Originally I entered a seminary on the way towards a doctorate in church history, and I'd hoped, a vibrant teaching career. But, during a much-needed personal retreat to contemplate my future, God seems to have intervened. Standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean I heard a small voice whisper, "Reconsider vocational ministry." I've only had nudges or whispers like these a few times in my life, so it caught my attention. Wanting some further affirmation for this pastoring gig, after seminary I spent a year at First Baptist here in Bellingham. They said "yes, this is good work for you" and thus ordained me and sent me out into the world. After a year of challenging hospital chaplaincy training helped me to overcome fear in the face of another person's suffering, I headed up to Vancouver, B.C., to a job as associate pastor at a suburban church.
It was a great experience and I fell in love with the congregation. When my skills and passions leaned toward becoming a lead pastor, though, I came up against a common wall in many churches. It went something like this, "It's OK for you to be an associate, but lead pastor? Well, we're not so sure the Bible is OK with that seeing as how you're a woman."
So I left church for a good while. Hurt. Displaced. Frustrated. Something that I couldn't control about myself, my gender, was seen as a prohibitive to do work that it seemed God was calling me to do; work that I was good at. The passion for the Church (big "C", meaning the overall Church in the world), though, didn't go away. Through this experience I began to empathize with the scores of people who had either left or been rejected by church (little "c", meaning specific, local congregations), and I began to see that something different is needed. Any tangible change that I could offer, though, was put on hold in order for me to experience some healing and expand my theology.
Not long after I moved back to Bellingham, in 2012 my ordination was recognized by a Lutheran denomination that embraces mystery, welcomes all into the church, purposefully invests in social justice, champions grace and focuses on the person and work of Jesus. I had found my "tribe."
With enormous hope I began to work on creating a new church here in Bellingham. During my four-year hiatus from pastoring a vision had begun to grow, one that had at its center a church that makes the larger community in which it exists a better place to live. A church that doesn't see its greatest success in the number of butts in the pews, but in the work that it does and the larger community that it builds. A church that isn't only inclusive of all persons, but includes care for animals, forests, landscapes. A church that doesn't make a belief system the primary determinant of who's in or who's out, but instead supports the good work that is already being done by others, offering blessing and help. A church that champions honest dialogue, values the arts, and takes poverty issues seriously.
Echoes is the name of this new church. I don't know if it will live up to my vision, but I have hope. We're a small group, and we do cool things like dinner and discussions where we eat and dialogue about TED talks, like Theology Pub where we gather at a local pub to talk about deep mysteries and scripture, like officially blessing animals and bicycles, having a monthly worship service (the first one is Jan. 27 in the upstairs meeting space of the RE-Store), and engaging at least monthly in good hands-on work (directed by local non-profits) for the greater good of Bellingham and Whatcom County.
I don't know the future of Echoes, but I'm sure grateful to be here, in this amazing town, doing this work. The world has only seen a small slice of how a church can be and do its work, and I hope that Echoes' experiments with being and doing church in new ways can make at least a wee bit of difference in Bellingham.
ABOUT WINDOW ON MY WORLD
Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charis Weathers leads Echoes, an experiment in alternative church in Bellingham. She says she likes adventures, good conversation, outside-the-box thinking, and Cap'n Crunch. For more information online, go to echoesbellingham.org.