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Photo: Chris Meehan
Maria-Jose “Coté” Soerens
Photo by Chris Meehan

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Photo: Chris Meehan
Jevon Washington
Photo by Chris Meehan

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Photo: Chris Meehan
Trixie Ling
Photo by Chris Meehan

Jevon Washington, a church planter and neighborhood developer for the Christian Reformed Church, spends a portion of nearly every day sitting on the same stool in a restaurant bar in Columbia City, located in the Rainier Valley southeast of Seattle, Wash.

His regular presence in that seat has allowed him to meet and become friends with many of the patrons. He knows who likes to watch baseball, who is having marital challenges, who is out of work, who is having a baby.

In the process, he builds relationships — not only with the patrons but also with the business owner — and some of the people turn to him for friendship and support when they encounter tough times. One day the owner allowed him to pray, right there at the bar, with a woman whose spouse had died.

“They know I am a pastor and that I have a wife and two girls. They know that I live a different lifestyle,” said Washington, who has also begun Flourish Church in a local historic structure that rents out space to churches and other organizations.

Wearing a T-shirt that says “Parish Pastor,” Washington was among many, including other CRC ministry workers, who made presentations at Inhabit 2019.

This year’s Inhabit conference brought together church members, pastors, and others Apr. 26-27 at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology for sessions on how people of faith can make a difference in an increasingly secular culture.

Innovative practices, such as using a local bar/restaurant as a ministry station, were highlighted during times of worship, storytelling, and seminars.

Besides Washington, other CRC ministry leaders included Trixie Ling, who offers a food ministry connected to First CRC in Vancouver, B.C., and Maria-Jose “Coté” Soerens, who was helped by a Resonate Global Mission grant to start a coffee shop/cafe in South Park outside Seattle. She is also the founding executive director of Puentes, an immigrant-led organization mobilizing mental health resources for immigration justice.

The Parish Pastor

Jevon Washington grew up in Columbia City, left to attend seminary, and then took part in a church-planting training program in Memphis, Tenn., before returning. A bivocational pastor, he also works for a local housing association.

Over the past several years, Washington has watched as Columbia City, a former logging town in which nearly 90 languages are now spoken, has transformed from a modest middle-class community outside Seattle to a place where millionaires are moving in and squeezing those with fewer resources further out or deeper into poverty.

As a pastor and neighborhood developer, he said, he asks what the role of the church is in this process — How can the church address the growing gap between the haves and have nots?

Mostly, he added, this means relying on the basics of the Christian faith: prayer, putting one’s faith into practice, and above all relying on the gifts of God. “I want to help people realize the gospel makes everyone equal,” said Washington.

Sitting on his stool in the bar/restaurant, Washington will occasionally wear a clerical collar. “I am there to remind people of the One who is always present and able to help. Being there is about proximity and about reflecting God, who indwells all of his believers.”

Washington and other members of his church often eat in the restaurant, and when they do, they leave generous tips. “This is an example of grace,” he said. “We believe that Jesus associated with people where they are, but he promises never to leave them the same.”

Sharing God over Food

It was lonely being an immigrant to Canada, explained Trixie Ling, who came to the country with her mother from Taiwan and couldn’t speak the language. So much was unfamiliar, except for one thing — and that was food, along with the need to eat.

For her, she saw hospitality, an important way to bring people together, as being inherent in both making food and eating it. It gave her comfort and even a sense of hope.

Today, Ling has begun a ministry called Flavours of Hope, which brings together immigrant women to prepare meals from their home countries and, as they do, to share stories of the customs they have left behind and what it has been like to have to flee their homelands.

“We all need to be nourished by good food and good relationships,” said Ling, who also helps to put on weekly meals for the community at First CRC of Vancouver.

Out of her work with refugees at the refugee welcoming center next to the church —- and her participation in the weekly meal at her church — came the idea for the food ministry.

“We have women from Mexico, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran,” she said. “Cooking and eating are restorative practices. As we prepare food, we can find ways to talk about home and family.”

Even if they can’t speak the same language, said Ling, there is a commonality in teaching one another how to, for instance, make a traditional Kurdish meal.

“One of the Kurdish women got the ingredients, and I had no idea what we were making as we sat on the floor wrapping vegetables in dough,” said Ling during a seminar at Inhabit 2019.

As they worked and started cooking, the aroma of the food helped to bridge the language barrier and brought back memories. “Hers was an amazing story. Food was the language we shared. It was amazing and crazy and so healing at the same time.”

So far, her nonprofit start-up food ministry has hosted a handful of meals, such as a recent one in April featuring food from Syria. “Many immigrant women come to this country feeling sadness and loss, but cooking food can give them a sense of power and control,” reviving familiar practices amid new surroundings.

Ling also recounted that one day, over tea and desert, an Iranian woman told her in Farsi-mixed English how she had been a Muslim but had become a Christian.

“A woman had given her a Bible, and she had tried to throw it in the garbage — but she didn’t leave it there,” said Ling. The Bible became important to her, and she eventually began to feel a strong pull and, instead of going to the mosque, visited a church. “Stories such as this are so powerful,” said Ling, “and I appreciate being able to hear them.”

Renewal in South Park

On Friday, Apr. 26, Coté Soerens facilitated a conversation on how people of faith and ministries in which they are involved can find ways to protect communities facing the onslaught of gentrification. She and others spoke of the need to create and maintain affordable housing and how building capital — financial, emotional, and spiritual — among people is crucial in preserving communities.

Then on Saturday, Apr. 27, Soerens was busy stocking shelves in Resistencia, the cafe/coffee shop she and other women have refurbished in South Park, located on the western shore of the Duwamish River in a corner of Seattle.

An immigrant from Chile, Soerens lives in the neighborhood with her husband, Tim, and their two children. Along with the coffee shop, they are starting a CRC congregation.

When she first arrived in Seattle, Soerens got connected to the Green Bean coffee shop, begun by a CRC church planter — and that experience, along with the realization that young people in her community needed to see positive things, spurred her desire to open Resistencia.

“We wanted to have a place for people of all ages to come and talk and be together,” she said, taking a break as people sat at a table sipping coffee.

With help from various local sources, they were able to refurbish a building that once housed a marijuana-growing business.

You-Tube videos helped them learn how to do such work as put up drywall, paint, and redecorate. And in the meantime Soerens found ways to navigate the process of securing city permits that they needed.

“We see this coffee shop as a form of resistance. One of the goals is to encourage people to have ideals and [the confidence] that they can do things, that they have power,” she said.