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day March, the Women's March, the Pride Parade and other marches for social justice and human rights.
The church also partners with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane in a sister church relationship in Felsorakos, Romania, and is hosting the new pastor and his wife soon.
Recently five members joined 20 others from the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ and the Northwest Region Disciples for a Peace Mission and Pilgrimage to Puerto Rico to help people there with rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
While the church has the budget challenges with upkeep on a large building, Andy said that the dedicated, passionate, but small congregation is using legacy funding for ministry.
Westminster, which has a pipe organ and a strong music program, rents space to the Spokane Area Youth Choirs, Spokane Youth Symphony and others.
For information, call 624-1366 or visit westminsterucc.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2019