Story Magazine - Spring/Summer, 2011

Blessed are the Poor: How a mission start congregation in Seattle lives out the Sermon on the Mount

by Angela Busch, M.Div. Middler

Across the country, churches are trying multiple techniques to improve ailing membership numbers. Some churches advertise on television or the radio, others purchase billboards, update their websites or make Facebook pages. Some churches stream their worship services online; others send postcards in the mail.

Most of these techniques wouldn't work very well at the Church of Steadfast Love in Seattle, an ELCA mission-start congregation serving the Compass Housing Alliance. Most congregation members here don't own a TV. They don't have cars—so the radio advertisements while driving to work in the morning wouldn't reach them very well.

Without a home address, they can't receive mailings; without a personal computer and intermittent email access, Facebook, websites or online streaming might not help much either.

Instead, it's often a kind word or gentle hug that brings people to the Church of Steadfast Love. On her walk to the Compass Housing Alliance each morning and afternoon, the Rev. Kristy Daniels, '03, often sees people she knows from church out on the streets. Many of them can find emergency, transitional or permanent housing at the Compass Center or related shelters, but some end up in a cycle that includes nights out on the streets.

One wouldn't be surprised if Daniels was intimidated or felt out of place at times in this area of the city, where she admits it can be unsafe to walk home alone at night. Instead, Daniels seems to share a certain fellowship with the men and women she sees at the center, in church and sometimes on the streets each day.

"She is an excellent and gifted listener," said congregation member Mark Garrison, who has been attending the Church of Steadfast Love for the past nine months. "I have enjoyed watching her be able to be compassionate in a very constructive way."

Part of that compassion comes from personal experience. Growing up in rural Washington state, Daniels said she was never really aware that she was poor. Everyone she knew was on free or reduced lunch, and her home was a log cabin.

Then in 1999, while studying social work at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., Daniels lived at Guadalupe House Catholic Worker Community homeless shelter as part of a school internship. Day in and day out, she learned the difficulties of homelessness: staying clean, washing clothes, getting enough to eat—these were lessons she'd remember in her future ministry.

"You can be more understanding when you've lived in a situation yourself," Daniels said. "Probably the biggest thing it did for me was show me that you can't blame people for their situation. You understand
that everybody has their own story ... everyone is human."

With this rich experience in mind, Daniels headed to Luther Seminary after graduation from Pacific Lutheran and earned a Master of Divinity in 2003, eventually being called to the Compass Center in 2007 after four years serving a church in Montana.

In the three and a half years since Daniels was called to Seattle, the Church of Steadfast Love has blossomed into a well-known ministry among the area's population of people experiencing homelessness. There is a full communion service each Sunday night, morning prayer on Tuesdays, Bible study and evening prayer on Wednesdays. The Sunday and Wednesday gatherings are preceded by a congregational meal.

The congregation is not self-supporting, despite Daniels' preaching most Sunday mornings at other area
congregations to raise money and awareness, and despite the congregation's service projects throughout the region.

"We'll probably never be self-supporting, even though we are supported by a few members who are well-housed and regular tithers," Daniels said. "We don't fit the traditional guidelines for congregations, and we probably never will."

While this non-traditional setup can be difficult for the congregation's sole leader, Daniels cherishes those memories that keep her inspired to lead this unique congregation: three to four curious hands raised during sermons to ask questions, crying during carols at Christmas Eve, and especially the man
who lived in the wood pile near the Compass Center.

"For several months people thought he was deaf and mute," Daniels said. "One day I was trying to talk to him, and I realized that he spoke Spanish. That was why he hadn't been responding. Just having someone to talk to and listen to him transformed his life."

It's similar to the way that Mark Garrison's life has been changed by the Church of Steadfast Love.

"I was an alcoholic and I've been in prison," he said. "I had saved up some money, but that ran out pretty quickly ... I knew somebody who knew somebody and found out about the Compass Center and the church ... I didn't have any idea of the scope of the help it offers people."

Added Garrison, "There is a mutual help and understanding at the church that may surprise the uninitiated ... There are rich, successful executives who are very needy spiritually and could also benefit from some things at this church. God works in wonderful ways that aren't easily seen at a glance."

Above all, Garrison, 56, said that this fellowship of people really is a church.

"I want to express this. It does feel like a parish here: people who come together and sing in our amazingly diverse voices. I know that God is visiting us, and that's true even when we see each other on the streets."