By Rob Bryceson
SPOKANE, WA (June 12, 2017)—Our congregation’s remarkable café ministry that helps transform the lives of people who otherwise might be unemployable would not exist if I had been successful in my three attempts to close First Covenant Church of Spokane.
I had good reasons. Our weekly attendance was down to 30 members. We had board meetings where we discussed how inebriated a person could be before we turned them away from worship and where we could store shopping carts full of personal belongings during services.
We tried to serve the people of our neighborhood by providing a free meal every Sunday for up to 200 people. But that meant we had to raise thousands of dollars outside of our regular budget, and we weren’t even covering our own bills. Others applauded us, saying, “That’s what the church should be doing! Good for you guys. More churches should do that!” Still, they were not about to set foot inside our doors.
Each week I sat in a 12,000-square-foot empty building and tried to convince myself we could fill it on Sundays by offering an inspirational service. We were deeply in debt.
We also had to admit that despite ministering to hundreds of people in a given year, we really only helped eight or 10 individuals to actually get their life back on track. Generally that meant helping them move away to reunite with family, or simply to another neighborhood so they didn’t get sucked back into self-destructive habits.
It also became clear that we had no choice but to sell the church if we were to renew the congregation’s life. Superintendent Greg Yee was a tremendous support. There were times it was so difficult that I wasn’t sure we could make it, and Greg had faith when I didn’t. He believed in us and wouldn’t give up on having a Covenant presence in Spokane no matter what.
National Covenant Properties advanced us a loan until we could sell the building. It took three long years, but we finally were able to sell the building, which had been built in 1905 when our congregation was known as The Swedish Tabernacle.
We moved to the Garland District, where most residents live at or below the poverty line. A majority of the buildings were constructed before the 1940s. We picked an old 6,300-square-foot beer, candy, and cigarettes grocery store that has an additional 3,500-square-foot undeveloped basement.
We transformed it into space that would be a coffee shop six days a week and where we worshiped on Sundays. We also wanted to staff the coffee shop with people who might otherwise have difficulty finding employment.
We changed the church name to The Gathering House Covenant Church and Café and opened our new site on Easter Sunday 2015. Street Wise, a nonprofit that teaches job skills, operates the café. By investing in individuals, we are seeing changes.
“I felt like the whole world was looking down on me, like I wasn’t good enough,” said Dan, who was in prison for five years and struggled to find work after he was released. “The Gathering House café gave me an opportunity to prove to the world that people can change.”
Another former employee who has gone on to a good career said, “This café job helped me transition from one area of my life I needed to leave behind and opened the gateway to a better future for me and my child. Without the café, I wouldn’t have had a safe place to be who I was at that time without judgment.”
We also have been successful in creating a gathering space. City-wide Homeless Coalition, made up of 60 agencies and 100 other members, has moved their monthly meetings to The Gathering House. The mayor, City Council members, and state representatives have held workshops and small conferences on issues of poverty in our church. We’re a city of over 300,000 people, but whenever I bump into the mayor in public settings he asks how our church and café are doing.
When I walked out of my office recently to get a cup of coffee, I surveyed the room. Eight women who manage the local Union Gospel Mission Women’s Recovery Shelter were sitting around a couple of tables strategizing fresh ministry ideas. The Young Life leaders at the high school half a mile away were talking with the director of Christ Kitchen, a restaurant-style ministry that helps rescue women from homelessness or the street life. Some men were in the front corner by the main windows holding a Bible study. Two college students had their laptops open and were doing homework.
None of those people attend our services but they are tangibly supporting what we do. Our congregation also is growing. Some 120 people worship together each Sunday. It’s a good start.
Rob Bryceson is pastor of The Gathering House Covenant Church and Café