Internal strength shines through in outreach

SATURDAY, OCT. 9, 2010

Sowers’ leadership builds a flock dedicated to helping others

The Rev. John Sowers considers it “a holy joy” to work with people engaged in doing ministries they feel called to do.

As senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane since 2007, he seeks to continue the teaching and opportunities that connect people with ministries.

Church members are involved in such community ministries as Christ Kitchen, Christ Clinic, Habitat for Humanity and the Liberty Park Day Care Center. Many members live out their vocations in helping professions, as teachers, doctors and mental health workers.

“People do their work out of a sense of Christ’s call to care for others. It’s a privilege to be shepherd of that flock,” Sowers said.

Convinced that the mission statement of First Presbyterian, like that of many other churches, was too long, he worked with leaders to develop a four-word mission: “Internally strong, externally focused.”

The internal strength comes from discipleship, and the external focus is apostleship, he said.

The Greek root of “disciple” means learner. The Greek root of “apostle” means messenger or ambassador.

“There’s much activity happening in and through the church, not for the sake of the church, but as a conscious effort to be witnesses to Jesus,” said Sowers, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history and theater in 1988 from Whitworth University, expecting to teach.

Involvement in leadership at Whitworth Presbyterian Church during college, however, led him to studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, followed by 12 years at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.

Sowers gave an overview of some ways First Presbyterian Church ministries connect members with the community and world.

Youth are involved locally to globally. For about 20 years, the church has sent more than 50 students each spring to Tijuana, Mexico, to build homes for homeless families and to relate with children in an orphanage.

In addition to the Tijuana mission, 25 junior high youth go to San Francisco every year for an urban plunge, working in a soup kitchen, leading vacation Bible school for a downtown church and doing a street ministry.

Fourth-to-sixth graders do “Kids with a Mission” ministries of compassion in Spokane.

“As children grow in faith, they gain ministry background,” Sowers said.

Every year, junior high students do a 30-hour fast fundraiser through World Vision. Funds help people who suffer because of poverty, hunger and illness.

Learning that 26,000 children around the world die every day of water-borne illness and starvation, the youth raised $1 for each child – $26,000 – hoping to provide the equivalent of one day when no one would die from hunger or thirst.

They raised more than any group in the nation, according to World Vision.

Church members find their niche.

“One couple has prepared food and taken their two young sons three times a week to serve it to people under the freeway bridge. They just wanted their boys to experience the fullness of life,” Sowers said.

“In the winter, the couple led a six-week symposium on street people, with speakers from different social service agencies.”

Members also relate with international partners in Thailand, Kenya and Ethiopia. First Presbyterian provides financial support for a woman pastor who runs an orphanage in Thailand, rescuing children from sex slavery.

In April, 12 adults went to work at the orphanage, to meet the children and deepen the relationship with the pastor.

The church is starting a college student ministry, Blood Water, building wells and medical clinics in Kenya, which two church members visited.

Jenna Lee, a Whitworth graduate and former intern at First Presbyterian, is now in Nashville, Tenn., serving as the national director of Blood Water. Volunteers go to villages to do AIDS education—the “blood” part—and sink wells for clean water.

The church has ties to Ethiopia. First Presbyterian’s Christian School, with 180 pre-kindergarten through third grade students, has a sister school relationship with partners in Gambella, Ethiopia, where there was a genocide in December 2003.

Anuak refugees who are church members called attention to the genocide, and church members rallied to assist and advocate for justice.

Sowers went to Gambella with a team that included four others in February.

“It was eye-opening,” he said. “We identified needs of the schools that are run by the East Gambella Bethel Synod, and delivered resources and supplies to two schools, which have concrete walls and no windows.”

When he asked the pastor what the church prays for, the pastor said: for ending smallpox, which still occurs there; for a new millstone so women do not have to beat the grain with sticks and rocks, and for the survival of evangelists who leave at midnight Saturdays to walk six hours to preach Sunday mornings at village churches.

Also at First Presbyterian, people from around the world who are resettling in Spokane come to Barton School, which meets in the church, to learn American culture and speak English. Teaching them are volunteers from the church and community.

“It’s a quiet ministry, doing Jesus stuff that changes lives,” Sowers said.

The annual fall Jubilee Sale also brings the world to the church. Members invite fair-trade vendors and host alternative Christmas shopping, while supporting craft makers around the world.

The Spokane City Forum, now in its 10th year, brings community people to the church for conversations on strengthening Spokane.

Sowers also began a 6:05 p.m., Sunday evening worship in an “emergent” style – a service night for 60 to 80 people – hearing scripture, receiving communion and going into the neighborhood with food to engage and comfort street people or to visit shut-ins.

“Many are college age. For them, faith without action is not faith,” Sowers said.

Because the church is drawing more young families, it started its school as “a back door” to involve more families. Scholarships help assure diversity. The church also offers a praise service at 9:30 a.m. Sundays and a traditional 11 a.m. worship service.

Condensed and reprinted from the September issue of The Fig Tree, a monthly newspaper that covers faith in action in the Inland Northwest. For more information, call (509) 535-1813 or visit www.thefigtree.org.


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