My Stories

Where Is This “Church with a Big Heart?”

This is not the church in Longview, Washington, USA. Instead, it is Fjortoft Kyrkje (Fjortoft Church, established 1878) on the Island of Fjortoft in Norway, north of Alesund. It is where many Norwegian relatives, including my great grandfather, are buried. [May, 2016]

“The Church with a Big Heart” [reference August 11, 2020] was in a lumber town in Washington State of the United States with a population of 30,000 citizens at the time, now 38,000.  The church had undergone a major church split before my arrival forty years ago, and I was the first pastor after this shattering experience.  The church had regressed from 100 in annual average attendance in Sunday School to 16 by the time we arrived.

The city in which the church was located was interesting in its history and the formalizing of “economic and social classism” in its creation.  Longview, Washington was founded by Robert A. Long, who was based in Kansas City, Kansas.  His company, the Long-Bell Lumber Company had vast lumber holdings in various locations, especially in Louisiana around a town he created in about 1906 named – Longville.

Mr. Long began looking for other areas to purchase trees and produce lumber.  He fastened his attention on the extensive uncut trees in the State of Washington in the Northwest corner of the contiguous United States.  He began looking for a location that had good access to the trees as well as access to the means to process and transport the trees.  He found a large mud flat at the confluence of the Columbia River (a river delineating the border between Washington State and the State of Oregon – the third largest river in the United States) and the Cowlitz River.  There he built Longview, Washington from those mud flats in 1923.  Mr. Long hired civil engineers from the East Coast, and they laid out the streets of Longview with figurative wheel spokes radiating out from the City Center and the City Park.  If one were to look at early pictures of Longview, one would see paved streets, paved sidewalks, utility poles with wires strung between them – and nothing else. 

He built two large lumber mills on the edge of the Columbia River that were purported to be the largest in the world at that time.  Years later, the Weyerhauser company built a large lumber mill alongside the other mills, itself becoming the largest in the world.  A shipping port was built as a part of these lumber mills to be able to ship finished lumber – as well as logs – to worldwide locations.  There was also a railway line that connected the mills to markets in the growing Puget Sound area to the north and the burgeoning population to the south in California as well as Portland, Oregon.  There it was: a city built from mud flats to support the people who worked in those large lumber mills on the edge of the Columbia River.

And this is where the institutionalized classism came about in Longview, Washington.  When the city was laid out, it was designed so that the mill workers would live closest to the mills to the south of Beech Street.  To the north of Beech Street was where supervisors and other higher-paid residents were destined to live.  The homes were small and simple south of Beech Street and larger and nicer north of Beech Street.  To simplify this explanation, then one would encounter even nicer homes farther north on the other side of the large city park.  Then comes the city’s commercial district.  Next in one’s traveling north, the visitor would encounter the hills overlooking the city – and this is where the “higher class” residents lived, the business owners and leaders of the city.

By the time I arrived, the “working class” residences on the south side of the city toward the Columbia River were being bought by investors as the original residents aged and died.  Consequently, the area was mostly rentals where the population was very transient and too often jobless.  This was the location of “The Church with the Big Heart” – south of Beech Street.  Only one other church was directly ministering to that area, and that was just a block away.

The police told me that half their calls came from that area.  At community ministerial meetings or at meetings of Baptist ministers, I would be asked, “How are things going over there?”  Such an innocent, well-meaning question, but I understood the implication: “How are things going over on that side of Beech Street where we would never go?”

That is what my family and I walked into with God’s guidance.  It was a church that had undergone a major church split in which the leaders had left the church.  The few people remaining had been on the periphery.  However, they realized that they needed to either step up their involvement or close the church. This was stated to me by those who had stepped up.  Our wise Director of Missions (as the resource person for an area group of Baptist churches is called) said to me after I was there a couple of years, “It sure is hard to grow a church without leaders, isn’t it?”  That was a breath of needed encouragement – that someone realized our church situation. However, that was the mission and purpose of my wife and I being there: to find and develop leaders from those who had never been leaders.  We felt we largely succeeded.  

“The Church with a Big Heart” still exists today.  However, it has undergone a change in name and structure, perhaps to leave the troubles and community reputation of the split church behind, and to renew its outreach to the unique community.  The people who were willing to learn, change and be open to new opportunities of service forty years ago (!) have all passed on from this world, except one.  He was young man who was a later addition, and he is the secretary for the “new” re-established church.

When a couple pastors (my wife served alongside me but without title or compensation), one never knows what kind of impact one has on a church or on individuals.  We just serve as God guides us – and let Him work the results. There is more to come on this church and its special ministry when I write it.

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