More than a Building — East Valley Presbyterian Seeks to Live on after Closing
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News Story by John McCallum
Scientists theorize the first stars in the universe burned hot and bright. But, not long enough to generate conditions for life, ending their million-years existences in violent explosions that scattered elements they created throughout the cosmos.
Those elements in turn seeded the next generation of stars with materials to last longer and develop planets that, in at least one case, brought forth sentient, conscious life.
It’s an analogy members of East Valley Presbyterian Church might hope applies to them.
Chartered in spring 1986, East Valley started with a lot of energy, creating bonds of friendship and community that resonated locally. However, over time they couldn’t sustain it, falling victim to finances, the changing demographics of its members, the nature of mainstream religion and in the end, time itself.
The church on North Harvard Road in Otis Orchards officially closed its doors with two services and — true to the nature of Presbyterianism — a potluck on Sunday, May 21.
“This church has really had a powerful and vital mission,” East Valley Pastor Rev. Marcia Taylor said in a May 18 interview.
Fulfilling an Expanding Need
A growing population in the eastern part of Spokane County in the early 1980s led the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest (PIN) to discussions about planting a new church in the area. Taylor said studies indicated East Valley was “ripe” for a new church, so a relationship was entered into with Peace Lutheran Church on North Harvard Road in Otis Orchards to help get that off the ground.
A pastor was hired for new church development, and in October 1985, the first official service of what would become East Valley Presbyterian Church was held at Peace Lutheran Church. Rev. Raymond Kay Brown presided. A building search got underway, and in 1986 a former strip mall on six acres of land on North Harvard Road was purchased out of foreclosure for around $150,000.
With the building, a pastor and members, East Valley Presbyterian was officially chartered on May 18, 1986. There were 65 members at the time of the charter, with several more joining over the next few months.
Two of those charter members are Delos, “Jan,” and Anne Mettler. Jan Mettler said at the time, they were attending Opportunity Presbyterian Church on North Pines.
While enjoying that church, they felt it was too big for them, and subsequently didn’t feel they knew people well enough or had a sense of what was going on in the church. Two men at Opportunity, Frank Knox and Vern Proff, told the Mettlers of the new church springing up in East Valley, saying they planned to leave Opportunity and join the church on North Harvard Road.
“We followed them out there,” Jan Mettler said. “We wanted something smaller. We just liked the quiet, friendly atmosphere, the welcoming nature.”
An electrical engineer, Mettler soon began working with Knox, Proff and others on transforming the former strip mall into a functional church building.
The mall housed a small bakery on the eastern third, a video arcade in the center third and an unfinished space in the western third. The first project was moving the wall between the arcade and unfinished space further to the east in order to create a larger sanctuary — which when completed easily sat 100 people with room for more.
A main entry and office spaces were erected in the rest of the arcade area, with storage and additional spaces in the bakery. Mettler said the building needed to be rewired, which had to be done twice due to it failing inspection the first go round.
Taylor said all of engineering and labor was done in house, with materials the only purchases.
“We had a lot of young families in the church at the time with different construction skill sets,” she said. “It served the church well for years.”
“It (remodeling) attracted a lot of people who wanted to get in and help,” Mettler added. “It helped turn it into a family.”
Growing Toward a Turning Point
The first years of East Valley Presbyterian were a “rollercoaster,” Taylor said. The church was growing in membership, but had difficulty keeping pastors for extended periods of time.
In its 37 years of existence, East Valley had eight pastors — seven in the first 14 years and four or five within the space of two years.
“It really sent the congregation reeling,” Taylor said.
Taylor came to East Valley in 2000 as an interim pastor. The church leaders asked PIN to look at why they were unable to keep full-time pastors. A team was formed to look into the issue, holding a number of discussions and studies.
The team concluded the best path for East Valley Presbyterian was to close, sell the building and split the proceeds with Opportunity and Millwood Presbyterian churches. The congregation refused to accept this proposal and voted it down.
PIN and East Valley leaders went back to the drawing board and turned the discussion toward hiring a full-time, ordained pastor as several of the previous pastors had been interims. Taylor was hired as stated supply pastor for a year.
“That year turned into 23,” she said with a laugh.
Taylor said she did “a lot of healing work” early on at East Valley. The proposal to close had really hurt the members, and there was a need to get back on track.
There was also a need to establish their identity with the rest of the Otis Orchards community. One of these needs was letting people know they were a church — and Taylor said Elder Jay Powers had an idea.
Powers, who she described as a “short, kind of curmudgeon type of guy” would bring a large, three-ring binder to Session meetings, loudly smack it down on the table and tell the group he had a vision of putting the name of the church on the outside of the building.
For three months he did this until, finally, Session agreed, and three months later, “East Valley Presbyterian Church” and the logo of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) were up on the building’s south side.
“It was the first major turning point for me that there was a future in store for East Valley Presbyterian Church,” Taylor said.
Building a Place of Belonging
The next idea floated was getting a steeple for the church. Taylor said most people laughed at the idea, noting the roof wouldn’t support the structure’s weight.
The morning after she mentioned the idea, she got a call from the church’s stated clerk: “Have you seen the paper?! There’s a steeple for sale!”
Valley Nazarene Church in Spokane Valley was upgrading their facility, getting rid of their steeple as part of that process. Asking price: $1,200.
A letter was sent the following Sunday to East Valley members asking for pledges to purchase the steeple, and by Tuesday the entire amount had been provided, with the plan being mounting the steeple on a concrete pad along North Harvard Road. A former member who owned a construction company called and donated use of a crane to load and offload the structure.
Soon, as with earlier projects, people were volunteering everything from labor to engineering to help handling the permitting process. In the end, the only thing the church paid for was the steeple and the concrete.
“It was a tremendous moment in the church,” Taylor said. “It just showed to us that, if we need to do God’s will, all we need to do is get out of the way.”
Other projects followed over the next two to three years. New carpeting was installed, the church painted inside and out, a raised chancel constructed at the front of the sanctuary, a new PA installed and storage space built.
A large storage space where the former bakery had been was cleaned out, outfitted with windows and turned into a fellowship hall. Eventually the old bakery linoleum floor was removed, more windows put in and the fellowship hall expanded.
The church also began to expand its membership. Taylor said three families came to help with the interior painting, and remained as members.
Over the next three to five years, East Valley almost doubled the size of its congregation. The church restarted its kids program, an adult Bible study group, a women’s midweek Bible study group, a monthly men’s breakfast that eventually expanded to include women.
The church also organized fellowship activities such as campouts, snow retreats, cycling the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho, vacation Bible school and annual Easter egg hunts.
Reaching Out to Neighbors
One of those joining in 2003 was Marnalynn Schuller. As is the case in smaller churches, Schuller was quickly recruited by church leaders to get involved with activities, serving first as head of Christian education, then head of worship and finally as deacons moderator for six years prior to closing.
Deacons play a critical role in most churches as the outreach organization to congregation members and even the outside community itself. Schuller said East Valley had a good, dedicated group of deacons that over the years ministered to many people both in and outside the church membership.
“Even in just 37 years, it (East Valley) touched a lot of hearts,” she said. “A lot of friendships were made.”
Schuller said the deacons kept in touch with shut-in members through frequent phone calls, sending cards for all occasions and visits for things such as transportation to medical appointments, picking up prescriptions and shopping trips.
“Sometimes we would just take them a plant,” Schuller said. “Or just go and sit and have coffee or tea.”
The deacons also organized many church events at church such as potlucks, often on a weekly basis. The church itself joined in the outreach when opportunity presented itself.
Taylor said one year a storm knocked out power to the area — except for the church. Quickly, members organized and held a spaghetti feed for area residents, providing a place to eat, get warm and experience companionship.
Several years ago, church members learned of a couple who had moved to the Spokane area from Florida. They had no possessions and no place to stay, but East Valley members got together and provided a fully-furnished apartment for them.
“There’s lots of love, lot of love for people here,” Taylor said.
But despite the outreach and positive momentum internally, the church had difficulty attracting more members of the Otis Orchards community to join the congregation. Mettler said some people contacted didn’t want to be bothered by a religious organization while some were attending other churches.
“Eventually, we ended up ministering to those who wanted to come (to East Valley),” he added.
Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts
The beginning of East Valley’s demise began when the economy crashed in 2008. Two families who were major church financial supporters lost their businesses and left the area.
Taylor said during the first couple years of the recession, several families tried to get the church involved in outside functions that proved to be beyond its financial and physical capabilities. Discouraged, these families also left.
Issues within PC (U.S.A.) also contributed to the decline. In 2010, the 219th General Assembly voted to approve Measure 10-A that relaxed fidelity and chastity requirements for pastors and church leaders and cleared the way for eventual ordination of “practicing homosexuals” as deacons, elders or ministers.
In 2012, the 220th General Assembly rejected language reinstituting these requirements of fidelity and chastity, and instead issued a statement that PC (U.S.A.) “does not have one interpretation of Scripture on this matter.” The New Form of Government (NFOG) created by this gave sessions more autonomy, and Taylor said the East Valley Session wanted to be “welcoming and affirming” of everyone.
“We’re all sinners and all subject to judgement (by God),” she said, adding the church had gay and lesbian members “and nobody said boo about it.”
But the move resulted in more leaving the church. With that exodus, time began to take over as those remaining were mostly members who had been coming to East Valley since the 1990s.
“We were running out of money, and the people left couldn’t support the church financially,” Mettler said.
Still, efforts were made to keep going. Exploratory measures took place on using part of the church for things like affordable housing, making some of the six acres of land usable by the Otis Orchards community and even vacating the building and combining with other churches experiencing similar circumstances.
None of these proved viable, and after a couple emotional blows to the church — including the death of a younger member from alcoholism — the end seemed near.
“Each of those things took a little bit more out of our sails, a little bit more energy out of the people,” Taylor said.
At a congregational meeting this past April, the members voted to close the church.
In Death, Life
East Valley isn’t the first local church to close and likely won’t be the last. Presbyterian churches at Latah Valley, Town of Marcus and Mission Avenue in Spokane have all shut their doors in the last 10 – 15 years.
More recently, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Cheney closed this past January.
PIN Executive Director Sheryl Kinder-Pyle sees this as the result of many things, not least of which is a national trend away from religious involvement. According to a Gallup Poll survey in 2021, Americans’ membership in houses of worship has been steadily declining from a high of 76% in the 1940s to 47% in 2020.
This has proven true in the Spokane area, where trends also indicate a shift away from mainline churches in favor of larger, nondenominational churches.
“Closing a church doesn’t seem right,” Kinder-Pyle told the nearly 100 people who gathered for the final service at East Valley on May 21. “It doesn’t sit right. It should go on, and it doesn’t.”
But East Valley will go on — just in another role. In a May 31 interview, Kinder-Pyle said the building and land reverts to PIN, who will work with a commercial realtor to have it appraised and sold.
Sale proceeds will go to the Presbytery’s Ministry Resources Fund. The fund assists churches in a number of ways, providing money to help churches engage in neighborhood outreach, best ways to retrofit existing buildings to benefit their communities and ministries engaged in what Kinder-Pyle referred to as “new expressions of church.”
Several of the latter include Feast World Kitchen, Side By Side Ministries, who partner people with intellectual disabilities and without in friendships, and Growing Neighbors, an outreach providing people in need with locally-grown food.
“We’re going to go in a new direction of church,” Kinder-Pyle said. “We’re seeing these new expressions of church rising out of the ashes of church like Bethany (whose building was destroyed in a fire Jan. 3, 2022) and the closing of East Valley.”
As for the members of East Valley, they are using their resources in new ways. Taylor said a group of members is spending the next 10 weeks going to different churches and will report what they have discovered to other members who are seeking new places to worship.
The outreach work of the church resulted in members volunteering time and talents with organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Spokane Valley Partners food bank and New Beginnings veterans thrift shop in Post Falls. Schuller said many of the East Valley deacons have formed lasting friendships with people they have served, and that companionship will continue as well.
“They just do it on their own now,” she said, adding, “Good for them!”
Taylor, who is retiring, said she began an online morning prayer and study group during COVID and plans to continue as long as there is interest. Other members are planning to continue periodic larger fellowships such as picnics, the men’s and women’s Bible study groups and monthly get-togethers for coffee.
“I think we will keep those connections,” Schuller said. She added that what is really important about church is not necessarily structures, but what’s created inside, pointing to a passage in Matthew that says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.”
“The church building is the building, but we are actually the church,” Schuller said. “We are saying goodbye to the building. The people are really the church.”