Reflections | April 18, 2024

Always moving forward

Historic and recent photos of Olympic View Community Church of the Brethren

Olympic View takes a courageous step to keep community at its center

By Roger Edmark

Olympic View Community Church of the Brethren’s story began in 1948, when the Seattle (Wash.) First congregation—which had been established 45 years earlier—constructed a new building in the city’s Maple Leaf neighborhood.

At that time, the Douglas firs near the church were not as big and mature as they are today. You could easily see the peaks of the Olympic Mountains rising to the west; thus, the church was called Olympic View Community.

The location received the Seattle Council of Churches’ blessing because there were no churches in that area of town. The pastor, Dewey Rowe, went door to door in the neighborhood telling everyone, no matter what denomination they had once been a member of, that “this was their church.” He was genuine and caring, and people came. It really was the community’s church.

Over the following decades, it grew, it flourished, it grew older, it split once, it grew even older, and eventually started to decline in membership. But through it all, it still served the neighborhood, supported the district, was an advocate for the camps, and stayed relevant. When a pastoral change occurred in 2015, the church members formed a futures committee. We had become smaller, and some activities were no longer viable. What was our future?

At that time, about 30 community organizations were using the church at various times throughout the year. We also assembled Thanksgiving baskets for the local elementary school’s families and for a women’s shelter. In addition, we started to rent space to other nonprofit churches in the community and to a Mandarin language preschool. We concluded, as we looked to the future, that there were still many reasons to stay put and continue to serve the community.

A few other churches needed a home, so a Spanish-speaking church came on Sunday evening, a Korean church Sunday afternoon, and eventually an Eritrean Orthodox Church (which included some refugees Olympic View Community had sponsored) on Sunday mornings. We stayed true to the word “community” in our name.

During the pandemic we continued to worship together, but older members became satisfied joining online. We realized that a lot of energy was being put into managing the church’s tenants. The income from those tenants was keeping the church afloat, but we questioned whether that was our calling. The work of managing the facility fell on a few people, and they were starting to show signs of burnout.

As we started to look to the future again in 2022, a new possibility arrived. Northaven, a senior living community started by the church more than 50 years ago, approached us with the suggestion that we could worship there as a church. As the congregation thoroughly evaluated five options for the church’s future, selling the building and worshiping at Northaven became the consensus choice for the immediate future. A new visioning group was established, and their vision for the church at Northaven got us moving.

So much of a congregation’s history can be tied to the structure they meet in, and we were no different. Though it was prime property in Seattle, and developers would find it desirable, it had been a house of worship and still was for us. The only thing that felt right was to pass it on to another congregation that loved and honored it as a house of worship for them. The Eritrean Orthodox church heard that we might be considering moving and sent us a letter of interest. “Don’t sell it until you talk with us.” We talked, and they contracted to purchase the building.

We started to worship anew at Northaven, on a campus of 300 residents located just a mile north of our former church building. It is exciting and glorious while being challenging at the same time.

Someone looking at our story from the outside described it as a story of death and resurrection. The old Church of the Brethren, which for 75 years worshiped on the corner of 95th and 5th NE in Seattle, was put to rest on Oct. 1, 2023, and a new church located in the Harbor Room of the Northaven Senior Living facility is rising up in its place.

Funds from the sale of the building are providing new life, too. Some proceeds are going to the district and denomination, and some will go to Northaven for new projects there.

It all started with a commitment to Olympic View’s neighborhood 75 years ago—a commitment that brought Jesus into the neighborhood. The commitment continues as the Eritrean Orthodox church serves that community now, and as our congregation moves forward to start something new.

Roger Edmark is chair of the board at Olympic View Church of the Brethren in Seattle, a congregation he has been part of for 69 years.