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Pastor's sabbatical takes her on a global trek

Gen Heywood is photographed near a glacier in Iceland.       Photo courtesy of Gen Heywood


For her sabbatical after more than eight years as pastor at Veradale United Church of Christ (UCC) in Spokane Valley, Gen Heywood's travels to Iceland, Germany and New Zealand include 11 days intersecting with people from around the world at the World Council of Churches (WCC) 11th Assembly from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8.

She is there as accredited press reporting for both The Fig Tree and Spokane FaVs.

Gen left July 31 with questions about how she and her congregation can be more faithful servants in these times. She also seeks to recharge her photographic skills.

She intends to bring back ideas for worship, creation care and creative ways to explore history and heal from the region's Christian dominionism and white supremacy.

For example, in Goslar, Germany, she hoped to learn how they have kept their water from being poisoned by 1,000 years of mining silver, copper and lead, to compare their legacy with that of Bunker Hill Mines in Idaho.

"They didn't recognize the problem for many years," Gen said she learned at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mining Museum. "They used the polluted water to generate power and created wooden pipes to bring good water out of the hills. The water there is still polluted. They use plants to identify heavy metals and then to help pull them out of the water."

She is curious to learn what those plants are.

Gen's sabbatical is an extension of her community involvement and her congregation's ministry that include online worship, Bible study, prayer meditations and meetings, plus weekly interviews with people of faith, vigils for grieving losses and work for social justice.

After she returns to the church on Nov. 14, she will give presentations and share photographs of her experiences to help 110-year-old, 73-member Veradale UCC, strengthen its stands for social justice and relationships in the community.

Gen's daughter, Hana, joined her in Iceland from Aug. 1 to 9, traveling by car so they could photograph Iceland's night skies, wildlife and landscapes.

"Today, Iceland is a good place for women and has women leaders providing a different type of leadership, but that was not always the case," Gen said, based on having read a book that presents the good and the bad of the nation's history of hurting and stealing from people, yet now being a place with a good economy that cares for the land.

To Germany, Gen brings questions about how the country has been taking responsibility for its past. She knows German from spending 1978-79 as a high school exchange student in Elze.

Gen takes her questions to people in churches and museums in Berlin, Goslar, Leipzig, Würzburg and Munich before attending the WCC Assembly.

In Berlin, her hope was to learn about resistance and how art helps people take responsibility for the crimes of the past and create systemic change. She sought to learn about the hard work Germans are doing to confront their past and the present rise of extremism in order to gain tools to address extremism in the Inland Northwest.

Her visits in Leipzig, Würzburg, Nuremberg and Munich included connections with church history, learning about bigotry, art and culture, past and current Jewish communities and the rebuilding of the Dachau concentration camp.

On  August 29 and 30, Gen joined a pre-WCC Assembly workshop on indigenous cultures in Karlsruhe, and Aug. 31 to Sept. 7 she is participating in the assembly as a photojournalist.

"Just as German churches told stories of faith through pictures and art, I will convey stories of my observations through photographs," Gen said.

On Sept. 3, she will join a group from the assembly to visit the Hunsrück area for a program led by Renate Fuchs, who is active in the peace movement there and visited Spokane as part of a 1986 exchange of the national UCC global partnership with the Evangelical Church of Germany. In 1988, Renate also hosted a group of youth from the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.

After the assembly, Gen will continue to travel in Germany and will fly from Frankfurt to New Zealand Sept. 13 to join a group of professional photographers for a photography tour Sept 17 to national parks and other sites to improve her skills in landscape photography.

After she returns in October, Gen will compile information from her observations to prepare presentations in December at the Veradale United Church of Christ and in the community.

Gen received a Lilly grant for this sabbatical and is applying for other grants to help her take her presentation on the road and explore in more depth issues that emerge from her initial brief encounters. She also hopes to travel to meet with theologian Susan Neiman in Germany.

Meanwhile, the congregation is reflecting prayerfully on how to improve their ministry to each other and the wider community, and to "discern where Jesus is calling us next," wrote members in the application for the Lilly grant.

They are being served by a sabbatical interim pastor, Roger Lynn.

The moderator, Wayne Shull, expects "to build stronger and lasting relationships inside and outside the church. Our small congregation does mighty things, taking a visible stand, and collaborating with other organizations that work for social justice. The congregation supports this renewal time for our pastor. We believe by building more relationships beyond our doors, our membership and resources will increase, enabling us to do even greater things."

Veradale UCC's community involvements have included N-Sid-Sen, Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience (FLLC), Spokane Interfaith Council, Hope House Women's Shelter, Spokane Valley Partners, Poor People's Campaign, its Community Garden, the Pride Festival, Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, Rosa Parks Birthday Party for the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, social justice marches, a photography workshop and serving as a community meeting location.

Upon returning, Gen expects to "receive a congregation that has discerned their gifts for ministry, and the congregation will receive a refreshed pastor who gained new skills and learned valuable lessons, deepened by her own spiritual journey."

Gen, who earned a master of divinity at Andover Newton Theological School in 1989, and bachelor's degrees in German and music therapy in 1983 at Emmanuel College in Boston, was ordained in 1989 in Maine and served churches there and in Sunnyvale, Calif, before starting at Veradale UCC in 2014. 

In January 2018, she gathered people of faith and non-faith in the community in support of the Washington State Poor People's Campaign to overcome racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation. From those gatherings, the FLLC was born as a ministry of the church. She will bring sabbatical insights back to FLLC, too.

For information, email or follow her journey in pictures on the VeradaleUCC website  and follow the church's journey at or

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September, 2022