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Vashon Presbyterians eager to serve | Finding Faith

Stepping into the sanctuary of the Vashon Presbyterian Church on a weekday afternoon, guests are enveloped in silence and could easily think of the church as a place for quiet contemplation. Yet just outside the sanctuary doors,  a variety of activities are often under way — a testament to the church’s commitment to honoring its location in the heart of town and serving the wider Vashon community.

The church, a clapboard structure built in 1904 and extensively remodeled roughly a decade ago, offers what many would expect to find: a Sunday service, prayer groups and religious classes. But there are also a considerable number of programs and activities that many might not expect at a small-town church. An independent preschool meets in the basement. Several people dealing with addiction attend one of the 12-step programs held there a few times each day. Others in need of a hot meal come by twice a week for free meals open to anyone. Outside, wood that church members will split and stack will soon be ready to go to families that need it for heating. Later this month, in a nod to Vashon’s artistic nature, the church will co-host a quilt show. Locally, the church provides monthly financial support to the Vashon food bank, and much further afield, funds from the congregation support programs of and outreach to Protestant congregations in Vietnam, which the government there often bars from worshipping.

Rev. Dan Houston, who has served as the church’s pastor since 2006, thinks this considerable outreach fits with the church’s mission of serving God in all activities. It also the fits with the intent of the founders, who planted the church in Vashon town more than 100 years ago.

“One of the greatest gifts we have been given is the vision of some people in 1904,” he said. “Downtown is where the founders wanted us to be. Downtown is where God wanted us to be. And downtown is messy.”

Houston makes clear he does not direct all of the church’s work himself. In fact, central to the Presbyterian tradition is lay leadership — men and women the congregation elects to head various ministries. Several church members have served as elders, who serve on the governing board of the church, and deacons, who direct service-related activities.

The number of people who step into these leadership roles is so high that when a service is held that calls for the former deacons and elders to go to the front of the church, nearly everyone steps forward, according to Michelle Crawford, who is a member with four of her six daughters.

“I’m the only one left in the pews, “ she said with a laugh, noting that as a farmer and single mother, much of her time is spoken for.

Jacq Skeffington, a member of the church for more than 30 years who is serving his second term as an elder, did away with time constraints by retiring from his job as a merchant seaman earlier this spring, in part to commit himself more fully to the church.

“I felt like I was called to be part of the church, to be more part of that community,” he said.

The task of elders is not to do the work of the church, Skeffington said, but to draw people and decide what the work of the church should be. Much of its work is related to the needs on the island, he said, noting that the church’s history includes founding the food bank during lean economic times in the 1970s and setting up tents inside its building to offer shelter and privacy for homeless people about a decade ago.

“We are socially active and put our faith into action in the community,” he said.

The church is also a diverse community, he said, and members often hold different opinions but set their differences aside for the greater good.

Barb O’Block, another longtime church member and fellow elder, said there is respect for those differing views. Presbyterians have a scholarly tradition, she said, and Bible study is important, with individual thought and questions encouraged. The church is also a democratic place, she noted, with little hierarchy.

This congregation has what Houston called as “a predilection to immediate engagement.” That predilection may have been what drew Houston, his 17-year-old daughter Lauren and church member Larry Commeree to Vietnam with Seattle-area Presbyterians earlier this spring. They went, Houston said, to learn more about what is happening there and to bring back ideas for partnering with congregations in that area of the world.

Close to home, several members say they are contending with a challenge common to many churches: a lack of young people. They would like to see more families with young children become members and say the congregation encourages visitors of all ages to attend.

“The doors are open,” O’Block said. “Everyone is welcome.”

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