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Seattle’s oldest church seeks a new home and mission

A model of the proposed new First United Methodist Church in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood.

A model of the proposed new First United Methodist Church in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. (First Church)

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.”

First Church was once in a residential neighborhood on Fifth Avenue, Brown notes. The area changed, notably in the 1960s when construction of Interstate 5 cut off the church from the First Hill neighborhood. The sanctuary that drew 3,500 on Sunday mornings in the 1950s averaged just 200 people in recent years, Brown said. Worshippers couldn’t help but feel lost in the cavernous space. Damage from the 2001 Nisqually quake required $350,000 in repairs, giving the church more motivation to sell its valuable property.

“From the church’s perspective, [preservation] is a nice value, but it’s not as important as human values like being able to continue caring for the homeless,” Brown said.

The church had already dealt with the opposition of preservation groups and the question of historic landmark status, settled when the state Supreme Court ruled that a church couldn’t be restricted from demolishing its own property, citing church-state separation precedents. The building’s salvation came when developer Nitze-Stagen stepped forward two years ago. The company, which restored Seattle’s Union Station and the Starbucks Center, agreed to buy the property, preserve the sanctuary for to-be-determined use, and build an angular 43-story skyscraper that leans over the dome.

In the church’s interim home and its smaller future building, Brown plans to continue preaching the social justice-minded theology he picked up in part at Princeton Theological Seminary and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. He struggled to make this prophetic voice heard during his five-year stint with the Church Council of Greater Seattle, a collection of 400-some mostly mainline congregations.

“Even though it’s a liberal town, culturally, liberal religion is not particularly admired,” he said. “It’s not recognized that liberal Christians are often leading the way on causes like equal rights for gays and lesbians, or homelessness, or helping to be good stewards of the environment.”

In this secular city, he’ll try to show there is a connection between faith and this work on behalf of the marginalized. This could be his best chance for attracting enough Seattleites to keep First Church viable.

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