A north Spokane church has become home to two congregations: a dying one and another still in its infancy.
The building on West Augusta Avenue was erected in the 1950s by first- and second-generation Norwegian- Americans whose parents and grandparents started worshipping together in 1888.
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church has fewer than 40 members left. Now, the church once known for its lutefisk dinners and Norwegian services has also become a sanctuary for a new group of immigrants: more than 200 Russian-speakers who make up Bethlehem Slavic Church.
The unusual pairing grew out of necessity for both congregations. Membership at Bethlehem Slavic has grown significantly since the Pentecostal church began a few years ago. Meanwhile, those attending Our Savior’s were finding more and more empty pews. No longer able to afford the annual $20,000 in insurance, heating bills and other costs to maintain their building, members of Our Savior’s were forced to sell the building this spring. But as a condition of the sale, the new owners have allowed the old congregation to continue worshipping at the church for the next five years.
“We’re together now,” said Anatol Belko, a member of Bethlehem Slavic Church. “It’s a beautiful building, and it was what we needed. (Members of Our Savior’s) are very proud of the church, but they don’t have a lot of people.”
The arrangement, however, has caused some trauma among a few longtime members of Our Savior’s, especially as they experience this prolonged, painful goodbye.
Florence Gunderson holds back tears whenever she ponders the future of her church. It’s the only congregation she has known – it was where she was baptized as an infant 90 years ago and where she made friendships that have endured a lifetime.
Every Sunday at 2 p.m., Gunderson sits in her usual spot, in the third pew from the front on the right side of the altar. She’s relieved to worship among her old friends, she said, but there are moments when she can’t help but cry at the thought of moving to another place for worship.
It’s especially difficult for Gunderson to witness the physical changes in Our Savior’s sanctuary. The old, green Lutheran Book of Worship is still there, but it’s now on an altar table with wheels so it can easily be rolled away when the other church has its 10 a.m. service. Eventually, the main, wooden altar will be removed to make room for a platform that will be used by the new congregation’s choir. Many of the new signs posted on the doors and pews also are printed in Cyrillic, the Slavic alphabet.
“It’s like a family breaking up,” she said, describing the disintegration of Our Savior’s. “It’s a little late for me to make these major changes, so I don’t know what to do.”
While others also are mourning what seems like an inevitable end, they’re also encouraged that the building will continue to be used by another Christian congregation.
In some ways, the church is experiencing a rebirth, explained Erling J. Hjortedal, who joined Our Savior’s as a 5-year-old in 1936.
“A full circle of history is in the making,” said the retired educator, comparing Our Savior’s Norwegian roots to the fact that the new owners are immigrants to the United States. In the same way that Bethlehem Slavic worships in Russian, the founders of Our Savior’s also attended services that were strictly in Norwegian, said Hjortedal. In fact, Norwegian was spoken by many of the members until well into the 1930s and ‘40s, he said.
“It’s a very sad and strange situation, it’s kind of like the church is on life support,” said 88-year-old Kay Chew, whose long history at Our Savior’s began even before she was born — when her mother became a member at 6 years old.
Like her mother, Chew was a soprano soloist who sang in her younger years during services. Our Savior’s was where she was baptized, confirmed and married to her first husband. Despite that history, she’s ready to move on, she said.
“It’s time to face reality. My faith is the important thing,” said the retired accountant. “Worshipping in the same building is not as important to me as finding a church that is vital and moving and doing things. …
“Sometimes, there’s an end to something that’s dear to you, and you just have to recognize it.”
Sure, it’s sad to experience the slow death of a church, said Hjortedal, who at 74 is one of the younger members. “But I don’t think the building itself really has much to do with faith,” he said.
While members of Our Savior’s grapple with the future of their congregation, those who belong to Bethlehem Slavic are beginning to get a handle on their church’s rapid growth. Unlike the Lutherans, who are all senior citizens, many of the Pentecostals are younger adults with children.
“It’s a dream come true for us,” said Nick Grishko, the pastor who established the church with only 14 members.
Many who grew up under the Soviet regime will never take their freedom to worship God for granted, said Belko, recalling how Christian families in his native Russia were forced to hide their Bibles and conduct services in the woods for fear of getting caught by the government.
But in the same way that the Norwegian founders of Our Savior’s struggled to retain their Scandinavian culture and language, the Russian-speaking immigrants from Ukraine, Belarus and other parts of the former Soviet Union also want their children to continue living out their traditions.
“We’re thinking about our young people,” said Belko, who emigrated to America 17 years ago. “They’re in a hard situation right now because they don’t understand everything.”
Some of the teens and children, especially those who were born in the United States, barely comprehend the Russian spoken during the services, he said. Now, church leaders are considering adding a service in English.
As she observes the changes at the church, Chew said watching this new congregation reminds her of her childhood years at Our Savior’s.
“As Norwegian immigrants, life evolved around our church,” she said. “Now, here’s another group of immigrants and they’re doing the same thing — this is a real thrill to me. … God is being worshipped in the church by a whole new group of people and that’s the important thing.”
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