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Tri-Parish celebrates its 40th year of covenant

Tri-Parish churches celebrate common beliefs, pray for each other, promote cooperation among church groups on area social, education and spiritual concerns, welcome each other’s members to services and programs, and continue to work and pray for unity in the whole Body of Christ.

By Mary Stamp

Tri-Parish convenant signers
Tri-Parish Committee watches as Episcopal Bishop James Waggoner, Jr., the Rev. Linda Bartholomew, Lutheran Bishop Martin Wells sign covenant. 

As laity and clergy in St. Mary’s Catholic, Advent Lutheran and Resurrection Episcopal churches in Spokane Valley celebrated 40 years of informal and covenantal relationship, they reflected on the impact of these ties on their lives, the community and the world.

They gathered Sunday, Nov. 23, at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, 15319 E. 8th Ave., for their annual Thanksgiving Service, and to have their bishops, pastors and lay members sign and renew the Tri-Parish Covenant.

The relationship began when the late Fr. Walt Abel called the Rev. Neal Buckaloo at Good Shepherd and the late Rev. Morgan Sheldon of Holy Spirit Episcopal. They met for coffee and talked about practical ways to come together. 

Morgan and Neal spoke at the St. Mary’s men’s breakfast, which soon invited men from the other churches, said Neal after the recent service.

In the early 1970s, Fr. Abel invited Neal to participate in a wedding between a young woman in the Lutheran church and a Catholic man.

The first Thanksgiving Vigil was in 1976.  In 1977, there was a pulpit exchange during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January.  They began doing a cooperative vacation Bible school in 1978.

Neal, who served Good Shepherd from 1970 until just before the first covenant was signed in 1984, and again from 2003 to 2006, said the vacation Bible school was the impetus that brought lay members together from different churches. 

“Each church hosted a different age group, and the staff at each church was mixed,” he said.  “It was part of the ecumenical spirit of the times. 

lay women
Tri-parish lay women: Diana Sanderson, Amaryllis Otteman and Nola Combs

Lay people told each new priest and pastor the Tri-Parish was important. The commitment of lay people is what has sustained it, Neal said.

The churches held open houses and did combined youth retreats, said Diana Sanderson, chair of the Tri-Parish Covenant Committee.  She was youth minister and then adult education minister at St. Mary’s for 30 years, retiring six years ago. 

In 1980, they held the first Shrove Tuesday Pancake Night at the Episcopal Church, and the St. Mary’s school children acted out Good Friday Stations of the Cross, followed by soup and bread.

Sometimes the churches challenged each other to see who would bring more turkeys or food for the Valley Center.

“I keep involved because we have so much in common.  We use the same prayers and readings in our worship,” she said.  “For some who are married to people in the other churches, it’s an opportunity for the family to come to church together.

“We painfully await the day when intercommunion will be possible, and we continue to work and pray for unity in the Body of Christ,” Diana said.

Amaryllis Otteman of Advent Lutheran has been on the committee for more than 25 years because “Christ called us to be one.  With our differences, we can’t be completely one, but we can celebrate our similarities.”

She said the 30-voice combined choir’s anthem this year, “A Family of Faith,” expresses what the covenant is about.

Having lived in the area and being Lutheran all her life, she believes the covenant relationship creates a positive feeling about religion, as people see Christians associating and cooperating with each other.

“It makes Christ’s name spread,” said Amaryllis, who taught second and third grades in the Central Valley School district until she retired in 1994. 

She also liked the progressive dinner the churches did for a while, going from church to church for different courses.

She said Thanksgiving services and dinners have drawn 150 to 270 people.

Nola Combs has represented Resurrection Episcopal since 1999. For her, the value is in coming to know people in the other churches from working on the committee and attending events.

“Our common goal is the unity of the community.  It is a gift for me to know the people and learn about their walk in faith. It has been part of my growing walk with God,” said Nola, who has lived in the area and joined Holy Spirit Episcopal when her son was a year old.  “The Tri-Parish is my extended family.”

In 1994, Good Shepherd Lutheran, Holy Spirit Episcopal and St. Mary’s Catholic churches signed a renewal of the covenant.  It was signed again in 2004, and this year.

In 1996, Holy Spirit merged with All Saints Episcopal and formed the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.  After several years, they sold All Saints’ building and built an addition in 2002.

In 2008, Good Shepherd Lutheran at 810 S. Sullivan merged with Christ Lutheran to form Advent Lutheran, using Christ Lutheran’s building at 13009 E. Broadway, and renting out the former Good Shepherd building.

Tri-Parish Clergy
Fr. Pat Kerst of St. Mary’s Catholic, the Rev. Matthew Larson of Advent Lutheran and the Rev. Linda Bartholomew of Resurrection Episcopal found some old posters promoting the Thanksgiving service and the vacation Bible school.

When he was 11 years old, Fr. Pat Kerst, who is now the priest at his home parish, remembers that St. Mary’s entered into relationship with two neighboring churches.

“The committee and pastors are on board, so the congregations feel good about associating with each other,” said Fr. Pat, who attended St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, was ordained in 1990, and served parishes in Walla Walla, Pasco, Brewster, Twisp and Bridgeport before coming back to St. Mary’s two years ago.

St. Mary’s parish, which is at 304 S. Adams, is committed to the Tri-Parish relationship, he said, especially for old timers, the Tri-Parish Covenant is now like old shoes:  It’s comfortable.

“Since Vatican II, there has been openness to ecumenism, and the Roman Catholic Church has ongoing dialogues with many Christian churches and other world religions,” Fr. Pat said.

The Rev. Matt Larson has served eight years in Spokane Valley, first as pastor of Good Shepherd and then Advent.  He also attributes the success to lay leaders’ desire to continue the relationship.  Advent’s vote to continue in the Tri-Parish was unanimous, he said.

Since participating in the 1999 celebration the Lutheran-Episcopal full communion agreement, Called to Common Mission, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Matt has followed the ecumenical movement that began with the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, and continues through the World Council of Churches, including the document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in 1982.

After graduating 15 years ago from Pacific Lutheran Theological School in the San Francisco area, he served the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Potlatch.  For three years, he was the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod representative to the Lutheran Ecumenical Resource Network.

The Rev. Linda Bartholomew, priest for two years at Resurrection Episcopal, rejoices that Pope Francis’ spirituality undergirds what the churches are doing.

“Few Christian communions covenant to think, pray, plan and play together,” she said. “Our congregations’ welcoming and ease of being together took years to cultivate.  Now it’s the norm.

“At this point, we are asking what’s next and how we use the covenant to benefit the wider community,” said Linda, who grew up Catholic and served many years as a parish associate in three parishes in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

While participating in a similar ecumenical cluster, she shared her call to ministry with an Episcopal priest.  He invited her to become Episcopalian.  For 17 years, she has been an Episcopal priest, serving in Cincinnati and New York City before moving to Spokane Valley.

Her master of divinity degree is from St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukie, Wis., and doctor of ministry degree from McCormick Seminary in Chicago.  She learned about Anglican tradition at Seabury-Western Seminary in Chicago.

“When I came to Spokane, I didn’t know about the covenant.  It is a lavish gift,” she said.  “A covenant takes commitment.  It is a sacred word for Christians between God and us.  After we do our best, God steps in.” 

For the pulpit exchange, a Catholic priest has to be at the Mass to celebrate the Eucharist, so one of the parish priests stays at St. Mary’s and the other one preaches at the other churches on two Sundays.

The Lutheran and Episcopal churches have agreements for intercommunion, so the pastors can do the full services at each other’s churches. For four years, their pulpit exchanges have included Eucharist.

“We express and experience the pain and tension that only two churches are in full communion,” said Linda. 

The Christian Church dreams of having a common voice to offer to the world, she said, telling of discussions about having a sister church in Burundi to address hunger there with community gardens.

The three parishes work with other congregations in Spokane Valley Partners and the Valley Food Bank.  Many members connect with different groups to engage in ministries.

Advent Lutheran partners with Food for Thought, helping fill 150 backpacks of food for Spokane Valley children to take home on weekends. 

St. Mary’s also has an emergency food pantry available to anyone and facilitated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Resurrection Episcopal connected Advent Lutheran with Hearth Homes, a transitional center for homeless women and children.  Resurrection members helped furnish a room and helped set up raised beds for a community garden.

Advent worked with Hutton Settlement on raised garden beds. 

Trii-parish choir
Combined choir sings about the “Family of Faith.” 

The churches inspire each other.

The Scripture for the Thanksgiving service was about the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

“We are on a journey together, finding Jesus in the midst of our three denominations’ proclaiming Jesus, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless,” Matt said. 

Speaking at the service, Lutheran Bishop Martin Wells thanked the Tri-Parish for “40 years of a public promise,” a promise that was not required and is “in a day when fewer promises are made in public.”

He referred to a reading in Matthew about good fruit coming from good trees, and thanked the Tri-Parish for “planting good trees,” calling their public covenant promise a good tree that “anchors communities in self-discipline, respect for the threat of self-serving sin and predictability in a day when little else seems predictable.”

Behind their promise is a “Promise-Making God,” Martin said, and the fruit from their covenant is shared prayer, fellowship, education and service, a gift for the Spokane Valley community.

“Why extend God’s promise today when it may seem to fall on deaf ears?” he asked.  “In the promise we have found life and we believe others will be looking for such an ordered, sustaining life when the fruit of a self-serving life proves to be rotten.  We pray for all who are looking for a purpose in life.  In this season of feasting, we pay attention to the hunger of others and, breaking ourselves open in compassion, pass along the promise and the goodwill of Christ.”

Episcopal Bishop James Waggoner, Jr., expressed gratitude for those who “took a step of faith 40 years ago to act in faith and move from coffee to covenant.  A covenant is a serious commitment.  We do not know the future, but we commit to be in it and see where God will lead.”

Jim said the covenant’s purpose is to make a difference by working in unity that respects each tradition.

“In promise and purpose there is power, coming together and knowing that we can do more than any one group.  I am hopeful about what is yet to come,” Jim said.

For information, call 928-3210 for St. Mary’s, 926-6450 Resurrection or 928-7733 Advent.





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