A Brief History of the Seattle Mennonite Church – 20th Anniversary
October 23, 1988
In the late sixties, a group of Mennonite families living in the Puget Sound area began gathering in living rooms for worship, and to talk about starting a church. In 1968, with the assistance of a grant from the Pacific District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite church, a wood frame community center near Angle Lake in South Seattle was purchased and the Seattle Mennonite Church was born.
The first pastor was Milton Harder, and an early goal of the group was to establish a Voluntary Service unit. This goal was accomplished in 1970, with many of the first VSers working at Seattle Mental Health Institute.
Initially, the church struggled with numbers and finances, as do so many beginning groups. The primary social events were going-away parties, and on a summer Sunday morning, there was the distinct possibility that no one would be there.
But the spirit drew more and more persons to Seattle Mennonite Church, and the fellowship grew. Grad students attended, VSers stayed, yuppies and muppies and some neighborhood folks joined in. For awhile, there was a singles group, centered on Capitol Hill. There were weddings: Jim Satterwhite & Olwen Pritchard; Sandy Zeiset & Stan Richardson; Chak Ng & Ellen Newell; Jack Miller & Marsha Warkentin; and Stan Wyse and Donna Unruh up at Camp Camrec. There was a funeral: for Miriam Leatherman. There were potlucks and volleyball games on the church lawn. A diaper-changing station was installed in the men’s room. Two Sunday school classrooms were constructed at the back of the old dance floor. There were Wednesday night hymn sings and Bible studies and book discussion groups in homes. (Those were the days when the whole church could fit into someone’s living room.)
In 1974, Lauren Friesen had been installed as pastor. When he took a year’s leave of absence to work with the Washington State Commission for the Humanities, John Braun was called as interim pastor. Lauren left Seattle in 1980 to pursue his interest in church drama and former VSer Tim Mierau served as interim pastor until Steve Ratzlaff arrived in 1982.
By this time, most of the folks who’d been attending from Tacoma had moved away, and many people coming to the church were commuting from the north end of town. Besides, much as we all were endeared to our cozy space with the fireplace and the pine trees, we were outgrowing it. There was a search, there were meetings, and from 1984 to 1986, services were held on Sunday evenings at the University Friends Center, watching traffic on the University bridge while the setting sun came in at just the right angle to hit the speaker in the eye. John & Velda were married there; Steve was commissioned there. Every Sunday, we’d admire the art displayed around the Friends’ fellowship hall, then roll the piano in to the worship area, and later roll it out again, while Sunday school teachers were putting their dividers away and stashing their supplies in a file cabinet.
It was during this time that the congregation joined the Pacific Coast Conference of the Mennonite Church, becoming one of many urban, dual-affiliated churches. One of the first, big Self-Help craft shows was held in the fellowship hall at Friends – during the Thanksgiving snowstorm of 1985 – with resounding success. In fact, some people joined the church after attending that crafts show! The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program, initiated by VSer Carolyn Cerling, extended the mission of the church into the city. Other VSers were now involved with issues of homelessness.
Well, some of us enjoyed sleeping in on Sunday mornings, and not going to church ‘til Sunday evening, but those with children said that 5 p.m. was an awkward time for church. It was also a hassle putting everything away every week, and Steve didn’t have an office, and membership continued to grow. It was time to look for another home. That search led to the old sanctuary at the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, where Lois Voth had performed with a theater group in 1978. Many loving hands, including a busload from Lynden, refurbished the space.
And now, every Sunday morning, little feet thunder down the center aisle to come up to these steps for children’s story. There are walls for our artwork and banners and proclamations. Here’s where the speaker had to step up above the congregation, uncomfortable as this made us theologically, so he or she could be heard. Here’s where we started using a microphone. Holly Graber and Chris Bowser were married here. And here, for the present is home.
By now, it is in its teens, the church is growing up and showing some independence. The VS house is paid for; we no longer need the financial support of the district. Steve went on a six-month sabbatical, and Carol Rose served as interim pastor. Proudly we commissioned Stan & Sandy Richardson to serve with Washington Mennonite Fellowship at Camp Camrec, and Sue and Andy Wade to serve with Commission on Overseas Mission in Taiwan. We’ve kept up the traditions of Advent Sunday Activities and Labor Day at Camp, church workdays, Christmas Eve at the Tully’s, and the summer salmon barbecue. We’ve created “new” old traditions, like quilting, and an annual boating weekend in the San Juan’s. Instead of so many going-away parties, we have baby showers. And, of course, potlucks, (both programmed and unprogrammed) which, as Bill Clark pointed out, are integral to Mennonite theology.
I’ve spoken of buildings and committees and moves – but really, we know the church is people, manifesting the Spirit. A decade ago, during another freak snowstorm at the 10-year anniversary, a chorus got together and sang these words, which still ring true:
So give thanks unto the Lord
for a happy history.
May the next ten be as fruitful,
Our demise is now quite doubtful!
So give thanks unto the Lord,
for a happy history.