Remembering Our Past

by Bill Stewart

With joy and thanksgiving, we look back to remember the people and experiences that were part of making us the congregation we are today.  It was Rev. Lavern Brassard (former pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church, Vancouver) whose vision for a new church in east Clark County became the seed for our church.  Lavern saw the tremendous potential for growth in the area and set the wheels in motion with the Presbytery.  Through a very unusual set of circumstances, Bill Stewart helped secure the 5-acre parcel of timbered land on the corner of 162nd Ave. and 20th St. at a cost of $172,000 for a new church development site in 1992.  The property was involved with a law suit; but in the end, the church became the winner and was allowed to purchase the property.

Our early years, beginning in 1993, were spent as The New Presbyterian Fellowship, meeting in the cafeteria at Harmony Elementary School, lead by our organizing pastor, Greg Ikehara-Martin.  Talk about grassroots!  Every week, sandwich boards were placed to welcome worshipers.  Chairs and a simple 'chancel' were set up for worship.  Bibles and hymnals were set out, and as often as not, Greg led the singing with his guitar playing, sometimes accompanied by others on their own instruments.  Lavern and Mary Brassard, along with Rev. Roy and Lori Shearer, helped to keep the momentum and energy going as this little church began to form and grow.  We held our Sunday School class in the band room, another in the nearby classroom, and yet another in the other half of the cafeteria (where voices had to be kept low so as not to 'disrupt the worship'.  In spite of its humble beginnings, there was great love, joy, and caring to be felt in the midst of these pioneers, and you just wanted to be a part of it.  We marched in the neighborhood parades.  We did walk-and-knocks to invite neighbors to come join us for worship.  We began the years-long tradition of Family Camp.  We held Easter egg hunts on the school playground.  We dreamed of the day we'd have our own church home.

In 1997 we seized an opportunity to move to the Fisher’s Grange Hall located a few blocks south on 162nd Ave.  We celebrated our ‘next step’ towards the goal of having our own facility.  At the Grange, we had an office for the pastor, a little nursery area and a couple of Sunday school rooms, along with access to the full kitchen – the start of many potlucks - YES!  We still had to put out chairs and Bibles and hymnals, but at least the books could be stored at the Grange instead of being hauled in from someone’s trunk.  Things were looking up and life was good!  Or was it?

Although there was fervor to begin a building campaign, there were problems in terms of meeting the Presbytery’s expectations of financial solubility.  We had a growing number of members, but our numbers were not where needed to be.  And, the fatigue that often develops in long term ventures began to affect the congregation.  Even fundamental programs like Sunday School were flagging due to lack of volunteers to teach and coordinate.  It was easy to find fault, but not so easy to identify problems and make a commitment to being involved in the solution.  Strong differences of opinion regarding where the priorities should be and who should be taking on various roles and responsibilities began to undermine the solidarity of the congregation, resulting in fragmentation and squabbling that often didn’t resemble anything Christ-like.  Greg got caught in the middle of the maelstrom and made the decision that it was time for him to leave.  In the early months of 1998, our little church’s light came perilously close to going out forever.  The Presbytery seemed to feel the New Church Development had become a failed venture and openly discussed closing our doors permanently.  Once again, a core group of followers, led by Roy Shearer, held on to the belief that this church was, in fact, meant to be.  A pastor nominating committee, tasked with reviewing the very few applications that had been received for the position, found itself reflecting on where we had been and where we felt we should be.  At one particular meeting, the question was asked, “Have we considered that maybe God is trying to tell us that it’s time to close the books and just look for opportunities to join another existing church to help them grow?”  Roy admonished us to hold fast to our faith and trust that God would show us the way forward. 

It was at that very meeting that a young pastor, who was representing the Presbytery at the PNC meetings, quietly listened and took notes.  Shortly before the meeting came to a close, this young pastor spoke up and said he would have to excuse himself from further participation in the meetings because he was feeling, strongly, that God was talking to him about our little church, and that God was telling him to listen and consider that this might be his calling.  A few days later, we received an application for the position of Organizing Pastor from that young man, Rev. Scott Phillips.  Years later, he recalled going home from the meeting and talking with his wife, Melanie, about the feeling that had come over him, about the sense that he was being called to be our Pastor.  Four months later, Scott was offered the job, with our apologies for handing him such a big mess.  He readily accepted, undaunted by the challenges, nor by the time limit given him by the Presbytery to “make this happen”. 

New energy and enthusiasm began to per-fuse the little congregation and, in spite of ongoing challenges, by 2000 we had grown to 96 members and were granted permission to Charter.  On Pentecost Sunday we officially became East Woods Presbyterian Church.  The splintered and divided members had been reunited through this common effort.  The growth continued, and in 2002 we were 136 members strong and therefore transitioned from a mission-receiving to a mission-giving church. 

By 2003, our Mission-giving was at over $12,000 and we began a visioning process of how to minister to the surrounding community, and to make plans to begin the design for our new church home.  When our membership reached 151 in 2004, with financial pledges of $162,000 we realized it was time to begin our first building finance campaign.  By the time it was completed, we had raised more than the Presbytery’s measure for a church our size, over $250,000 – enough to begin our next real project – our new building and church home.

We officially broke ground on the property on January 28, 2007, with almost the entire congregation gathered in the middle of the forest, singing and praising God for all His blessings.  Almost a year later, on January 8, 2008, we began moving into the completed building.  What a joyous occasion for all involved – it had been a very long trip from beginning to end.

As the congregation continued to grow, we added a second service and looked ahead to expansion of the exiting building, designed to have three phases.  We had arrived.  We were set.  All systems go!  Not so fast….

One Sunday morning in late summer of 2009, Scott and his family returned from his annual trip to the Youth Retreat at Montreat, South Carolina.  While there, Scott again felt God’s hand on his shoulder, and God’s call to a new ministry, as the Campus Youth Pastor at the local University.  It was with genuine, bittersweet emotion that Scott conveyed his decision to accept this new call.  The congregation who loved him had a hard time saying goodbye to Scott, Melanie, and their son, Martin, but did so with well wishes and deep gratitude for all they had contributed to the story of East Woods.

Yes, said God, change may not be easy, but it is necessary, and even healthy for a church.  A new pastor nominating committee was formed while the congregation came under the leadership of Interim Pastor, Laurel Neal.  Under Laurel’s firm but focused guidance, the transition from saying goodbye to the comfortable and hello to the new and different was begun, allowing for time to grieve, reflect, regroup and re-energize.  By the fall of 2011, a new Senior Pastor, Rev. Bill Sperry, was chosen and began his tenure overseeing the next chapter in the life of East Woods.  There is no doubt that the saga of East Woods Presbyterian Church has many more chapters to come.  With God’s help and blessings, we look forward to the future He has in store for us.