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Church re-engages cautiously in outreach, discussions

David Gortner shares the power of love in his ministry.
by Kaye Hult

When David Gortner began serving St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Coeur d'Alene in 2018, many aspects of his life and faith experiences coalesced in his ministry.

Now he helps members of the congregation and community find their voices, see cries for "freedom" in light of love for others and gather to share wisdom.

"I want Christians to share our journeys of faith, listen for signs of God at work in everyone's life, name where we see God at work and invite people to discover more," David said.

"My early work on farms and building houses, in pastoral and mental health settings, plus serving seminaries, churches, campus ministries, church plants and interfaith organizations, shapes me as a pastor," he said.

His upbringing with parents of mainline and evangelical-fundamentalist faith, mentors in school years and seminary studies gave him a range of perspectives on living a faithful Christian life.

After 17 years as a seminary professor, David began as half-time vicar after St. Luke's interim minister left and became rector in 2019. He moved to the area with his wife, the Very Rev. Heather VanDeventer, dean of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Spokane, and their two children.

His efforts at caring for and developing the community at St. Luke's shifted with COVID.

"We are beginning to walk briskly again. When the pandemic hit, we put many things on hold, but groups are picking up again," David said. "We took pandemic precautions seriously. People at St. Luke's want renewed connection, but with caution."

People who volunteered pre-pandemic are reactivating community engagement, Christian outreach and social ministries, such as partnering with North Idaho College to tutor adults, with St. Vincent de Paul to help clients work on a GED or apply for a driver's license. 

St. Luke's has recently partnered with the Human Rights Education Institute (HREI) on a documentary discussion series, "Finding Our Place in the Inland Northwest," offered simultaneously in person and online.

Sessions use documentaries such as some from PBS. The first three sessions were on city growth and land loss, frontierism and owner-labor relations, and land management over 100 years.

The last fall session, "Displaced in One's Homeland," speaks to the experience of Native American Tribes in the region. It is 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 11, at St. Luke's and online.

The first sessions drew 20 to 30 people from St. Luke's, HREI, the Museum of North Idaho and other networks. The series seeks to "create opportunities for thoughtful small group discussions on some realities, challenges and opportunities of life in the Inland Northwest." The goal is to help participants think together, share experiences and insights, and seek wisdom together.

"People converse on questions facilitators pose in an open, honest space. Although they did not know each other before, they came to know each other," David said.

Four sessions set in January, February and March focus on matters of race and poverty.

"Trying to find one's voice is challenging," he said. "It includes finding people with whom to have a voice.

"We need voices that say, Jesus showed us a self-emptying way," he said. "Jesus' incarnation and giving himself up to death were about choices—him choosing to set himself aside and yield himself to be present with us."

David invites St. Luke's to wrestle with divisive issues, like white supremacy and racism, through conversations that lead to understanding various perspectives to create a more peaceful, accepting community.

With "freedom" at center stage in the region, he says following Jesus is not about personal freedom for freedom's sake, but about working for the common good, the greater good, something greater than us as individuals, something that requires sacrifice, such as vaccinations and masks.

"Being a faithful Christian combines an individual's love relationship with God and love that pours out to others. God invites people into a lifelong love relationship: The First Commandment is 'Love God with all your heart, mind and soul.'  The second is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' That leads to the question: 'Who is my neighbor?'

"Often people don't recognize we're humanity together, none of us can live on our own," David said. "I can't make my car, drill for oil, mine granite, create tiles or process lumber. For everything I touch, I rely on other people.

"Jesus doesn't call us to freedom," he said. "Jesus calls us to a deep allegiance that means giving to something beyond ourselves. Jesus says, 'Take my yoke upon you, my light burden. Take up your cross. To save your life, you must lay it down,

He believes there needs to be more of the message, "I've been embraced and loved by God. I'm giving myself over in love to what I find along the road."

"Power is unleashed when we give ourselves up for others," he said. "We need to talk about that, and demonstrate that God's power is the power of life-transforming Love, combined with passion and purpose."

In August, David spoke to a Gathering of Episcopal Clergy Leaders in Seattle on "It All Depends." He told peers that in a world constantly changing and in turmoil, clergy need to encourage their communities to reach out in mission in the public square. By inviting peers to learn, create and look to the future together, the gathering created a collection of voices sharing the gospel of God's self-emptying Love, he said.

David collaborated in October with some North Idaho clergy to write a letter to the community in the Coeur d'Alene Press— reprinted here - link to Sounding Board. They invited giving up self-freedom for living in the pandemic, in order to protect and care for others. Through this group, he finds a voice.

In ministry for 38 years, ordained ministry 18 years, he began in music ministry as a teen and led a youth group.

"I inherited my grandfather's interest in Christian community," said David. His grandfather was a pastor in the Lutheran Church in America, now in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

His father was a mainline Christian. His mother was Missouri Synod Lutheran, and became fundamentalist. David, who was baptized Lutheran, attended Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Evangelical Mennonite churches. He went to a Christian college, Taylor University in Indiana.

He discovered the Episcopal church when playing the organ and directing the choir of a tiny church in West Chicago, while attending Wheaton College.

David earned a bachelor's degree there in psychology in 1988, a master's in psychology from Wake Forest University in 1994, a master of divinity from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in 1997, and a doctorate in psychology and human development from the University of Chicago in 2004. Since then, he has taught and led national initiatives from three seminaries, and was associate dean for church and community engagement at Virginia Theological Seminary just before coming to Spokane.

"In the Episcopal Church, I find an unflinching, passionate belief in God's love for all humanity, and the power of that Love to remake us and heal the world," he said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November, 2021