Religious diversity growing in Clark County

Congregations old, new minister to faithful

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



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 — traditional and modern, homegrown and immigrant, expansive and introspective, tiny and huge.

On the huge side, there’s Living Hope, an evangelical 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 read “SEX” to generate publicity and attendance. The Rev. John Bishop launched 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.

And 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.

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.

On the smaller side, there’s the Community A.M.E. Zion Church, an African-American congregation that started out in living rooms and community centers but then bought its own property on East 11th Street in 1994. The group has grown steadily and just last fall hosted a Pacific Northwest regional gathering of the NAACP in Vancouver.

Also last fall, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, just celebrated its 100th anniversary at the corner of Broadway and Fourth Plain Boulevard. The small congregation maintained a reading room in downtown Vancouver, alongside the Kiggins movie theater, until just a few years ago; church members are eager to find some inexpensive real estate and re-establish a foothold downtown.

Clark County has its share of still-functioning pioneer churches, too — in rural neighborhoods that 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.

Local Jews have something to smile about: the new $9 million synagogue of Congregation Kol Ami, Clark County’s reform Jewish congregation, opened its doors in time for last fall’s High Holy Days. Kol Ami’s new home boasts spectacular views of Mount St. Helens from a site that’s more or less the center of populated Clark County — making the site equally inconvenient for everyone, the joke has gone around. Meanwhile, the county’s orthodox Chabad Jewish Center handles the annual menorah lighting in Esther Short Park.

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, made more news than it would have wished last year: First, the group held a community vigil in the wake of shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; next, the former Landover Athletic Club in east Vancouver purchased by the Sikhs for their new home burned to the ground just weeks before anticipated completion. The brokenhearted congregation is waiting for the results of an investigation.

Boat or bird? OK: The First Congregational Church was designed to look like a dove. The ark ambiguity appears to be a happy accident.