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All Saints Lutheran has multi-faceted ministry to feed and comfort

Alan Eschenbacher shows the new entry for the community center.

All Saints Lutheran Church in Browne’s Addition in Spokane is the hub of six congregational, synod, community and ecumenical ministries.  They are a Tuesday dinner, a food bank, a community garden, housing units, a companionship ministry and a community center.

The former Emmanuel Lutheran Church at 314 S. Spruce, and the former St. Paul’s Lutheran on N. Hamilton merged several years ago to form All Saints Lutheran, but Sunday attendance dwindled to 45 with the average age of 70.   Now younger families are among the 150 members and 75 who attend, so the average age is 50. 

“I’m doing more baptisms than funerals,” said the Rev. Alan Eschenbacher, pastor. “People are drawn because they like the ministries we do. The meal, food bank, garden, housing, companionship and community center are about the church’s responsibility to welcome strangers.”

Soon after Alan came as minister, the church asked neighbors what they thought the neighborhood needed.  Many were concerned about homelessness and people asking for handouts.  So the church decided to offer food at a meal and food bank.

It started as a Tuesday dinner 10 years ago.  About 100 come each week, and 20 volunteers serve the meal.  They are among 150 volunteers in Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America churches and ecumenical partners who take turns serving.

Each week, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the church administrator gives out 10-pound bags of canned and dried food to about 200 people who come.  On Fridays, Second Harvest’s mobile food bank brings fresh food through the Southwest Spokane Community Center.

Eight years ago, the church started an organic community garden on its south lawn.  People sign up and commit to care for one of the 12 beds.  Some produce goes to the dinners.

All Saints also participates with Spokane Urban Ministries, which built Walnut Corners low-income housing units in 2009.  It has 18 units for disabled mentally ill people above the Indaba Coffee Shop, 1425 W. Broadway and 29 units in the Mallon Building behind Salem Lutheran Church.

In addition, All Saint’s commitment to the community made it natural to transform its 3,000-square-foot basement Sunday school space into the Southwest Spokane Community Center.  It opened Dec. 1, 2014, replacing the 1,500-square-foot Peaceful Valley Community Center.

For a handicapped-accessible exterior entry, contractors removed 1,100 cubic feet of soil from the church’s east lawn.  Inside, new wallboard, a sprinkler system, fire alarms and handicapped accessible features were added.  The $385,000 project received $280,000 from the state and the rest from Spokane City Council, a Community Development Block Grant and the church.

Community center staff run an after-school program for 19, a summer program for 30 and care for disabled adults.  Youth have access to a computer lab and library.

Encounters with homeless people who suffer mental illness led to the ecumenical Spokane Mental Health Companionship Ministry.

Thirty pastors and lay leaders from 11 area congregations participated in two Companionship Training sessions in February and April.  Leading the sessions were Craig Rennebohn, retired chaplain and founder of the Seattle Mental Health Chaplaincy, and Kae Eaton, the current chaplain.

Alan and the Rev. Kris Kristensen of the West Central Episcopal Mission are now trainers, using training guides Craig created on mental health ministry, companionship and congregational mental health teams.  They plan to do a training in the fall.

Five years ago, Spokane Mental Health brought Craig to Spokane to explore duplicating his Seattle mental health chaplaincy here.

Alan went to the meeting, was impressed and read Craig’s book, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God.  He invited Craig back in 2010 to meet with people from St. John’s Episcopal, Spokane Friends, Central United Methodist and Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ.  Organizing took several years.

“In companionship ministry, a person or a team from a congregation does companionship on purpose.  We all do it.  We all know someone with mental illness, people we support on the phone or in person,” Alan said.  “The training helps us understand how to do it effectively.”

For example, Alan met with mentally ill people at Tuesday dinners, on the streets and in the neighborhood.

“I just made friends, meeting with one to three monthly or weekly.  It grew to 10.  They range from people suffering occasional depression to people who have paranoid schizophrenia and are sometimes hospitalized,” he said.

“Someone who suffers mental illness can be your best friend one day and curse you out the next day,” Alan said. “Companions have to be prepared to be persistent through that.

“Companions are responsive to the suffering, supportive of their companions’ wellness and meet in public places for coffee or dinner, not privately as therapists do,” he said.

To be responsive begins with being aware that someone has problems.  A companion, coming alongside a person to offer friendship, recognizes that the person has a “circle of care” with friends and relatives, as well as doctors, social workers and others.

The companion model supports recovery by encouraging a person to participate in his/her circle of care, and to visit his/her psychiatrist and social worker.  People have problems when they become isolated and do not use their circle.

“It may take five years to develop a sense of mutuality in which the person knows as much about you as you know about him/her,” Alan said.  “When companions see a friend has an issue, they ask questions to support recovery.

Spokane’s Mental Health Companion Ministry’s motto is “bringing hope, caring and human contact.”  The goal is to “develop the capacity of congregations and the community to support wellness.”

At Tuesday dinners, they try to have one or two volunteers who are trained in companion ministry.  If someone is sitting alone or acting out, they come alongside the person to talk, offer suggestions, listen to the person vent to de-escalate the situation.

Only twice in 10 years has Alan called authorities to take someone who was violent.  Alan visited them later in the hospital and jail.

In Seattle, the mental health chaplaincy has several halfway houses where people go for recovery, because homelessness is a factor.  In Spokane, homeless people go to Eastern State Hospital or to jail, and are often released with no housing.

Alan challenges the myth of “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.”   He believes “not everyone can play the game of life well enough to succeed.

“As we recognize that people need help with everyday needs, we as churches can help,” he said.  “Companions are loving and sensitive to others’ suffering.” 

Some companions are peers, meaning they also suffer with a mental illness.  An on-site manager at Walnut Corners and a custodian at All Saints are peers and counsel others.

“Caring is part of being Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and other faith traditions,” said Alan, who would like more faith communities to be involved.

All Saints is Alan’s first call in ministry after 22 years in the insurance and investment business. 

For three years, from 2001 to 2004, he was both in ministry and in business while doing Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary’s Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) degree.  He took classes in Berkeley one week three times a year and worked with a study mentor in Spokane.  That degree is designed for people to work on site in an urban or rural ministry.

Alan felt called to ministry in high school when he was a member of Messiah Lutheran.  He was active in church through the years.

Early in his ministry, he began to wear a clergy collar and shirt, but black and plain colors were not his style.  His wife, Laurel, makes his clergy shirts with bright Hawaiian-like designs.

“I wear them, because I want people to know they’re talking to a pastor.  Knowing that, people may tell me things they wouldn’t tell others, or they may say less,” Alan said.

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