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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Matt Shea out at church over schism with fellow ‘general’ Ken Peters, but abortion protests go on

Former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea attends a protest rally and church service led by The Church at Planned Parenthood on May 19, 2020, at the Planned Parenthood’s offices, at 123 E. Indiana Ave., in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea attends a protest rally and church service led by The Church at Planned Parenthood on May 19, 2020, at the Planned Parenthood’s offices, at 123 E. Indiana Ave., in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

On Tuesday night, the so-called “Church at Planned Parenthood” met along Indiana Avenue to protest abortion, as it has done scores of times in recent years.

There was singing and praying and preaching and calls to end abortion, as usual. They met across the street from Planned Parenthood, as they have done since a judge ordered them to be less disruptive to clinic operations. A guest pastor from the South came and spoke to the crowd.

But some distinct differences were bubbling under the surface.

The alliance between the founder of TCAPP, Ken Peters, and Matt Shea, the former state representative, Ammon Bundy accomplice and supporter of “biblical warfare,” has fractured. Peters started TCAPP when he was pastor of Spokane’s Covenant Church; he left last year to establish other churches and TCAPP events around the South, and when he did, he named Shea as the pastor at Covenant.

But Shea left abruptly last week and started his own congregation, presiding on Sunday over the first services of On Fire Ministries. It appears, based on a video of the service, that a large proportion of Covenant’s congregation went with him, along with several key church leaders.

The reasons for the split are unclear. Peters, in a brief phone interview Tuesday before the TCAPP protest, said, “We let Matt go. We felt he was better on his own. It wasn’t a good fit, long-term.”

He said he didn’t want to be more specific, to avoid airing dirty laundry. But he did say TCAPP would continue.

“We plan on working together with Matt from a distance on issues we agree on, such as abortion and other moral issues,” Peters said.

TCAPP protests in Spokane have been a focus of controversy and legal battles since 2018. Clinic officials spent months complaining to the city about the noise, obstruction and interference with operations from the protests, which started late in the afternoon during the clinic’s final hours of operation.

After Planned Parenthood tried, without success, to get police to either move the protesters or require them to be quieter, the City Council took up the issue and strengthened the city’s noise ordinance last March following a raucous council meeting.

Planned Parenthood is now suing TCAPP, as well as Peters, Shea and other officials, and a judge issued an injunction ordering TCAPP to move its services across the street and start their events after the clinic closes. Clinic officials say that TCAPP has continually pressed up against – and gone beyond – the limits of the injunction, including starting protests earlier than ordered, holding events in front of the clinic and exhibiting threatening behavior toward a clinic representative.

The alliance between Peters and Shea has been central in Spokane’s far-right circles, where religion and politics are one. Shea sometimes preached at Covenant, where ultra-conservative politics were always explicitly on the agenda. As recently as January 2020, Peters appealed to the congregation to make contributions for Shea’s “legal defense fund.”

“Write a check to Covenant Church and put in the memo, Matt Shea Legal Fund, and then we’re going to write out a check from our church to the North Creek Law Firm,” Peters said.

That plea came as Shea’s tenure as a state lawmaker was collapsing under the weight of new revelations about his activities. A state legislative investigation concluded he engaged in domestic terrorism in helping Ammon Bundy plan and carry out the Malheur bird refuge occupation.

A former compatriot helped bring forth a series of damning revelations about Shea’s extremist activities and associations, among them, his planning for an end-times war, including by the training of child soldiers, and conducting background checks into his political opponents. His ties to the Marble Community, a locus of far-right, patriot activities in northern Stevens County, gained renewed attention, as did the connections to Christian Identity and dominionist philosophy.

Following years of local reporting on Shea, he became a national story.

After years of looking the other way, the GOP establishment and others in the conservative mainstream cut Shea loose. The House GOP caucus gave him the boot. Longtime funders stopped writing him checks. That was what was happening when Covenant passed the hat for his legal fund, and when, a few months later, Peters named Shea as his successor.

“This is God moving generals around,” he told his congregation.

Shea and Peters were big Donald Trump supporters and helped to peddle the election fraud canard, and both are COVID conspiracists and anti-maskers. Shea held “Stop the Steal” rallies; Peters spoke at a rally in Washington, D.C., the day before the Jan. 6 insurrection, after being flown down to the capital, he said, by Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy and election-fraud mainstay.

Shea was a frequent presence at TCAPP from the start, as well. He took over as head pastor at Covenant last May, as Peters left to focus on starting a new church in Nashville – as well as beginning to spread to other cities in the South. Peters said this week that he’s having success growing two ministries: TCAPP and his Patriot Church. The head of the Patriot Church in Colbert, Jay MacPherson, is now the pastor at Covenant in Spokane.

Shea’s ouster occurred last week, and apparently took many in his congregation by surprise. He managed to get his new church up and running without missing a Sunday, he said in his first sermon, which was streamed online. The service took place in a conference room at the Mirabeau Park Hotel, and it was a packed house. It seemed, based on videos of congregation sizes at Covenant, to be as big or bigger, suggesting that many, if not most, of the Covenant congregation followed him.

During his sermon, Shea referred to the split only in general terms. He said Peters had asked him to leave and start a new ministry.

“Some of the stuff wasn’t done in the way that it should be in the kingdom, but we just bless everyone involved because God still wants to work through them,” he said. “We just look forward right now. We don’t look back.”

He said, “The enemy is going to be out there making accusations and everything like that.

“There was no impropriety or anything like that.”

“I know some of you may be a little hurt. … Right now, the biggest thing we can do is return love for animosity.”

Whatever led to the schism, both men showed up for TCAPP on Tuesday night. Peters flew in and ran the proceedings. Shea attended and stayed mostly toward the back of the crowd. Peters closed the event by referring obliquely to the changes and saying that he still loves Shea, “no matter what the press says.”

In the interview, Peters said, “We feel like we made the right decision for our organization in letting him go, but we wish him and those who went with him the very best.”

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