Clean and sober for 10 years, clergy couple at Matthew 25 church helps people escape poverty and addiction
by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service
CONCRETE, Washington — Before Kevin Riley got clean and sober, he found himself at the former site of Trinity Presbyterian Church, which is now home to a nondenominational church in Sedro Wooley, Washington, a town about an hour north of Seattle.
“The deacons cared for me in ways no church had before,” he said.
Church leaders put a cot underneath the windows where he slept at night — and even ran power outside those windows so he could have heat to his heating pad.
But according to Danielle Riley, their life together was coming apart.
“It really was a hopeless feeling,” she said. “I don’t think we ever got suicidal, but I wouldn’t have minded if my life ended.”
One day Kevin told Danielle he’d said a prayer asking God to somehow remove her from their situation. That day she got arrested and spent three months in jail, pregnant with their first child.
Danielle said that’s where her transformation began.
“I was praying to God to change everything because I didn’t know how to do it,” she said.
It took Kevin a good month after Danielle was incarcerated to decide that he needed to get clean. During this time, he found himself behind a little church in Burlington, a short drive from Sedro Wooley. On the hill was a cross known as the Burlington Hill cross. For Kevin, that cross symbolized refuge. Growing up he got that message from his grandmother, who was a devout Catholic.
Being there at night, as he tried to sleep, a train would come by.
“The way my drug addicted brain worked, that was the sound of God’s trumpet coming to scare away all the evil I had done,” he said.
While in jail Danielle went to a Bible study for women and led by pastors from a 1001 new worshiping community, Tierra Nueva, which is a ministry of the Northwest Coast Presbytery. When Danielle got out of jail, she and Kevin made Tierra Nueva their home church community.
At the time, Mount Baker Presbyterian Church in Concrete, about a half-hour east of Burlington, was without a pastor. Knowing that Kevin was interested in receiving training as a pastor, Tierra Nueva founder Bob Ekblad asked the congregation, which was down to less than a dozen people, if Kevin could preach one Sunday.
“Danielle and I did a sermon together that was about five minutes long,” Kevin said. “It was one of the most mortifying experiences I’ve ever experienced.”
But for Anne Bussiere, who helped Mount Baker become a Matthew 25 church, Kevin’s heart and the message he brought in left the congregation feeling that he was “really moving with the Spirit.” So, leaders at the church kept inviting him back to preach.
“Having pastors that have been out of seminary, they’ve never experienced homelessness and drug addiction,” she said. “So, a lot of the scriptures we’ve heard over and over all of a sudden had a new light to them, because they were told from a different viewpoint.”
Once Kevin received commissioned lay pastor training, he was ordained and installed to serve the church.
“I asked them all what is the plan for your church,” Kevin said. “One of the ladies looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s why we hired you.’”
That’s when Kevin cast a vision for the congregation, to clean the church from the inside out and then increase its footprint in the community.
Once their church home looked like it had life again, the congregation was approached before the pandemic by Skagit County to do a four-week cold weather shelter for homeless individuals in the area. At a public information meeting the church sanctuary was packed.
Despite some opposition, the church decided to host the four-week homeless shelter. Some 70 individuals inquired about a place to sleep during one of the coldest months of the year. Because there were no major incidents, Skagit County Public Health asked Kevin if the church would join public health officials to bring a medically assisted drug treatment program to Concrete. After meeting potential partners involved in applying for a federal grant to bring this kind of drug treatment to rural areas, the session unanimously approved the plan.
“it’s not one little church that’s going rogue — it’s a whole group of partners that are trying to do something different than just trying to arrest our way out of something,” Kevin said. “It’s like we’re actively out here treating it like a public health crisis because that’s what it is.”
Before Mount Baker Presbyterian Church became a Matthew 25 church, Kevin admits they were not a vital congregation. But as they cleaned up their church, more people started to come.
“As we started engaging in the community, our vitality spread into the streets of this town,” he said.
For Kevin, in Matthew 25, Jesus is very deliberate about the community of people he wants the church to engage with. He wants the church to care for the sick and broken — and to visit those who are in prison.
“He wants us to see them,” he said.
The addiction and poverty that he encounters now as a pastor in Concrete is a lot like what he experienced, both living in addiction and how he grew up. He says it’s strange to be stepping back into something he escaped, now trying to help others escape as well.
“Every one of us is broken and we all need Jesus. Some of us just manifest our brokenness in different ways. Just because somebody’s homeless and addicted doesn’t mean they’re more broken than you are,” he said. “Their brokenness just shows differently.”
Danielle Riley, who is a part-time pastor for children and family ministries at Mount Baker Presbyterian Church, says they believe that addiction is a disease of loneliness, and that people really just need community to heal from what is a symptom of trauma.
“Nobody is beyond resurrection,” she said. “It can happen to us. It can be anybody.”
In part two of our series from Concrete, Washington, Presbyterian News Service will bring you the story of how Kevin and Danielle Riley came to baptize a former police officer who used to arrest them.
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.
Categories: Matthew 25
Tags: Anne Bussiere, bob ekblad, building congregational vitality, burlington hill cross, danielle riley, eradicating systemic poverty, kevin riley, matthew 25 invitation, matthew 25:31-46, mount baker presbyterian church concrete washington, northwest coast presbytery, skagit county public health, tierra nueva
Ministries: Matthew 25 in the PC(USA): Join the Movement