Biff Gaitan stands at the front door of the new home of Emmaus Road Christian Reformed Church in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle, Wash., on Sunday mornings and makes sure that he shakes the hand of everyone coming in for worship.
But being the greeter is only one of several roles that the man who was once homeless in Seattle holds at the church that has itself had a few homes before settling into its new facility and joining with a local CRC couple to do ministry.
“I’ve been at Emmaus Road for 15 years and served in a lot of capacities,” said Gaitan one Saturday afternoon as he cleaned the church and got it ready for the next day’s service.
Sporting a purple beard and tattoos, he is an elder, has worked with the homeless and youth, and offers support in many other ways to the ministry that has meant so much to him.
“Boy, I was your basic mess. I couldn’t get a handle on my problems and couldn’t get right with God until I started coming here,” said Gaitan, who landed in Seattle after leaving Jackson, Mich. several years ago.
He connected with Emmaus Road while living and then working at the Seattle Union Gospel Mission.
“When I came in, Emmaus Road was welcoming, non-judgemental, not self-righteous. People were happy to see me,” he said.
Started by Eric Likkel in the late 1990s, Emmaus Road has worshipped in homes, coffee shops, and a homeless youth drop-in center near the Space Needle in downtown Seattle.
After earning degrees as music majors in college, both Eric and his wife Alicia felt the call to ministry. A compelling need for innovative ministries, along with the lure of Cascadia (Eric grew up in British Columbia), led the Likkels to move to Seattle and be part of a church planting movement.
Like a handful of others, such as Randy Rowland who pastored a congregation in a local movie theater, Eric wanted to reach young people in an area that was known as one of the most unchurched places in the U.S. Media accounts said Seattle was home to the “Nones,” young people who wanted no part of organized religion.
“I wanted to speak the gospel in language our peers could hear and listen to,” he said. “People of my generation weren’t being reached.”
Likkel said had -- and still has -- a passion to pass along the message of Christ in ways that harken back to the era after Christ walked along the Emmaus Road with two men who were shattered by Christ’s death and yet had their faith renewed in a powerful way when they saw the resurrected Jesus who ate and broke bread with them.
Speaking of the beginning of his church, Likkel said,“We wanted to come alongside people and foster an environment in which we think about the whole community and create a space in which we can truly hear the voice of God and move into a deeper relationship with him.”
The church found a home for several years in the downtown homeless youth center and built connections to the Seattle Union Gospel Mission and New Horizons, which works with homeless youths who sleep in doorways, in tents along the freeway, in alleys, and in encampments created in empty spaces around the heart of the city.
“We wanted to help the young people. We wanted to be in their territory. We wanted to find ways to help them deal with the brokenness and sin that leads to homelessness,” he said.
But over the last couple of years, the area in which they worshipped faced problems associated with an upscale housing and business boom that began displacing the poor and the needy. Rents soared for long-time residents and businesses. The death of a beloved worship leader also took a toll -- and Emmaus Road began searching for what God wanted the ministry to do next.
Meanwhile, Brian and Betsy Turnbull, also church planters supported by Resonate Global Missions (formerly Christian Reformed Home Missions), were at work in Seattle.
They moved here several years ago with hopes of launching a successful church with an emphasis on people who didn’t attend church and with a goal of building membership and starting programs to reach out to church members and the community.
To do this, they followed a fairly traditional church-planting model, taking time to develop a core group and to move on from there.
“I remember we rented out a community center, loaded up our van every Sunday with food, signs and music instruments and set it all up. Then we waited for people to show up,” said Betsy Turnbull.
But that effort never took off and, said Turnbull, after trying different ways to make it work, “we hit a wall.”
Still convinced, though, that God had called them into ministry, they connected with mentors who helped to guide them in a different, less traditional direction.
Out of this evolved The House, their current ministry, a much more low-key, one-on-one outreach that takes place more or less organically with people they meet in their daily lives, said Turnbull.
In essence, they became chaplains to their Northeast Seattle neighborhood. Finding other work to help pay the bills, they began to share their faith by how they lived their lives and interacted in those normal places where people gather.
“I found myself translating God to people I met on my child’s pre-school playground,” said Betsy who works as a fitness coach. “These connections and conversations, and chances for discipleship, happened in random places.”
They have held Bible studies, book discussions, game nights, met with neighbors over meals. They have built close relationships and served as spiritual directors for people.
In doing this, in various circumstances, said Betsy, “I have experienced Jesus in deep ways and realized we want to be the church that is out there on the fringes, We want to find the places where the Spirit is at work.”
Through her ministry with The House, she added, she has come to realize she is doing exactly what she was called by God to do -- and not to fill a community center on Sundays with worshippers.
She has also realized how crucial it is for her, and for the others with whom she ministers, the know that the love and “work of God is so quiet, so subtle and so soft.”
Late last year, she and Brian, who works as a financial and spirituality consultant, learned that a young church plant in their neighborhood, Lux Communities Church, was closing. This community had only recently taken root in the brick and mortar structure of an older congregation that had faded away. Now that space would be empty, again.
At the same time, they knew Eric Likkel and Emmaus Road were pondering their own future. Eric and his wife, long-time friends of the Turnbulls, had spent many hours discussing issues connected to ministry.
One thing led to another and late last year they were able make arrangements with the Christian Missionary Alliance, the organization that owned the church, to move in.
Today, the Likkels and Turnbulls are partners in ministry, combining their strengths and approaches to meet the needs of the people in the community.
“I never thought Emmaus Road would end up in a church building tucked away in North Seattle,” said Likkel. “But we know Betsy and Brian and we’re getting to know the neighborhood through them.”
In October, they held a Halloween event outside – Trick’r’Treat Oktoberfest – at which a polka band, featuring Likkel on the clarinet, played, drawing a large neighborhood crowd.
Staying faithful to their vision they call “Church Beyond Sunday”, the church continues to provide meals for homeless youth, puts together packs of toiletries and other items for street people, and holds various small group meetings.
In some ways, the two ministries that have had been on a course that is outside the norm have now partnered to work in a building that has some of the trappings of a traditional place of worship.
But in intent, focus and spirit, the church remains doing what it has always done — accompanying people, such as Gaitan, the greeter and the elder, down a road leading to deeper faith.
“Over the years, we’ve cultivated lots and lots of sparks. We’ve been a small church and these sparks have not been snuffed out yet,” said Likkel. “We are still seeking to be bright light wherever we are.”