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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Sept. 28, 2023

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Two churches, pantry solidify partnership to provide safety net

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
9 Photos
Churchgoers sign a poster Sunday featuring the new covenant between Vancouver United Church of Christ, Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd and Martha’s Pantry.
Churchgoers sign a poster Sunday featuring the new covenant between Vancouver United Church of Christ, Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd and Martha’s Pantry. (Elayna Yussen for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

During a sermon, representatives from two churches and a pantry organization played roles of the innkeeper, wounded man and good Samaritan from the well-known biblical parable.

The wounded man pleaded for someone to help — or at least notice — him, while the innkeeper eventually provided a place for him to heal. The man who played the Samaritan explained to churchgoers how the story exemplifies the importance of a deepened relationship between the three organizations.

“Being in covenant is like being in a warm, therapeutic relationship where I trust you and you trust me,” said the Rev. Ken Kerr, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd. “I believe that’s what Christ calls us to be as ministries, in touch with each other.”

The joint service, held at Vancouver United Church of Christ, celebrated a new covenant between the two churches and Martha’s Pantry. All three organizations are headquartered in the same building, 1220 N.E. 68th St. in Hazel Dell. The proximity prompted more resource sharing between the groups, a pact that is now set in writing.

“It’s us together as a community. We have such incredible resources developed,” said Vicki Smith, the pantry’s longtime executive director. “The covenant simply defines that for future generations.”

In the several years that the organizations have shared the space, they have found ways to aid each other’s missions. On one day, the pantry might supply food for a church’s campaign against hunger. On another, one of the churches might direct someone in need of food to the pantry.

“It’s the little things that we’re getting to do together that, maybe, might not have happened in passing in the building,” said Daryn Nelsen-Soza, president of the pantry’s Board of Directors. “Just having a home and knowing that we don’t have to go anywhere and that we’re trying to build a stronger relationship, for me, takes this unknown off my shoulders because tomorrow I know we’re going to be here.”

That guarantee is especially relieving to the organizations after an arson fire closed the church building in May 2016. The churches and pantry made separate arrangements before returning in September.

“Being separated made us realize how much bigger the relationship was than just sharing a building,” said the Rev. Jennifer Brownell, senior pastor of Vancouver United Church of Christ.

Brownell said that the partnership can help fill vital service gaps.

“We’re living in a time of increasing need and decreasing services,” Brownell said. “We can offer spiritual help, but there’s a whole wide range of services that we can’t necessarily access. So this partnership is what makes that safety net a reality when so many other safety nets are being broken and pulled away.”

The relationship also reinforces the LGBTQ-friendly organizations’s missions. Martha’s Pantry was founded in the early 1980s to distribute food to those with HIV and AIDS. In the past, the pantry needed to conceal its work to avoid bomb threats, Smith said.

The churches, meanwhile, allow LGBTQ members and advocate for their rights, a commonality that has strengthened the partnership, Brownell said.

“Part of the damage that’s been done by religious organizations, especially to LGBTQ people, has been just so intense,” Brownell said. “For us to be a mutual place of place of healing around that, that really comes from a point of view of faith because we really believe that Christ loves all and welcomes all and accepts all.”

As the partnership advances, it will see some new faces.

Smith and Jeanie Harman, the pantry’s operations manager, retired this month. They were honored during the service for their decades of service to the pantry.

The new executive director, Brian Forrester, has a business background and hopes to tighten certain organizational aspects such as record keeping.

“We built this place as a hodgepodge. We saw a need and we found a way to fix it,” Smith said. “He’s going to make this an organization that is just so outstanding, and he’s got the people to work with.”

At the end of the Sunday service, worshipers were asked to sign a poster that included a copy of the covenant. The poster will hang in a shared, visible space in the building.

Forrester and future directors and pastors who see the poster will be reminded of a shared vision.

“You know what is so cool is that even though these three organizations came together today, it was a room full of very familiar faces,” Nelsen-Soza said. “It doesn’t feel like being an island alone to me.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter