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Church explores ways to do ministry without a building, investing in housing  

By Mary Stamp

One house is moved in West Central Spokane.   Photos courtesy of Deb Conklin

Through efforts of The Grove Community, the Rev. Deb Conklin worked with the neighborhood to move five houses to new locations in West Central Spokane between June and November to provide affordable housing. 

The project began when a developer decided to demolish 11 houses to build a car wash on the block bounded by Ash, Walnut, Gardner and Boone.  Tenants received eviction notices and were to move before Christmas 2015.

The Grove Community learned that five of the houses were historic Craftsman houses that could be moved and renovated for use in a co-housing model, a vision of developer Keith Kelley.

 Ten years ago as a student, Keith, a Whitworth University graduate who was director of its Center for Service Learning from 2011 to 2013, convinced Whitworth to place students in West Central Spokane for fieldwork. 

Eventually, he, his family and others from Whitworth moved there.

Deb Conklin helps to break ground.

Keith formed Kelley Developments, a construction and restoration company, to provide quality affordable housing by buying older, rundown rentals, renovating them and pioneering a co-housing model for rentals.

In co-housing, adult tenants rent bedrooms in five- to six-bedroom houses.  They share bathrooms and use the living room, dining room and kitchen as common space. The owner/manager maintains the shared spaces and controls who lives there. 

It is a model that works for stable adults, not chronically homeless people, Deb said.

Tenants learn conflict resolution skills, because they share common spaces.  To reduce common sources of conflict, The Grove Community, as the owner and manager, will furnish kitchens with dinnerware, pots, pans and utensils. 

Yards will be landscaped with raised-bed gardens and space to socialize. Tenants are encouraged, but not required, to garden and learn cooking skills. Project Hope will garden any beds not tended by tenants.

With Kendall Yards bringing pressure to increase rents, Deb said The Grove Community will keep rents low and will not sell the houses, providing an anchor of affordable rents to put downward pressure on rents.

This project intersects with Deb’s ministry as pastor at Liberty Park and St. Paul’s United Methodist churches, which developed The Oak Tree as a faith-based community, gathering people to discuss and work for social and economic justice. 

After graduating from Vancouver School of Theology in 1997 and serving three years in Rosalia, three years in Ocean Shores and four years in Davenport/Edwall, Deb had a passion to do creative worship and to engage in social justice ministry.

Before she started as pastor at Liberty Park UMC in 2007, she asked her son Chris, then at Evergreen College, if he would go to church again.  He said he would if the church was a weekly gathering for a seminar on a subject meaningful to him and occasionally for liturgy.

His words helped motivate her to connect with South Perry District young people who would not go to a traditional church.

“My call is to prophetic ministry, not hospice care for a dying church,” said Deb.

“We gather weekly in public spaces, like a pub, to discuss timely issues.  For some, it’s easier to come to a public space,” she said, “but some church people do not feel comfortable in a pub. Sometimes we also meet in private homes.”

“Engaging Conversation” now meets in pubs at 7 p.m. Sundays.  Sometimes they join a vigil or lecture, and go to a nearby pub afterwards. Participants find out where to meet on social media, like Facebook.

The Oak Tree also has two seminars a year to study social and economic justice.  Deb started The Oak Tree after she was also appointed to serve as pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in June 2011. 

St. Paul’s rents an office in a house beside Salem Lutheran Church at 1414 W. Broadway, and the fireside room for Sunday worship. 

Between the two churches there are about 20 people attending on Sunday.  Liberty Park and St. Paul’s members worship separately but do many activities together and have one church council.

“The name, The Oak Tree, is from Celtic tradition and means ‘The Doorway’ between the concrete world and the spiritual realm.  It’s a large tree with deep roots, reflecting that we are deeply rooted in tradition,” Deb said.

“The Oak Tree helps people connect concrete events with spiritual values and life,” she said. 

The Pacific Northwest UMC Conference recognizes it as a ministry of St. Paul’s UMC, which sold its building in May 2011.

Its building was more than 100 years old. Because it had not been upgraded to heat portions of the space—for worship or the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant—the whole building was heated for any event.  It couldn’t sustain $5,000 a month for heat in the winter, she said. 

Liberty Park UMC, which houses the Spokane Alliance and a Montessori pre-school in its basement, used endowment funds to set up four heating zones and in 2008 bought an energy-efficient furnace that cut the energy bill in half. 

St. Paul’s sold its building for $700,000.  In the UMC system, funds from selling a capital asset cannot go to an operating budget. They invest the funds until there is a new capital project.  Often a church sells a building, and then builds or buys a new one, but St. Paul’s wanted to explore what its ministry could be without a building, Deb said.

In 2012, The Oak Tree established The Grove Community to put energy into creating a healthy local economy that would support projects such as worker-owned businesses, urban agriculture and affordable housing.

It plans to open a worker-owned cooperative grocery store in West Central Spokane—considered a food desert—to provide jobs.

“We believe in a sharing economy that builds wealth for all, not a few,” she said. 

When the five houses became available, St. Paul’s members decided to invest funds from the sale of the church building locally, in loans to The Grove Community to fund the project at 5 percent interest paid over 15 years, when the principal is due.  The district superintendent and cabinet approved for St. Paul’s investing $600,000 in the affordable housing project.

The Grove acquired the houses at no cost, because the car wash developer would have had to pay to demolish them. 

In April, they arranged for a contractor to move the houses to two lots on Sharp, one on Boone, one on Cannon and one on Maxwell. The church bought four lots, and the city transferred the fifth, which was in foreclosure, for a minimum cost.

Once houses are on their foundations, work parties will be organized to help paint them, tear off and replace interior walls, and do rewiring.  People can also help by donating living room, dining room and kitchen furnishings, she said.

“We are looking forward to community engagement in this project,” Deb said.

Deb’s commitment to social justice and social work began with her Methodist roots growing up in a family on a farm in rural Windsor, N.Y. 

While studying architecture for two years at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, she helped at a Peoples Emergency Center in 1972 in a Methodist church’s social hall.  It had a shelter, clothing bank, food, a social worker and referrals.

She worked two years in drafting, before going to Bozeman, Mont., to continue architecture studies.  She met and married Greg. They went to Seattle for his studies. Deb earned a philosophy degree at the University of Washington in 1977 and a law degree in 1981.

She wanted to work in legal services, but federal funds for that were cut.  With many attorneys competing for few legal services jobs, she worked four years at the Clallam County prosecutor’s office in Port Angeles. 

When Greg graduated, the family moved to Chico, Calif.  Shortly after moving there, they divorced.   Deb, who was pregnant with Patricia, moved to Seattle with their son Chris, then three.

They lived there until 1994, when Deb went to Vancouver School of Theology (VTS) in British Columbia, which had an adult learning model based on projects, competencies and field work.

She spent her first summer of seminary in Guatemala doing a social justice project, learning about the intersection of the Roman Catholic Church and Mayan culture, the impact of the civil war and the indigenous people’s efforts to reclaim traditional farming methods, to restore the soil after years of chemical spraying on large coffee and banana plantations. 

There, Deb said she learned how the U.S. government exploited Central American countries by supporting U.S. corporations as they appropriated the land and work of indigenous people, injuring people and cultures.

Now she sees that multinational corporations have cut ties with the U.S. and operate as independent entities that exploit everyone, including the U.S.—extracting raw materials, undermining manufacturing and shipping jobs overseas.

Those observations are the base for her commitment to helping churches work for economic justice and her call to do prophetic ministry.

Deb now feels she is able to do that ministry through The Oak Tree and The Grove Community, in partnership with Liberty Park and St. Paul’s United Methodist Churches.

For information, call 251-4332 or 327-9539, email or follow The Grove Community in Spokane on Facebook.

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