Keeping the faith on Findlay Street: Two small, progressive faith communities ponder separate futures from same pews

Few would argue that the Findlay Street Christian Church is a handsome structure.

"I don't think this is a beautiful building," said Joan Dennehy, the pastor.

The architecture hardly seems divinely inspired, true enough. And that, combined with the materials, the aluminum-framed windows and such, make the place feel kind of like the activities center at a trailer park.

"It's the way they built things in the '60s," Dennehy said.

OK, so it isn't another Notre Dame, but it isn't so bad, either. The sanctuary itself, built in 1960, isn't entirely devoid of charm. It's an A-frame sort of affair with an open ceiling. There's an altar at one end and rows of pews. Generic, but pleasant enough. It can hold 296 people, according to the sign at the entrance.

There were 50-some worshippers in attendance last Sunday morning, about half of the total membership. And that points to one of the challenges facing the congregation.

"The building is too large for us," Dennehy said. "And it needs a total remodel."

The sanctuary may be the best part of the church, but it is a relatively small part of the church's property.

The remainder of the structure is in need of extensive work, Dennehy explained, and that puts the congregation in something of a quandary. ("When I go into that sanctuary, I can forget it's attached to the rest of the building," Dennehy said.) The church, a Disciples of Christ congregation, owns the property the building sits on, in the 4600 block of South Findlay Street, and three lots behind it, which front on South Lucile Street. Those back lots have for several years been a P-Patch, one of the larger such community gardens around.

It's not that the place is in such rough condition; it is clean and tidy and appears to be reasonably well maintained. But putting it into truly good shape would cost plenty, so the congregation, which has been on the land where it currently resides since 1907, has been looking into other options, including relocating.

"We really need $3 million to build what we want, so we need a partner, even a music school or something," Dennehy said. The church could sell its property and raise not even half that amount. And, she said, "We could have a capital campaign and raise maybe $400,000. That doesn't come close to what we need ... We realize we are too small to do that on our own. We're looking to partner with maybe three other groups."

The vision, Dennehy said, is to have a sanctuary that doesn't so separate the clergy from the congregants.

"We would like to have it more circular," she said. "Everybody who speaks is important. And we would like to have a place that is beautiful. How do you build a place that speaks to the presence of God?"

So staying on Findlay Street isn't so crucial, Dennehy said, although should the church relocate, they would rather keep themselves somewhere in the South End.

"We know we want to be in the city of Seattle," she said. "We're looking from here to West Seattle and south to the city limits."

Only about a fourth of the membership resides nearby. The church directory lists home addresses as far away as Olympia.

"We're not really a neighborhood church," Dennehy said. "We're a commuter church. People come to this church mostly from this neighborhood south to Tacoma."

Certainly what draws many is the church's "open and affirming" status, meaning that it welcomes gays and lesbians. And much of the membership fits that description.

"My guesstimate is 70 percent, give or take," said Brent Long, chair of the church deacons, who, before he moved to town, had traveled over 60 miles to attend church on Findlay Street. "We were the first open and affirming Disciples of Christ congregation in the United States." That was in 1987.

"We are open and affirming, but we don't call ourselves a gay church," said Kay Diamond, the board chair. "We sort of led the way, but now hundreds and hundreds of Disciples churches are open and affirming."

Tending to earthly matters

A church may provide a place to ponder the mysteries of the ages, but to do that a church also has to concern itself with more mundane matters, such as paying the bills and shoring up the institution.

"Since 1999, we've been thinking about the future," Dennehy said. "We're situating ourselves for future generations ... We came up with an identity statement, and a dream." That's what's behind the talk about where the congregation will be, physically and otherwise, years down the road. For now, though, the Findlay Street Christian Church still has to get by month to month.

"We've never been in the red," Dennehy said. "Somehow we have all the money we need."

Part of how it does that is by renting out some of its plentiful space. A Montessori preschool is located there, as are the offices of the Church Council of Greater Seattle's Emergency Feeding Program.

"We've become landlords, and our honest assessment of ourselves as landlords is that we're pretty lousy at it," Dennehy said. The digs aren't so pretty, and, as she already noted, it goes beyond the cosmetic.

"There's never enough to actually fix the building," she said. "We feel pretty bad that we cannot provide better for our tenants."

The other congregation

Another of those tenants is the Rainier Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, which uses the building for various functions throughout the week and for its Sunday evening services. The prospect of moving is but one of the challenges facing the congregation.

The part-time minister, Linda Hart, has informed the 52-member congregation that she won't be staying on past the end of April. She lives down in Olympia, she has a 3-year-old kid she would like to spend more time with, and the long commute has gotten to be too much.

"Some people are chagrined that Linda won't be coming back," said John Britt, the congregation's board president. But he and everyone else who offered an opinion on the matter said the congregation should get along fine without a minister.

Unitarian Universalism "is inherently less reliant on a minister per se," Britt said, although he added that the Rainier Valley church may miss "the anchoring presence, the stabilizing influence, of a trained minister."

Instead, RVUUC will rely on guest speakers and lay leaders.

"I think it will work pretty well," said Dick Burkhart, a Valley resident who, along with his wife, has been with the congregation since its founding, about seven years ago. "Seattle is a good area for all the interesting people we can invite here."

The congregation got another taste of how that works last Sunday, when a guest spoke at length on the writings of the late Phillip Simmons and how they had influenced her and her way of being in this world. Hart, the minister, was present for the service but she never took the altar.

RVUUC doesn't have much dough stashed away, Britt said, and that plain reality, combined with the uncertainty as to its long-term status on Findlay Street, influenced the board's decision not to hire another minister.

"For us, it's that they [Findlay Street Christian Church] don't know for sure," Britt said. "Should they decide to sell and leave the building, it seems prudent, given the time it takes to build up reserves, that we prepare for that sort of thing. If we did have to move, there would be some expenses involved."

RVUUC is something of an experiment, according to Mel Warn, a past board president.

"We had a fulltime minister for four years," Warn said. "We were an extension congregation, so we were supported by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Northwest District Association and a number of congregations that supported us as well ... When it became clear in the fifth year that we would not be able to sustain a fulltime minister on our own, we brought in Linda part-time. But we'll sustain on our own. We have lay leaders and guest speakers."

"When it was founded, they had an image that they would quickly grow to a congregation of 150 people," Hart said. "Now they're at a place to reassess that vision, to see where they want to be. They're committed to sustaining a sense of joyful community that has been a part of who they are from the beginning. They're going to do OK. They have a lot of talent and energy and commitment to the congregation to make it work."

RVUUC is a bit anomalous, Britt said. Unitarian Universalists are a generally "liberal," tolerant, social-justice oriented bunch. Yet its membership is mostly white and middle class or wealthier. It's a matter the membership and leadership doesn't dodge.

"This has been an ongoing issue, from the very beginning," Britt said. "There was debate whether we should put a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Rainier Valley. Unitarian Universalist congregations flourish in middle-class and upper-middle-class communities."

Persons of color attend RVUUC, though. And Britt said the congregation is also diverse by other measures.

"We have a sizable gay and lesbian component, and a diversity of lifestyle and economic diversity, people who are dealing with unemployment," he said. "I don't think you'll find that in most [Unitarian Universalist] congregations."

Tracy Patterson is a woman of color and another past president of the RVUUC board. She has three kids and lives on Beacon Hill.

"I was glad to hear about the startup down here," she said. "It's been good for my kids. It's a wonderful, supportive community."

So what about the color issue?

"It has been a challenge for Unitarians, and even for us, being in a diverse community," she said. "But we are here, but not in the numbers we would like."

It's the message and the mission that keeps Patterson and her kids coming back. It's not just hallelujahs for an hour on Sunday.

"A lot of people don't come to church to think about what's wrong with the world and what to do about it," she said. "That's the heart of it-it's a community of people who are very liberal and very active. And it doesn't stop on Sundays."

RVUUC members seem happy enough with their accommodations at Findlay Street Christian Church.

"As this group was forming, seven years ago, they went to several churches to see if they would have us, and they wouldn't," Warn said. "This was the only one. They're just more open and accepting. It's been a very good relationship for us."

Cally Johnson served as greeter last Sunday evening, as about 30 folks made their way to the sanctuary.

"A lot of us like this place," he said. "It has a homey feeling. It's pleasant and calm. I would like to see us stay here. And the garden back there is one of the best in the city."

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