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Seattle's oldest church seeks a new home and mission

A new minister lays plans for revitalizing Seattle's First United Methodist Church, temporarily homeless after moving from a crumbling downtown landmark. Saving mainline downtown churches is far from easy, but Rev. Sanford Brown thinks he has a formula, derived from serving the Belltown neighborhood.
A model of the proposed new First United Methodist Church in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. (First Church)

A model of the proposed new First United Methodist Church in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. (First Church) None

As the Rev. Sanford Brown tells it, Methodists have long stood up for the downtrodden in Seattle. In 1886, for instance, a gun-wielding pastor of First United Methodist Church stared down anti-Chinese rioters, according to church lore. The church provided sanctuary for workers the mob wanted to run out of town.

As First Church's newest minister, Brown's past work has been less confrontational. But only slightly so. He clashed with the city of Bellevue over its homeless camp policy during his previous role as executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle. He condemned as "immoral" the Port of Seattle's plan to demolish low-income housing in Burien last year.

He now confronts a challenge his pioneer predecessors never had to face: saving an aging downtown church, temporarily homeless itself. In July, the 50-year-old Seattle native took over as pastor at First Church, the city's oldest house of faith. The church recently sold its 100-year-old terra cotta-and-brick building at Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street, hoping to put years of legal struggles and public preservation battles behind it. While it awaits construction of its new building in Belltown (groundbreaking for the new site will be September 21), the church meets at Seattle Children's Theatre.

"The church has been inwardly focused, with good reason, for many years," Brown said. "It's really been a fight for its survival as a 100-year-old building was falling down around it, without the church having the financial means to preserve it. Now it's time to say, 'What do we want to accomplish in the community?'"

In Belltown, Brown plans to offer a smorgasbord of workshops on topics like divorce recovery, relationship building, and financial management. The church will continue its mission to the homeless, which includes a 40-bed shelter and twice-a-month breakfasts. Through a drop-in center on the new building's Denny Way streetfront, he'd like to create a "third place" where urban residents from all economic classes can find community.

"The church should be made up of people who live in multimillion-dollar condos with a view of Elliott Bay and also people who live on the street and are happy to find a place in a doorway for shelter," he said. "As we come to know the neighborhood better, we need to respond to specific, tangible needs of our neighbors. That's how we stay relevant."

Historically, such plans haven't often worked. America's mainline churches — Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Methodists, and other traditionally white denominations — have long struggled with dwindling congregations. Families moving out of cities preferred suburban churches and megachurches with extensive youth programs. Guitars and PowerPoint slides replaced pipe organs and hymnals. Long a haven of the business class, mainline churches never embraced the hand-clapping, aisle-dancing emotion of Pentecostalism, one of the fastest-growing religious movements in America and also in the world.

In any given American city, perhaps two of 12 "high steeple" churches have found a way to revitalize themselves as First Church hopes to do, according to Seattle Pacific University religious historian Doug Strong. "The others are barely hanging on," Strong said. "The ones that continue to do well have found a way to draw from the [neighborhood] community."

First Church is unique not only because it lacks a physical steeple, with its landmark dome instead. It's also in Seattle, one of the least churchgoing cities in the nation. Brown says this provides him an advantage: People don't come to church because of social pressure, as they might in the Bible Belt. Those who do come are more eager to participate.

In Belltown, Brown found that 50,000 people lived within a half-mile of the church, and 100,000 people within a square mile — a population that could add to the church's current membership of 450. "As we divorce ourselves from our love affair with the automobile, people will be looking for institutions like churches in their neighborhoods, as opposed to across town," he said. "I think we're well prepared for that, given the population density in this neighborhood."


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