Religion embodied in county by host of identities

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



For more information on life in Clark County, visit

For more information on life in Clark County, visit

People are always debating whether the swooping roof of Hazel Dell’s hilltop church is an ark or a dove.

Sailing or flying? It’s a puzzle the Rev. Brooks Berndt of the First Congregational United Church of Christ enjoys pondering.

Sometimes the dove, the traditional symbol of God’s love, seems to be descending from above, he noted in a newsletter once; and sometimes the ark gives his parishioners a place to pull together and navigate stormy seas.

Berndt savors the “identity complex,” he wrote, because of its rich possibilities.

“Be not confused by our many identities,” Berndt concluded. “Choose as the moment demands. Fly or sail as your heart desires.”

It’s good advice for churchgoers here in Clark County, where nearly every kind of congregation can be found — the traditional and the modern, the expansive and the introspective, the tiny and the huge.

There’s Living Hope, a megachurch with 5,000 members and a high-profile pastor who’s used a live Bengal tiger on the altar and a marquee sign that says “SEX” to generate publicity and attendance. Last year, the Rev. John Bishop decided to undertake a $5 million capital drive to buy the former site of a Kmart store in central Vancouver; some controversy ensued, but in just nine months the goal was reached, and Living Hope Church moved from suburban Brush Prairie to the central part of city.

There’s New Heights Church, with a 13-acre campus in Hazel Dell and several satellite facilities, including a historic downtown building that’s been Presbyterian and Baptist churches as well as the short-lived Columbia Arts Center. New Heights Church purchased the building for $1.4 million in 2007 and made extensive renovations.

A couple blocks over is the stately St. James Catholic Church, the first masonry cathedral in the state of Washington, which has also seen major renovations. Capping off the million-dollar upgrade of the 1885 structure — which has roots in the earliest white trading post settlers here — was a visit from the archbishop of Seattle, who rededicated the building.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church built its $8.1 million regional headquarters on 30 acres alongside Interstate 5 in Ridgefield in 2006. The hub of the Meadow Glade neighborhood, near Battle Ground, is Columbia Adventist Academy.

Clark County has its share of still-functioning pioneer churches, too — in rural neighborhoods that some city slickers who hang out in Vancouver may never have heard of, such as Fern Prairie, Highland, View and Venersborg. These churches bore witness to the diversity of early Clark County: Immigrants from all over Europe — and elsewhere — brought their own styles of worship to churches they built with their own hands, using timber or stones from their own homesteads.

Modern diversity is present in the Guru Ram Dass Sikh Community of Vancouver and Portland, a growing community that draws adherents to this India-born faith from all over the metro area. The group is planning to move from an old church building in the Rose Village neighborhood to a roomier former athletic club in east Vancouver.

There are two Buddhist monasteries in east Vancouver — a Vietnamese one near Harmony Elementary School and a Chinese one near Burton Elementary School.

Jews in Vancouver can ponder the riddle that Berndt enjoys: The Congregation Kol Ami borrows space in Hazel Dell’s First Congregational church for its services. But this year the congregation bought land and broke ground for a new synagogue, Clark County’s first, in the Glenwood area — right alongside the nondenominational Glenwood Community Church.

Still waiting for the answer? OK: The church was designed to look like a dove. The ark ambiguity appears to be a happy accident.