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For Methodists, community service matters | Finding Faith
Drive by the Vashon United Methodist Church at the south edge of town, and black and white signs rise up to meet you. “We believe all persons are of sacred worth,” the first three read. The fourth adds, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
Parishioners recently selected those words — the motto of the United Methodist Church — to try to make clear to the public what the church stands for, according to the church’s pastor, Rev. Kathryn Morse. The words are the foundation of the church’s social principles, she noted, and while the signs will change in the coming months, that message came first for a simple reason.
“It expressed best what we are trying to say,” she said in a recent interview in the church’s quiet sanctuary, decked out for Christmas, with poinsettias in full bloom and a Christmas tree in a prominent front corner.
Many Islanders may never have stepped inside the sanctuary for a Sunday service but might be familiar with the church anyway, as it is houses a variety of activities.
Free community meals are held there three days a week; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program meets there monthly; the Vashon Library, poised to renovate, holds its weekly English as a Second Language classes there; Vashon Youth & Family Services, having outgrown its office space, offers some counseling appointments there, and showers, housed in the church’s education building, open once a week for those without access to one otherwise.
All this activity fits with the intentions of the church, according to Bob Ellis, a retired Methodist pastor who now serves as the congregation’s lay leader. More than a decade ago, he noted, the church undertook an extensive remodel of the sanctuary building, which is more than 125 years old, both to serve the congregation’s needs and the needs of the wider community.
“One of our goals was to have cars in our parking lot every night,” he said.
This tenet — serving the wider world — dates back to the beginning of Methodism in the 1700s in England, when John Wesley formed a small group devoted to study, prayer and helping underprivileged people. In fact, church lore has it, others chided the group for their methodical ways, branding them “The Methodists.” The name held, and now the United Methodist Church has grown to roughly 8 million members, making it the second largest Protestant group in the country, behind Southern Baptists.
The denomination is not a credal one, Morse said, meaning there is not a set of beliefs parishioners must subscribe to. But rather, she noted, Methodists believe that the foundation of faith should rest on a four-legged stool: scripture, the tradition of the whole Church, people’s ability to reason and their own experiences of God and humanity.
“We are not bound by scripture,” Morse said. “We are free to realize that God is still speaking, that God is revealing Godself through our stories and that all our stories are sacred.”
On Vashon, church rolls show roughly 100 people are members, with an average of 78 in attendance each Sunday morning, Morse said. But many people are part of the church without being members, she added, and they may participate in all aspects of church life.
“The table is open to anyone,” she said.
That table is both figurative and very real, as the church’s communion table is also open to anyone. One recent Sunday morning, Morse invited everyone to partake. “All are welcome. All are loved. All are accepted,” she told those gathered, words she repeats each week. People helping with communion that morning included three adult volunteers and one young boy, Joshua Parrish, age 6, who tended to his task of holding the chalice with a serious manner.
With Morse as pastor, children age 7 and older are invited to serve as communion assistants, but she bent the rules for Joshua, who had been asking to help.
“Finding some way that we lead or serve should be open to everyone,” she said.
This kind of involvement for children is part of what draws Elizabeth Brezynski and James Eliason and their two boys, Nick and Noah, ages 10 and 7, to the church most Sundays. Many activities are open to their children, Brezynski said, including helping with the coffee hour, church services and community dinners.
There is no pressure to serve, Brezynski said, but there are always a variety of means available to do so.
The church’s missions committee tries to undertake a service activity each month for the church, the broader community and the world, according to long-time parishioner Tina Parrish. Nancy Vanderpool, a stalwart with the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, chairs that committee. Activities, she said, include hosting the community dinners, supporting a Seattle day center for homeless women and sending a volunteer delegation to Haiti to help after the earthquake. The church also plans to assist with tsunami-related beach clean up on the Washington coast and this spring plans to send a group of volunteers — paying their own way — to the McCurdy Schools of Northern New Mexico, which serves many Hispanic and Native American students.
“This community of people makes my boys want to serve,” Brezynski said.
The sense of equality also appeals to her family.
“If everyone can’t be equal, have equal say and have equal value, I don’t see the point of attending,” Eliason said, adding, “It’s good for the boys to see women leaders.”
The church has had a number of ministers in the last several years, including four women. The turnover stems in part from the Methodist church’s policy — it believes in rotating clergy frequently. But members at the Vashon church acknowledge they’ve faced more change than most Methodist congregations, including a few tough stretches along the way.
Ellis credits an interim pastor, Jan Van Pelt, who served for two years and left roughly five years ago, with helping the church communicate better.
“It was a time of great growth in our understanding of how to work together,” he said. “We did some hard work … on learning how to get along with each other while honoring our differences.”
Some of that work was apparent, he said, during a recent conversation about whether the church should place signs in its yard in support of Referendum 74, which supported the legalization of same-sex marriage. Some members wanted to do so, Ellis said; others did not want the church to weigh in on a political issue.
Ultimately, the church did not install the signs, but many members — identifying themselves as such — took out an ad in The Beachcomber in support of the initiative.
“The conversation was so civil and kind,” Morse said. “I marveled. I thought, ‘This is such a healthy congregation.’ No one felt they had to have their way. There were no recriminations.”
Morse has served at the helm of the church since August 2011 and is impressed with the congregation, which, she said, reflects Vashon as a whole, with people who have lived all over the world and celebrate differences. And, she said, it is a church that holds questions well — about what it means to be human and how to work with God to create a world that is whole.
In fact, she said, a remarkable example of putting one’s faith into action occurred last summer when church member Lavonne Feyen donated one of her kidneys to another member of the church, Phillip Owens.
As Owens tells the story, he had been an active member of the church for some time, when his kidneys began to fail and he needed dialysis and then a kidney transplant. One Sunday in August, he spoke to the congregation about his situation, and after the service Feyen told him she would offer one of her kidneys.
Had he stayed on the donor list, he likely would have had to wait three to five years with twice-daily dialysis, he said. But Feyen underwent rigorous testing, proved to be a good match — extra good fortune as she is Caucasian and he is African American — and by the end of August, the transplant process was complete, with Owens embarking on his recovery process with gratitude.
“I thank her every time I see her, and give her a big old hug,” he said. “I can’t thank the lady enough.”
In the year ahead, Morse said, the church will likely explore theology and rethink it some, with more emphasis on the teachings of Jesus and how parishioners can live in the world while staying true to the roots of Methodism.
“We believe there are many ways to God,” lay leader Ellis said.
Morse concurred, citing Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”