A presbytery is born: Presbytery of Northwest Coast joins North Puget Sound, nine churches in southeast Alaska

By Jerry L. Van Marter

LOUISVILLE (PNS)  On March 15 ― three months after it was created by a merger of the former North Puget Sound Presbytery and nine churches in southeast Alaska that remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) from the former Alaska Presbytery ― the newest presbytery in the denomination voted overwhelmingly to call itself the Presbytery of Northwest Coast.

“Northwest Coast” was the first ballot choice over “Inland Passage” and “Northwest United.” More than 50 possible names were suggested, said the Rev. David Dobler, executive of the former Alaska Presbytery who is continuing to serve Northwest Coast on a part-time basis.

“‘Northwest Coast’ is a term that is used to describe the people and culture of the indigenous people who lived along the Pacific Coast from southeast Alaska to the Salish Sea area of Washington State and along the coast to the Columbia River region,” said Stated Clerk Dean Strong of Everett, Wash. “It includes the tribes of Tlingit, Haida, Tahltan, Nisga’a, Mikah, and Coast Salish (Nooksack, Lummi, Chinook, Swinomish, Tulalip, Quileute, Suquamish, and many others).”

The Rev. Henry Fawcett, a Tlingit and elder statesman of southeast Alaska and Alaska Presbytery, addresses the new Presbytery of Northwest Coast. —courtesy of Corey Schlosser-Hall
The Rev. Henry Fawcett, a Tsimshian and elder statesman of southeast Alaska and Alaska Presbytery, addresses the new Presbytery of Northwest Coast. —courtesy of Corey Schlosser-Hall

“Many of these native people are members of the churches of the new presbytery; their various names identify many geographic features, towns, cities and churches, and are familiar to all who live in the region The term [Northwest Coast] may have been perceived as best representing members from both presbyteries.”

The March 15 meeting ― held at First Presbyterian Church in Bellingham, Wash., “was a great first coming together,” Corey Schlosser-Hall, executive of the former North Puget Sound Presbytery and now of Northwest Coast, told the Presbyterian News Service shortly after the meeting concluded. “Some really beautiful, Holy Spirit things happened.”

Every church from southeast Alaska was represented at the meeting, which had a decidedly Native flavor.

Four commissioners from 20-member Neah Bay Presbyterian Church on the northwest tip of Washington state welcomed the Alaska contingent with handmade shell necklaces and led those in attendance in a Makah-language version of the Lord’s Prayer.

“We may be the only people in the world to have heard that prayer that day,” Schlosser-Hall enthused.

Ruling Elder Inga Hanlon of Yakutat Alaska responded by presenting a beautiful engraved copper tinaa (shield) to the Neah Bay congregation and the Alaska delegation sang ‘At the Cross’ in English and Tlingit. The Rev. Jane Van Antwerp presented the Alaskans a gift of children’s books from her “Beyond the Blue” children’s ministry in Kingston, Wash.

“All of this gift-giving was from their own initiative,” Schlosser-Hall noted. “This merger is bringing out the best in people.”

During the day a panel of Korean elders and pastors, moderated by Associate Executive Presbyter Jinsuk Kim spoke on Korean Christian distinctives and experience and responded to questions. Thirty percent of the new presbytery’s members are Korean.

The first candidate examined (and approved) for ordination by Northwest Coast was Becca Arrowsmith, a young part-Chinese woman engaged in campus ministry at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

“The greatest challenge [for the new presbytery] is geography, as we are considering how best to gather and communicate;  engaging, encouraging and resourcing one another across the region, maintaining strong relationships while also considering the stewardship issues of the high cost of travel,” Strong said. “We are exploring alternative ways of staying connected. At present we are considering one large annual gathering while the administrative needs of the presbytery may be met during the year using a variety of electronic meeting methods.”

The next face-to-face meeting of Northwest Coast Presbytery is scheduled for late September in Ketchikan, Alaska.

All agree that no distance or logistical hassle can dampen the spirit of this new presbytery.

The Rev. George Pasley, pastor of Ketchikan Presbyterian Church, poet laureate and stated clerk of the former Alaska Presbytery, penned a new poem for the new presbytery: “When We Paddled Upon the Waters”

When we first put our paddles in the water,
These waters were murky,
These currents unruly.
Our spirits were brave,
But not foolishly so,
For we knew that every tide is treacherous and
Every depth has hidden hazards.
We had faith,
Though faith is never proven finally
Until Kingdom comes,
For every test is superseded
By something different and
Every trial transitions into another
And so we rowed,
Birthing blisters on our palms and
Calluses on our knees,
Our hopes tethered to
A crucified and risen Christ.

Then indeed the storms came
And with them trouble, and rumors of more.
But these waters have always known trouble-
Ask the deep. Ask the abandoned villages.
Ask the men looking for work,
The women looking for respect,
The young looking for purpose,
And the nets looking for a catch.
These winds have blown hard,
And the times have always demanded
More than we could easily give-
And beside, the current moves one way,
And it is not backwards. Even more,
We remembered Job, who called upon God
And was given appointment with the whirlwind.

So briefly, we enter sanctuary-
We sing doxology-
We make testimony about the Living God-
And our strength is renewed while we pass the broken bread.
Yet even so we know
We live in the now-and-not-yet,
The Kingdom which is at hand
Demands an ongoing offering of trust,
A persistent sacrifice of self,
And the continued discipline of prayer.

See-look to your tethers-
See your hope even now being driven by the Spirit!

Now, let us take up our paddles and
Begin once more…

The Lord calls us to follow!