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Shawn Vestal: Local World Relief leader steps down following refugee organization’s hiring controversy over gay job candidate

Mark Finney is shown in this 2019  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Mark Finney is shown in this 2019 (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The leader of World Relief Spokane, Mark Finney, has resigned following weeks of turmoil in the local office after a gay job candidate’s hiring was rejected by the national office.

Finney said he intends to start a new nonprofit focused on helping refugees and immigrants in Spokane, a plan that is in the very early stages and about which he will make more information public after he leaves his current position Feb. 15.

“My faith as a follower of Jesus compels me to do everything in my power to stand with and serve my refugee neighbors,” he said Thursday evening. “That includes inviting any and all willing partners to join the mission. We cannot exclude one marginalized group of people in the name of serving another marginalized group.”

Finney did not want to speak specifically about his reasons for leaving, saying he wants to make sure World Relief is able to be as effective as possible in helping the refugees from Afghanistan who are in the midst of resettling here. Around 300 Afghan refugees will be settling in Spokane.

Finney has led the local World Relief office for five years. A statement from the organization announcing his departure did not include a reason for his resignation or mention the controversy, which led two employees to resign and some donors to rethink their contributions to World Relief.

A statement issued Thursday by World Relief read, in part, “During his time with the organization, Mark oversaw great changes and remarkable growth. Under his leadership, new programs grew and flourished, and the World Relief Spokane office thrived during very uncertain times.”

Finney was credited with increasing local fundraising five-fold during his tenure – efforts that were important to the mission as federal funding for refugee resettlement was curtailed.

His resignation comes several months after the hiring of a gay job candidate was rejected by the national office of World Relief, which is a part of the National Association of Evangelicals, and less than two weeks after that news was reported in The Spokesman-Review.

A candidate for a staff attorney position, described as “more than qualified” by local staffers, was offered a job in October; the national office later directed the local office to rescind that offer to the candidate, who is a married gay man, due to its policy requiring that “the sexual activity of employees … be only within the biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”

That decision shocked many local workers, who were unaware of the national policy and felt it contradicted their own views and the mission of the organization. Local staffers tried without success to have that decision overturned or the policy changed.

One employee who left World Relief over the incident, Sam Smith, said the policy put his own values in deep conflict with the organization.

“It just didn’t feel like I could be true to myself,” Smith said in an interview. “I have asylum clients for whom their basis of asylum is their sexual orientation.”

As word of the incident spread among the organization’s volunteers and supporters, it began to affect donations. St. Mark’s Lutheran announced it would pause a fundraising campaign to World Relief that was intended to help with the current influx of Afghan refugees, because it “stands in sharp contrast with St. Mark’s mission.”

A local couple, Dan and Joanne Cenis, paused a planned contribution to World Relief over the matter, and Joanne Cenis wrote a letter to the organization

“I have friends and family who are gay, so this national World Relief policy is ethically against my belief system, reflects discrimination and reflects a belief that laws to protect LGBT individuals are not important,” she wrote.

State and federal law prohibit hiring discrimination based on sexual orientation, but there are exceptions for religious organizations that are still being more clearly defined in the courts.

The national World Relief office would not comment specifically on the matter but issued a statement earlier this month, saying in part, “At World Relief, we love and serve all people, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity may be. Religious organizations – whether they are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or any other faith – are able to hire staff that share their beliefs and doctrine.”

Finney is a Coeur d’Alene native who graduated from Whitworth University and has also worked as a pastor. He earned graduate degrees at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, according to a profile in 2019 in the Fig Tree newspaper. He and his wife, Becky, returned to Spokane in 2015, and shortly thereafter he started as a case worker at World Relief.

In his work with refugees – people fleeing some of the worst hardship and tragedy on earth – he found a strong connection to his faith.

“Each day I pray Jesus will help me meet him that day,” he told The Fig Tree. “I see Jesus in people who are suffering.”

As executive director of the local office, Finney oversaw a staff of about 30 and coordinated the efforts of some 400 volunteers. More than 10,000 refugees have started new lives in Spokane since the early 1990s, with help from World Relief.

The statement announcing Finney’s departure said, “the current World Relief Spokane leadership team will be sharing Mark’s responsibilities, until a successor can be named. Mark has built a great team here, and we have every confidence in the staff’s ability to make this a smooth transition for the refugees and immigrants and those we serve.”

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