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Monday, August 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington Voices

Freeway displaces congregation

Century-old church makes way for freeway project

The Bethany Presbyterian Church at Third Avenue and Freya Street will be torn down to widen Interstate 90. (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)
The Bethany Presbyterian Church at Third Avenue and Freya Street will be torn down to widen Interstate 90. (J. BART RAYNIAK / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s been there for 100 years and most people know it as “that church with the sign” that grabs motorists’ attention with its pointed messages.

Bethany Presbyterian Church is moving from the corner of South Freya Street and East Third Avenue because the Washington State Department of Transportation has purchased the land the church sits on for an expansion of Interstate 90.

“This congregation has done a dance with freeways almost half of its life,” said Rev. Paul Rodkey of Bethany Presbyterian Church. “Actually, the state gave us a real blessing by buying us. We have chosen to see this as a blessing, and it is a choice how you chose to respond to the change in the world around you.”

The congregation of about 90 people plans to share space with Bethlehem Lutheran Church on South Ray Street. The gay-friendly Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church, which was housed at Bethany Presbyterian Church, is also moving into the Lutheran church.

“Wherever we would move we would invite EMCC to come with us,” said Rodkey. “I can see how for frightened and ignorant Christians that could be terrifying, but for us it’s just a statement of our belief and hospitality. And Bethlehem Lutheran has been absolutely welcoming.”

The famous sign, however, is up for sale.

“We will not get the same traffic up there as we did here,” said Rodkey. “When we started talking about moving, the first question was how are we going to talk to Spokane if we don’t have the sign?”

Over the years, messages on the sign have caused uproar, laughter and conversation. Rodkey said that among the messages that got the most response were: “The Christian right is neither,” “The moral majority is not,” “Fundamentalism in all religions is the problem not the solution,” and “Who would Jesus bomb?”

“We know we tick some people off with that sign, and we are OK with that,” said Rodkey. “When we got the sign we decided to not just put passive Christian drivel up there – we wanted to have a conversation with the people who drove by.”

Rodkey is not sure how long his congregation will stay at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Come January the congregation will start planning for a new church location.

He said many of the church buildings from the 1940s and ’50s are ineffective, cumbersome and expensive for churches today. Suggestions for a new location are welcome, Rodkey added, explaining that he likes the size of the congregation and isn’t looking to expand into a huge setting.

“This is not a huge church, but we like it like that,” Rodkey said. “A big church becomes a business and we don’t want to be a business; we want to be a church.”

If anyone has a temporary location for a reader board, the congregation may be open to ideas.

“In our new location we are going to have a new reader board as well,” Rodkey said.

For now, he’s busy packing up. Leaving the current church location behind is not easy.

“We have been on this corner for 100 years, there are so many layers of ‘ouch’ that I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it is,” said Rodkey. “But it’s not like this sneaked up on us, we knew this would happen. And the congregation has a wonderful positive attitude.”

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