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Woman of the Year: Spokane Valley reverend pushes back on hate with love and pride

Gen Heywood, pastor of Veradale United Church of Christ, poses for a photo in the church’s sanctuary on Nov. 14 in Spokane Valley.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Silence doesn’t protect anyone, Veradale United Church of Christ Rev. Gen Heywood says. But being accepting, loving and outspoken does.

Through anti-white supremacy vigils, marching for women’s rights, walking in the LGBTQ+ Pride parade and voicing her concerns to the Spokane Valley City Council, Heywood does a little bit of everything – all in the name of Jesus Christ, who told his followers, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Heywood doesn’t spend her time trying to convince people to love. She doesn’t like to argue, she doesn’t like to yell – she just spends her time vocally and unabashedly accepting people for who they are instead, because, she said, that is what Jesus Christ has done.

“Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan finds the fellow beside the road, he doesn’t tell him that he’s got to be baptized. He doesn’t call him to confess his sins,” she said. “He simply scoops him up, takes him to an inn, pays for what he needs and hopes he gets better.”

Heywood grew up in Maine, climbing trees and frolicking in the woods. She always had a relationship with God, she said. She remembers how often she’d climb up in her favorite tree and talk to him about her life. When she turned 11, she insinuated to her parents she wanted to be a minister someday.

“They told me that women don’t do those things. They told me, ‘No one will want to marry you.’ That was a big deal,” she said, especially for a child who planned to have a husband and a house full of kids one day.

Her father, an Air Force veteran and former police officer, was “kind of terrifying.” He had an anger problem, Heywood said. And she took note.

He would yell at the television, ramble on with what Heywood called “ugly, racist words” and say things that she, as a child, questioned. Her mother would pull her aside quietly. “We don’t say those words,” she’d tell her.

As Heywood grew, she ventured to Germany as an exchange student. She played music and thought about a career in medicine. But when she came back to school at Emmanuel College, a private Roman Catholic School in Boston, she was approached by multiple priests and nuns who encouraged her to go into ministry. She was pursuing her German and music therapy degrees when Heywood had an epiphany that she belonged in the world of preaching.

“I told Sister Lillian that this is what I was supposed to do,” Heywood said. “It was like the classic movie moment … I said, ‘Well I think I have to change my major.’ She goes, ‘No, finish your German degree. Finish your music therapy degree. You can work as a music therapist, and you can translate theology books in German.’ ”

That’s exactly what she did. Many weeks were spent poring over books in the Harvard Library, working as a music therapist. When she finally finished her degrees, she went back to Maine to serve the church.

“We had a winter with wind chills way below 40 degrees, and I needed a warmer climate,” Heywood said. “So I went to California for 20 years.”

Heywood met her former husband and had two children. After an ugly divorce, she became a single mother to a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. As the two got older, they begged their mom to see snow – and she eyed Spokane.

“This little church was not just because they could get their snow … This little church is special,” she said. “These folks are really special, and it felt like the right place to come. That’s how I got here.”

Since moving to the Spokane area in 2014, Heywood has made it her mission to be inclusive and welcoming, speaking out against hateful rhetoric frequently. Church members often make pro-LGBTQ+ art to hang outside during Bible study, or make signs condemning systemic racism.

Petra Hoy met Heywood in 2017. Hoy was testifying before the Spokane City Council on a school-related issue and began to tear up, not able to form the words to speak. She didn’t know if she’d be able to finish her statement.

That’s when she felt a hand on her shoulder.

“It was Gen. She centered me,” Hoy said.

After that, the two began inviting each other to certain events and charity functions, and Hoy is now part of Veradale’s ministry, Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience, or FLLC.

“She’s become a really good friend and inspiration,” she said.

In 2018, Heywood helped support a group of Central Valley High School students and their parents when they encountered white nationalists during a gun violence protest. In 2017, Heywood participated in Spokane’s Women’s March to support and uphold women’s rights.

Heywood and a group of local faith leaders and conveners also held a vigil at Spokane Valley’s City Hall in 2019, urging council members to denounce white supremacy and mourn the damage caused from former state legislator and pastor Matt Shea publishing a “Biblical Basis for War” manifesto condemning same-sex marriage and abortion. She also often writes letters to local officials in conjunction with the Muslim and Jewish community, encouraging change and acceptance after hateful events.

Not everyone appreciates Heywood’s approach, however. A couple years ago, Veradale’s church sign was riddled with bullet holes from a drive-by shooting.

And, during Pride month of this year, the church had a number of pro-LGBTQ+ signs and Black Lives Matter signs in the yard – but someone chose to rip down the decorations and vandalize the front lawn with diesel fuel. Heywood called on Spokane Valley leadership to stand with the church and denounce hate, but in a July letter to The Spokesman-Review, she wrote that there was no response from them.

“Please, let us know that the leadership of the city of Spokane Valley denounces acts of vandalism, theft and hateful threats. Tell us about what the city is doing to make this a community where everyone is welcome. Tell us that this city is one where the freedom of religion includes Christian faiths like ours that believe God created everyone in the image of God as we practice a life of justice, kindness, and a humble walk with our God (Micah 6:6-8),” she wrote in the letter.

It disappointed Heywood, but it didn’t faze her. She continued to make sure everyone in the church felt safe, and she continued to preach.

Hoy said while there are some faith leaders who preach fear, she and Heywood approach everything the opposite way.

“There’s two choices. Love or fear. We try to stay on the side of love and make sure everybody deserves dignity and respect and to feel safe and secure, to feel belonging, in the community,” Hoy said. “I feel like her little LGBTQ church – like the existence of that church – is resistance. I just think it’s amazing and brave.”

Something that stands out to her is when her then-16-year-old daughter pointed out Heywood’s church was the first church she’d seen with a Pride flag.

“She said, ‘Christians can be pro-LGBTQ?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course. Same with the Black Lives Matter flag,’ ” Hoy said. “It hadn’t even occurred to me that that was the message she was being given.”

Heywood said it’s not her job to speak for people. But it is her job to stand with them, speak up when she can and encourage others to do the same.

“Silence doesn’t protect anyone,” Heywood said. “As a white cisgender straight woman, a Christian woman, I feel that it’s really important to speak up for those who are bullied and marginalized. And to speak up about the way of Jesus that I experience.”

So, Heywood will continue to do what she’s been doing. And she will continue to preach what she’s been telling people all these years: “Do what Jesus would do, with love.”