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Woman says house built by strangers ‘a God thing’

Sherrie McGowan checks out her new kitchen while volunteer Jim Cumber looks on. McGowan's new home was built for free by friends, neighbors and strangers. 
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
Sherrie McGowan checks out her new kitchen while volunteer Jim Cumber looks on. McGowan's new home was built for free by friends, neighbors and strangers. (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)

The sun slides westward at the end of the day. Its white-hot face has cooled to a brilliant orange, washing everything at Sherrie McGowan’s place in golden light.

On days like this, the 50-year-old Spokane Valley woman can stand for eternity in her front yard, marveling at the new ranch-style home that sits where McGowan lived in a hovel six weeks ago.

“It’s been amazing,” she said last week, more than she ever expected in April when a contractor she knew only casually knocked on her door, offering to build McGowan a new house free of charge. “I never would have thought about flat floors.”

In her old house, scarcely bigger than a two-car garage, the rotting floors sagged in the center of the living room as if they could no longer take the earth’s gravitational pull. The ceiling dipped like a funhouse roof. Its thin, uninsulated walls were so leaky that McGowan put old doors along the south wall to ward off the wind. The home’s only heating source was an old wood stove in a dirt pit beneath the floorboards.

Contractor Brent Peterson saw the home and knew something had to be done. He prayed about it, and then made his offer to McGowan. Volunteers took turns razing the ramshackle home on April 23 and made the front page of The Spokesman-Review.

In this no-free-lunch world, their story seemed implausible, but it was only the beginning for Peterson, a Christian who said the house was God-ordered, and for McGowan, who spent years praying for a new home.

The Monday following the demolition, Peterson arrived at McGowan’s, wondering if he had made a huge mistake. This woman, a friend of his wife, Bonnie, no longer had a home.

And Peterson didn’t have enough money to pay for the building permit. He had several subcontractors willing to help if he broke ground, but still.

Not to mention the contractor was postponing plans to build his own home so he could build McGowan’s. Peterson’s family has been living in a friend’s basement for the last six weeks while McGowan’s home was being built.

And McGowan has been living in the loft of a corrugated steel shed, with no indoor plumbing. There’s been a portable outhouse in her front yard since the project began and most mornings she runs out to use it at sunrise before the carpenters arrive for work. She’s taken her dirty clothes to a coin-op laundry, but she’s also washed them in a bucket when a laundry run didn’t seem worth it.

McGowan is a cowgirl with perma-tanned skin, the kind that comes from endless hours outdoors. Years ago, McGowan’s husband left her. She had two boys to raise and 10 acres she used for breeding and boarding horses to pay the bills. The income was enough to support the family, but never enough to establish the credit needed for home buying. So, McGowan prayed.

Whenever an explanation seems to fall short, McGowan just smiles and says “this is a God thing.” She has prayers for everything and pages of Scripture buried beneath her home. Her talk is contagious. The volunteers buzzing around the project speak of miracles.

It certainly seems miraculous. And generally, Americans do believe in miracles at a high rate, 89 percent according to a Harris Poll from 2003; 84 percent according to earlier polls by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and Princeton Survey Research Associates. Is it really hard to believe people would want to participate in one?

On that Monday after the home razing, as Peterson wondered where he would get the building permit money, Joan Howard, McGowan’s neighbor, stopped by the job site and gave the contractor enough money to cover all government fees.

Valley Electric, one of the subcontractors that volunteered for the project, decided it could donate its time, but no wiring or hardware. Shortly thereafter, a neighbor stopped by McGowan’s to see if she could donate some wiring. Her husband, the woman explained, was an electrician who had died of colon cancer a year earlier.

Miracles. The “discount” that Door Specialties offered Peterson on a garage door for McGowan’s home turned into a full-fledged gift after a Pennsylvania door manufacturer read a news account about the free house being built for a woman in Washington state.

Chick Buckelew and her husband, Jim, the carpet-laying pastor of His House church of north Spokane, got word of the project and decided they should install the carpet. They just showed up one day, Peterson said. No one there had met the Buckelews before.

Volunteers on the project now number about 120. By the time the windows arrived from Velux, people were doing anything to participate.

“The guy who delivered the windows said, ‘I’ve got to do something,’ ” Peterson said. “Then he said, ‘I’m going to quit chewing.’ ”

Most nights after the volunteers clear out, and before McGowan walks down to a neighbor’s house to shower, she stands in the front yard of her new yellow home grinning as if she were trying to reach her earlobes with the corners of her mouth. She stands there so often, neighbors have started teasing her, suggesting it’s the only place McGowan is seen. She admires the log porch columns cut from her father’s land. She reads the Scripture carved over the front door. Occasionally, she cries.

The Scripture, McGowan said, is from Joshua 24:15. It says, “As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.”


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