Community Outreach Sparks New Life at Tacoma Church
September 9, 2017
In the mid-1980s, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington, was on life support, and Olympia Presbytery had begun nudging the session to consider pulling the plug.
Drugs, crime and gangs had infested the church’s neighborhood. A handful of loyal members attended worship and struggled to maintain the church building.
“But something surprising happened,” said the church’s current pastor, Matt Robbins-Ghormley. “Resurrection happened.” As he describes it, the congregation went from being “on the brink of extinction” to becoming energized through mission in the community.
Last year, Trinity reported 375 “total adherents” (including active members, baptized members and other regular attendees) and a gain of 19 members. The number of children in the congregation has grown over the past decade from 30 to 130, and 70 adults are involved in Trinity’s ministries with children and youth.
“The people who have been here a while just shake their heads in amazement,” Robbins-Ghormley said.
One of those long-time members is 87-year-old Irene Orando, who joined the church in 1945.
Orando recalled that once in the mid-1980s she was the only person to show up for a Wednesday-night prayer meeting. As she waited, she looked at all of the church’s empty classrooms. Finally, she said, “I just stayed and prayed by myself — that we would have people here, that others would come.”
And gradually, people began to come. Youth With a Mission began using Trinity as a base for outreach to the community. The energy for mission demonstrated by these teens inspired the congregation.
“It was encouraging to us to have them here,” Orando said. “After they left, we thought, ‘What are we going to do now?’ So we got together a task force to see what we could do for the community.”
They came up with two ministries: a tutoring program, in partnership with nearby Bryant Elementary, and a weekly “soup and conversation” gathering to build relationships in the neighborhood.
Lynn Longfield became pastor of Trinity just as the congregation was beginning to rebound. “When I first came, there was a core of about 30 people,” she recalled. “The thing that struck me was how courageous they were. It took a lot of courage to stay in this neighborhood.
“God had given us everything we needed to thrive,” she continued. “We had folks with a huge heart for the struggles of poverty. We had talent, purpose and faith. What we needed was to open our eyes to what God’s Spirit was doing and not get in the way.”
In the late 1980s, Paul McCann, who was executive of Olympia Presbytery, gave the charge to the congregation. Noting the signs of renewed vitality as well as the challenges, he told Trinity members, “The future is going to be a roller coaster. Here’s what you have to do: ‘Buckle up, hold on tight and pray like crazy.’”
“That became our rallying cry,” Longfield said. “We put it on a big banner and hung it in the sanctuary.”
Ministries and partnerships multiplied quickly, once the congregation stepped out in faith and began engaging with the community. “Things happened so fast,” Orando said, using a metaphor similar to McCann’s. “It was like we were on a river with very strong rapids and we were swept along by it.”
A clothes closet was organized. People from other area congregations came as short-term “missionaries” to lend a hand. University Place Presbyterian Church set up a medical clinic in Trinity’s old manse. The congregation received a redevelopment grant from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and support from nonprofits and corporations.
Harlan Shoop became pastor of Trinity in 2000, a few years after Longfield left to become executive of Olympia Presbytery. He recruited a cadre of students from the University of Puget Sound to help with ministries at Trinity.
Welcoming all these new people was a challenge for the small congregation, Longfield said. “It could have been their undoing. But their sense of vision, their trust that this was something God was doing, made all the difference in the world.”
In new-member classes, Robbins-Ghormley asks people what drew them to Trinity. Many say, “This is a congregation that puts faith into action. I want to be part of a church like that.”
Eva Stimson, Office of the General Assembly Communications
Today’s Focus: Community Outreach
Let us join in prayer for:
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, Washington
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Holy God, your gifts are overwhelming, and the power of your Spirit is great. We pray for small-membership churches. Jesus began the church with just 12 people, and in the power of the Spirit they changed the world. Moving forward, and empowered by that same Spirit, may we do likewise. Amen.
(Korean Translation with link)