First Presbyterian Church of Seattle: Then and now
First Presbyterian Church of Seattle was organized in 1869 with seven charter members (one man and six women, including founding pastor George Whitworth’s wife, daughter and daughter-in-law). By 1939, FPCS had 11 assistant pastors, a session of 110 elders and church membership peaked at 8,818 members, the largest in the nation. Though today its geographical footprint is an entire city block of buildings on the eastern edge of downtown Seattle in a neighborhood called First Hill, FPCS’s membership hovers much, much closer to that initial charter membership number than the later pinnacle.
While membership decline was initially attributed to the launching of many branch churches whose members had been retained on the FPCS membership roll, over the decades, like many other downtown churches, the decline was the result of urbanization, with a steady post-World War II exodus to the suburbs. In addition, over the last 60 years, the relentless hemorrhaging of the mainline church over theological disagreements has affected this historically theologically conservative church. The concrete “brutalist” architecture sanctuary erected in 1969 that seats 1,200 hasn’t been used for Sunday worship in well over a decade.
More recently, FPCS experienced a painful church split in late 2015 that was the final blow to the once thriving church. In February of 2016, the Seattle Presbytery’s administrative commission concluded that the session “was unable or unwilling to wisely manage its affairs in accordance with PC(USA) polity, [and] had caused a schism within the congregation,” which resulted in their removal from leadership (although by then the previous co-pastors had resigned their ordinations).
What remains today is a pretty small (though unusually eclectic) group. On any given Sunday, you’re likely to find 20-30 people gathered for worship in the chapel: a handful of long-time members, a new person or two from the neighborhood or another part of the city, homeless and marginalized folks, tourists visiting from afar, a few presbytery supporters and occasional “temporary” folks in town receiving specialized medical treatment on nearby “Pill Hill.”
What also remains is ongoing complex litigation and a property development joint venture option that complicate the fundamental question for the congregation: Do we have a ministry future? Still, with legal and development questions hovering in the background, the gospel imperatives persistently rise to the surface: What does it mean for us to serve God now? How do we live the good news right here? How do we love our neighbors?
Not long after becoming the transitional pastor for FPCS I was driving home one December night through the dark, rainy streets of downtown Seattle, frustrated by the legal proceedings (that crept along at a glacial pace, though, thankfully, each legal ruling was in presbytery’s favor at every turn). I worried about the church’s future: Would we survive? What difference could our little church make? Our people resources are so slim. I don’t often claim to hear God speak, but the word of the Lord became so clear to me that dreary evening: Be the church. As I peered through the wiper-streaked window, I saw tents pitched on sidewalks in the freezing cold. With the temperature dropping steadily and snowfall threatening, I knew we had to figure out how to better love our neighbors on the streets. Just a couple months later the newly published Seattle homeless census would count 11,643 people experiencing homelessness throughout King County, where housing prices were skyrocketing at a rate among the highest in the nation. Lack of affordable housing is a key area of concern for Seattle, and continues to unduly impact vulnerable populations, as well as all levels of the working class. Sustainable housing was becoming increasing difficult for more and more people, especially those on the margins.
Are you serious?
While only working half time and still relatively new to the Seattle scene, I started working the few contacts I did have. I reached out to Rick Reynolds, director of Operation Nightwatch in Seattle (whom I consider the guru of all things homeless in Seattle), and said: “Right now we are parishioner poor. I’m not sure what we can sustain. But can you help us think about options to help the homeless?” Two days later, Rick had set up interviews with two organizations that specialized in helping people move from homelessness to housing. One of those organizations was Compass Housing Alliance, a Seattle nonprofit with faith-based roots that has been around for 100 years. In early January of 2017, two Compass leadership staff, Francesca Martin, chief program officer, and Walter Washington, emergency services manager, came to tour our 6,000-square-foot basement. Though now a bit run-down, the basement was once used to host a one-night-a-week shelter and even served as a community life center for recovering addicts under the guiding vision of a former pastor a decade ago. Compass immediately saw the possibilities. In fact, that day we became almost giddy, like kids on Christmas morning, as we talked about the potential for changed lives.
Then Francesca and Walter asked, “Is the church really serious about pursuing this? Because the city has a request for proposals, and we have wanted to apply for a 1.3 million dollar grant to fund a 24/7 low-barrier homeless shelter with a full array of wrap-around services (including shelter, medical, addiction, mental, and job resources) but we’ve been searching to find a space to house it all. And this is amazing! We’ve never seen anything like this! Are you guys serious?!”
Were we serious?
We knew Jesus was serious – always caring for those who were on the margins of society. And Jesus certainly urged his followers to care for the least and the last, to treat all with dignity and respect. Jesus was the guy who even said when we welcome a stranger it’s like we are welcoming him.
But weren’t we out of our league? Just a tiny church, only a few people, with not many resources? It wouldn’t take long before we were in way over our heads.
But my mind gravitated toward that New Testament story about the feeding of the 5,000. Actually, sometimes I wonder why we call it “Jesus feeds the 5,000”? Because, well, while Jesus kind of does feed them, that seems to mostly miss the point.
Remember how Jesus tries to get away from the crowds, but they follow him. You get a sense of desperation on their part. And then after a day of Jesus teaching them in the wilderness (meaning they’re out in the middle of Nowheresville), the disciples tell Jesus to “send them away.” In other words, the not so subtle message is, “Lord, let them go fend for themselves.” I mean, it’s not like there’s a Costco around the corner! Why are the disciples so keen on trying to get rid of the crowd? Someone has noted it’s because big crowds with unmet needs tend to overwhelm our ability to respond!
Just do the math: 5,000 people, plus women and children, equals probably close to 10,000 or 15,000 people total! And just 12 disciples. They’re overwhelmed.
Or 11,643 people experiencing homelessness. And 30 worshippers on a good day. Huge need. Tiny congregation. We see only our limitations. “We don’t have enough” is just a small, depressing hop, skip and a jump away from “there’s nothing we can do.”
And so what does Jesus say to the disciples? “Oh you guys are so right, you’re only human. I’m Jesus, I’m God. You’re right, I‘ll take it from here. Stand back. Watch this.” No. He says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” You do something about it. Bring what you have.
And that is why I’m not overly fond of calling it “Jesus feeds the 5,000” – because although Jesus does feed them, to me the real miracle is that he uses what the disciples provide. Their contribution counts. We all bring what we have, and Jesus blesses it.
Bread and a few fish.
Compass at First Presbyterian
Are you serious?
Well, we got serious pretty fast. We moved quickly to get the administrative commission/session’s approval to partner with Compass (which, by the way, was not unanimous). And Compass got their proposal filed with the City of Seattle in the nick of time. In April, Compass received confirmation that their proposal was chosen (it scored the highest of any proposal the city had ever received).
In May, Compass and FPCS held a community outreach meeting in the church chapel to share with the neighborhood the plans for the 24/7 100-bed shelter, and to respond to questions and concerns. Typically, a meeting of this nature brings out a huge NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) response, but while there were a few queries, the First Hill neighborhood has been amazingly supportive, with many neighbors even writing YIBMY (yes-in-my-back-yard) letters to the mayor. A faithful contingent from the church present was present (actually most of our worshipping congregation!) to be a smiling presence welcoming folks to the meeting. For many of us, this was the first time we had ever had any significant contact with our urban neighborhood! At evening’s end, Compass and city staff thanked me profusely, characterizing this meeting as the most positive outreach meeting they have ever had. While I did welcome people to the meeting and spoke briefly to set the tone, I assured the Compass and city staff I didn’t think I was responsible for its abundant success! Clearly something bigger than all of us was at work.
With the final contract between FPCS and Compass signed, including details about rent and utility payments to the church, the remodeling of the basement space using grant money commenced in June, including adding a fire suppression sprinkler system, upgrading bathrooms and reconfiguring office and meeting space. The grand opening for the shelter – now officially named “Compass at First Presbyterian” – took place on September 1, and was characterized by the city as the most positive and well-attended shelter opening of any to ever take place in the city. A few days later, the shelter began to phase in about 10 shelter guests at a time, for a total of 80 men and 20 women. A few shelter guests are currently attending worship with our congregation on Sunday morning.
Though we share Compass’s goal of helping shelter guests seek permanent housing in an average of 40 days, our challenge now is to be more than landlords and discover our capacity to be more involved personally. Our desire at FPCS is to continue to help our little band of disciples open up our lives, to share ourselves and build relationships with our guests.
Meanwhile, these are some important things we are continuing to learn:
- To trust God to show us the way forward;
- To boldly bring the little we have to God;
- To see how God can use small churches;
- To see that the burden of a big building might just be a blessing in the right hands, especially in an urban context;
- To not to moan about how big we once were, or fixate on being big again, but to let the numbers thing go; to live into the church we are now;
- To keep figuring out what it means to faithfully share the good news of the kin-dom – with the least, the last, the lost – especially with those experiencing homelessness today;
- To be honest about our congregational life together: to let our congregational brokenness speak to broken people, inviting them in; and,
- To nurture our partnership with Compass, and explore partnerships with others, setting aside our egos and not worrying about who gets the glory.
Perhaps our story will inspire the imaginations of other small congregations – especially those with big, mostly empty buildings – to get serious and be the church, too – to the glory of God!
Heidi Husted Armstrong is transitional pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Seattle.