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From orphan to shepherd: Rene’ Devantier’s journey of faith, soccer and unwavering inclusion

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From orphan to shepherd: Rene’ Devantier’s journey of faith, soccer and unwavering inclusion

News story by Cindy Hval | FāVS News

From his grandparent’s home in Germany to Texas soccer arenas, from rage at God to full-time ministry, the Rev. Rene’ Devantier’s journey from unbelief to faith has led him to vow that everyone feels welcome at Fowler United Methodist Church.

Losing Frankie and a father

Born in Berlin, Germany, to parents too young to care for him, one of Devantier’s earliest memories is of Child Protective Services coming to his home.

“I was 6,” he recalled. “My brother, Frankie, was 4. I was sent to my grandparent’s house because I was Grandpa’s favorite. Frankie was sent to an orphanage.”

A single black-and-white photo is all that remains of his relationship with his brother.

Rene Devantier
Rene’ Devantier’s only photo of him (left) and his brother Frankie (right). / Contributed

“My grandma and I took a bus to visit him once. It was the last time I saw Frankie.”

After the authorities removed the boys from the home, he never saw his father again, either.

“I blocked out a lot,” Devantier said. “I don’t remember my dad at all.”

Soccer salvation

His grandfather died the following year, and the 7-year-old took refuge in the one familiar thing, that didn’t change — soccer.

“I played soccer all my life,” he said. My grandmother didn’t drive, so I relied on my teammates’ families to take me to games. No one from my family ever came to a game. My mother went off the deep end when Grandpa died and began using drugs. She was a mess.”

His coaches and his teammates’ dads became the only father figures he had.

“Soccer saved my life a couple of times,” Devantier said.

Moving to the U.S.

When he was 10, his mother married an American G.I. and moved to Kirkland, Washington. At 13, he and his grandmother came to visit.

“I did some soccer stuff and reconnected with my mom,” he recalled. “I really wanted to move to America. I loved the cool cars!”

His grandmother said he could move to the States after he graduated. So in 1981, he arrived in Washington.

Though his mother’s marriage didn’t last, he found her life had improved.

“She’d joined a Foursquare church, and she was totally changed,” Devantier said. “It was my first taste of God working and completely transforming someone.”

He lived with her for four years and then decided he wanted to see more of the U.S.

“I had a soccer scholarship to attend UW, but I wanted to spread my wings.”

While waiting tables at a Shari’s restaurant, he met a girl named Jennifer and they began dating.

“Her family was Baptist and very religious,” said Devantier. “Her dad hated me. I drove motorcycles and had long hair.”

Jennifer was 17, and her parents forbade her to see him.

“So, she moved in with me,” he said. “We moved to Eugene, Oregon. We had no direction, just partying and floundering.”

Eventually, she wanted more and moved back home to Redmond, Washington.

In 1988, Devantier was devastated when his mom succumbed to cancer.

“I had no faith, but that didn’t stop me being mad at God,” he said. I didn’t want my mom to be a dead body in the ground. I started searching for God.”

Finding faith

His quest took him to many churches, but he rarely found a welcome. His bike, his hair, his tattoos all signaled trouble to many churchgoers.

After a brief stint in Spokane, he took his search across the country when he and a buddy decided to sell all their belongings and move to Texas.

“I waited tables and got a job coaching club soccer,” Devantier recalled. “Some teachers at the local high school wanted me to coach there.”

He grinned.

“I was German. They really wanted me!”

In true Texas style, they made it happen.

He met a divorced woman with two young daughters and married her. She introduced him to the Methodist church.

At last, he found a place and a faith that fit.

But life was busy.

He coached Olympic development teams, opened an indoor soccer business and ran a soccer store. Meanwhile, he was invited to be the youth pastor at his Methodist church.

“I got to preach a couple of times, and I loved it!” he said. “The people liked me. It was really cool!”

Devantier learned about the Methodist’s local pastor program. He could work and attend Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in the summer. He earned his license and wanted more — he wanted his own church. That didn’t sit well with the pastor who’d hired him, and he was fired.

A church in Portland, Texas, offered him a job, and he took it.

The demands of ministry and the soccer businesses took a toll on his marriage. While in Portland, he and his wife divorced.

Soon, the church sent him to pastor a congregation in Corpus Christi. He finally had his own church.

Returning to Washington

And then fate and Facebook intervened. Devantier reconnected with Jennifer, his sweetheart from his time in Washington.

“We started chatting on Facebook. She was getting divorced. She had two daughters with her first husband and two sons with her second,” he said.

He told her he wanted to move back to Washington and take her on a date, and he did.

“I was instantly in love.”

rene devantier
Family photo of Devantier with his wife Jennifer and son, Ryan. / Contributed

Devantier became the pastor of Ocean Park United Methodist Church, and he and Jennifer were married there.

“The boys have Fragile X Syndrome and autism,” he said. “Her oldest lived with his dad, but her younger son, Ryan, moved in with us.”

While leading the church in Ocean Park, Devantier performed the first same-sex marriage in Pacific County.

Jennifer’s oldest daughter lives in Spokane, and when she had a baby, the new grandma wanted to be close to her grandchild. Devantier didn’t have a job when they arrived, so he decided to take a year off to care for Ryan full-time.

It’s a ‘New Day’ at Fowler UMC

In July 2019, he was told Fowler United Methodist was looking for a pastor.

“It’s one of the oldest, most conservative Methodist churches in Spokane,” he said. “I’m very liberal and have tattoos. I was shocked when they hired me!”

Six months after settling into his new position, COVID hit.

The Methodist church was one of the last denominations to allow in-person services to resume. Because of that, Devantier said he lost about a third of his congregation.

Just when the doors re-opened and the church began to gain momentum, the congregation suffered another blow.

“The United Methodist Church split because of same-sex marriage,” he said.

The battle over LGBTQ+ rights had devastating consequences for Fowler UMC.

“All my leadership was very conservative,” said Devantier. “They left. These were the people who were doing the work of the church. It was really painful — especially for the people left behind. They felt abandoned.”

The loss of members translated to the loss of dollars, and the church struggled to stay afloat.

Salvation came from an unlikely source.

The Devantiers receive respite care for Ryan from C.R.E.W. Behavioral Services. When they learned the business had lost their office space, Devantier had an idea.

“We have space, and we need money,” he said.

Now, the church leases space to several nonprofits, focusing on those who provide services for the disabled. Even more, the congregation is a disability-welcoming church. They recently remodeled the sanctuary and adjoining Fireside Room to be more inclusive for those with disabilities and modified their name to Fowler/New Day.

Not turning anyone away

In his office filled with soccer memorabilia and a whimsical Smurf collection, Devantier reflected on his faith journey.

“I was 35 when God became real to me,” he said. “I went to a lot of churches and couldn’t find God in any of them. I swore if I ever had my own church and we turned anyone away, I would leave. As broken as the Church is, this is still the best way for us to find God. We are supposed to do this in a community of believers.”

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Cindy Hval
Cindy Hvalhttp://cindyhval.com
Cindy Hval is the author of "War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation," and has been a  columnist and correspondent for The Spokesman-Review newspaper since 2006. In addition, her stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies including 12 volumes of the "Chicken Soup For the Soul" series. Cindy is the mother of four sons, Nana of twin grandsons and is owned by two cats, also boys. She and her husband, Derek, recently celebrated their 37th anniversary. Her idea of heaven is a room full of books and all the time in the world to read them.

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