In some ways, the Rev. Andrea “Andy” CastroLang can be as much of a fighter as she is a lover.
Throughout her life in ministry for the United Church of Christ, CastroLang – better known as “Pastor Andy” – and her congregants have fought for issues including support for at-risk populations, marriage equality, racial equity and environmental activism.
Much of this has taken place in her 19 years as pastor at Westminster Congregational, Spokane’s oldest church. The issues have nevertheless persisted in that time, during which CastroLang and the church have seen opposition through hate mail and protests.
Asked what drives her, CastroLang said she finds strength in people, be it her congregants or the church’s partnering organizations throughout Spokane.
“We trust in what we do and we support each other in this congregation. We have allies in the city,” she said. “So, we carry on.”
Another part of that was forged from her early life in Colorado.
Growing up one of seven children helped her realize “shared relationships are stronger than anyone alone.” Her parents, meanwhile, taught her acceptance of others and to “cherish creation” in loving the outdoors.
CastroLang was working in campus ministry at Blessed John XXIII University Center in Fort Collins, Colorado when she met her future husband, Jim, who was a priest. The two fell in love in spite of their faith: Catholicism commits priests to a vow of celibacy.
Catholicism also forbids women from becoming priests. Feeling the faith relegates women to “second-class status,” CastroLang took a theology class through which she discovered Protestantism.
“I was going to do it to make my argument (to leave Catholicism),” she said. “Instead, I fell more and more in love with the gospels, with this guy named Jesus, and it was surprising to me to recognize that this felt right. This was right.”
She and her husband married in 1985, combining their last names (Jim Castro and Andy Lang). This cost them their positions in the Catholic church – as well as many friendships, CastroLang said.
“We had to believe that even though all of this trial and suffering was happening and hurting, this was not the end of the story,” she said. “For me, that’s never the end of the story.”
In finding a new place to “live out our vocations,” she said, the two turned to the United Church of Christ.
CastroLang relocated from Colorado to the Seattle area in 1983, one year after her husband moved to the area. The two moved to Spokane in 2002 when she took the pastoral role at Westminster. Jim, meanwhile, serves as pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Colville. The two have two children and three grandchildren.
Pastor Andy said her proudest moments in her nearly two decades at Westminster have come in serving others, particularly vulnerable populations.
In 2007, the church ordained Marjorie Johnson, who was believed to be the first openly gay woman ordained by a mainline Protestant church in Spokane.
CastroLang said the church has also helped provide health care screenings for low-income residents and has campaigned for increased bus routes and increased access to public transit. Westminster has served as a warming center in recent years during the colder months, including last year, when Jewels Helping Hands set up a 30-bed pop-up shelter at the church.
“Because Westminster is the city’s first and oldest church, it seems to me they’ve always had an identity that they would serve the city, not just the members,” CastroLang said. “There’s so much pain, and this is not, I think, God’s intention for creation. I believe, and I know my church believes, we will do everything we can to alleviate suffering and to bring joy and peace. This is our vocation.”
Bridget Cannon, senior vice president for youth services for Volunteers of America Spokane, said CastroLang and the church congregation have supported the Crosswalk Youth Shelter over the years.
Local live music, raffle baskets and silent auctions to raise money for Crosswalk were a pre-pandemic tradition as part of the annual Jam for Bread benefit hosted at Westminster.
Westminster’s effort to step up as a warming shelter is “Pastor Andy in a nutshell,” Cannon said, describing her as someone who’s accepting, encouraging, nurturing and inclusive of all populations, including those in the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.
“She truly understood who these young people are and she truly understood what they needed, and that really isn’t tangible things,” Cannon said. “Yes, they need a bed and food, but most importantly, what they all need is love and acceptance.
“I’ve never seen her down. I’ve seen her mad at social injustice, but I’ve never seen her down,” she added. “She’s very optimistic. ‘We can do this.’ ‘This can be done.’ ‘It’s up to us to do it.’ Those kinds of things. Just such a fighter.”
CastroLang has presided over many same-sex weddings over the years, and her funeral services have extended to people that other churches may turn down, such as alcoholics and drug addicts, she said.
“Pastor Andy has been, I would say, a bright light for many years in this denomination,” said parishioner Morag Stewart. “She’s authentic. She’s not somebody that preaches something and behaves different. She walks the talk, and that’s really important.”
Though mum about her own future with the church, CastroLang said Westminster is in conversation with city officials and development about using the church building in “new and creative ways.”
Whether as a shelter or as a concert hall for the Spokane Symphony, the building has adapted in the past. Crafting a new vision for 411 S. Washington St., she said, will likely take multiple years to realize.
Even still, Westminster isn’t the building, CastroLang said.
“(The building) is just a vessel for the true Westminster, which is the people’s vision, the people’s desire, the people’s love of each other and this city,” she said. “This church is made up of vibrant people and willing hands. That’s Westminster.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct year the CastroLangs moved to Spokane, and the correct spelling of Morag Stewart’s first name.
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