Under God’s sky
The Pacific Northwest District
Theodore D. Lambert
The beautiful Pacific Northwest. That’s the descriptor often attached to this region of North America. Beautiful, indeed! Crystal clear lakes, great rivers, wheat fields that roll in the wind like a golden sea, mountain ranges boasting the tallest peaks in North America, ocean beaches where one can walk forever. The Pacific Northwest District covers the largest land mass of the 12 WELS districts. It stretches over three time zones and includes Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and the Canadian Province of British Columbia.
Cultures are as diverse as the landscape. Faith, Anchorage, Alaska, offers worship services in English, Spanish, and Hmong. Last year Holy Trinity, Des Moines, Wash., received 38 Sudanese immigrants as members. Holy Trinity already hosted a Korean congregation, so every other Sunday services are now offered in English, Sudanese, and Korean. In Boise, Idaho, Peace in Jesus is the sole Vietnamese-speaking congregation in WELS. Nearby, Nampa is the home of Truth in Love Ministry, dedicated to bringing Mormons to the true gospel. Six years ago Immanuel, Salem, Ore., established a connection in Korea that enrolls Korean students in the congregation’s school.
IN THE BEGINNING
The roots of the district are not traced to a mission board in Wisconsin anxious to plant new churches in the far west, but to a church begun by others. In 1884 the Ohio Synod founded St. Paul’s, Tacoma, Wash. Ten years later, when the Iowa and Ohio Synods broke fellowship with the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, St. Paul’s petitioned the Wisconsin Synod for membership, and the synod suddenly had a new mission field. In 1905, the second WELS congregation in the Pacific Northwest—Grace, Yakima, Wash.—was organized. Two years later the mission board assigned a seminary graduate to serve central Washington. By train and lumber wagon he traveled a circuit of two hundred miles, ministering to small congregations in logging towns and wheat fields.
In 1918 the Pacific Northwest mission field was upgraded to the status of a district even though it numbered only eight pastors and 447 communicants. The Tacoma congregation was the only self-supporting church; all the rest were still missions.
Growth was slow, hampered in part by missionaries focused primarily on serving German Lutherans in their native tongue. While other church bodies began their work in the cities decades earlier, the Wisconsin Synod was content to establish missions in small towns and logging villages. Pastors frequently accepted the first call back to the Midwest. Lengthy vacancies were common.
HARD TIMES AND HARD GROUND
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the district, three new missions named Faith, Hope, and Charity, were simultaneously begun in Tacoma in 1928. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The following year the stock market crash ushered in the Great Depression. Money for missions dried up. Faith of Tacoma survived, but its infant sisters did not.
Still, God’s gracious hand provided for his church. Grace, Portland, unexpectedly joined the synod in 1929, opening the door for work in western Oregon. When young people from small communities migrated to the cities after World War II, the district mission board saw the wisdom of planting missions in Seattle, Spokane, and Edmonds, Washington, and in Eugene, Oregon.
But in 1957 the district faced its greatest challenge. When the Wisconsin Synod in its 1957 convention declined to sever fellowship with the Missouri Synod, a quarter of the pastors and churches of this district withdrew and joined the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC). The loss of two self-supporting churches and two missions in Spokane was especially painful.
The independent natures of the loggers, fishermen, miners, and ranchers who settled this part of America also became a factor. This is reflected in a telling statistic: Only 30 percent of the residents claim church membership, and less than 10 percent of the total population attend worship on any given Sunday.
GOD BLESSES HIS WORD
But God works in amazing ways. The severance of fellowship with the Missouri Synod in 1961 fueled enthusiasm for mission plantings throughout the synod. The Pacific Northwest District especially benefited from this awakening. Warren Widmann, who would later serve as district president (1986–2002) was called as mission developer in 1963. With his help, congregations were organized in British Columbia and several cities in Oregon and Washington. At the same time, missions were established in several cities in Washington and in Idaho.
In 1968 a new field was opened in Alaska. The 49th state would prove to be a fertile field for gospel outreach as Faith of Anchorage would be joined by missions in Fairbanks; Eagle River; Wasilla; Kenai; Juneau; and a second Anchorage congregation. Today all are self-supporting congregations. In southeast Alaska, Christ, Juneau, and Grace, Sitka, are two of the most remote churches in the synod, accessible only by boat or plane.
It is not unusual for members to drive an hour to church one-way and repeat that trip during the week to attend other events. Modern technology now allows the district to minister to people living in remote locations. Seventeen churches of this district have opened preschools to reach out to their community. Most are full before the doors open each fall. Nine congregations operate elementary schools in which a large percentage of students are from non-member families, providing a rich mission field. The 25 Asian students attending Evergreen Lutheran High School, Tacoma, Wash., comprise one-fifth of the entire student body. Many baptisms and confirmations have been the blessing of such cross-cultural openness.
In some locales missions have been closed, then restarted years later. Our timing has not always been the same as the Lord’s. We can rejoice that the churches and people of this district who have patiently and persistently shared the gospel are now witnessing God’s fulfillment of his promise.
Ted Lambert served as the Pacific Northwest District president from 2002 to 2014. Recently retired, Lambert is a member at Christ the King, Bremerton, Washington.
This is the eighth article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.
District president: Pastor John Steinbrenner
Mission churches: 10
Baptized members: 6,903
Communicant members: 5,405
Early childhood ministries: 17
Lutheran elementary schools: 9
Area Lutheran high schools: 1
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Author: Theodore D. Lambert
Volume 101, Number 8
Issue: August 2014
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