Congregation’s welcoming attitude transforms community, individuals
By Myra Holmes
The annual candidate forum in Birch Bay, Wash., held in Birch Bay Bible Community Church's building, offers "a chance to engage in the political climate of our areas, says Pastor Time Thiessen. Photo provided by Doralee Booth.
The stage is filled with a dozen or so candidates for the school board, county executive positions, sheriff‘s office and local and state government offices. Red, white and blue balloons and a prominently displayed U.S. flag mark this as a political event. In this nonpartisan forum, each candidate will have a chance to speak and answer questions on issues like environmental conservation, taxes and growth strategies.
And they’ll do it all while sharing the stage with a cross and a communion table, because this annual candidate forum in Birch Bay, Wash., is held in the sanctuary of Birch Bay Bible Community Church (BBBCC), a USMB congregation.
Although people in Birch Bay generally see Christianity as irrelevant, no one thinks twice about holding a candidate forum in the worship center, says BBBCC pastor Tim Thiessen. In fact, many consider BBBCC a much-needed part of their community.
“The Birch Bay Bible Community Church serves as a center of our Birch Bay community,” writes Doralee Booth of the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce in a November letter to the editor of the local paper, The Northern Light. “It serves the local community as a gathering place not only to build and encourage people in their spiritual lives but also to help plan and build a better civic community.”
BBBCC has become an integral part of the community by hosting events such as the candidate forum. In the process, they’ve transformed both their community and individuals.
Church offers “scandalous” hospitality
The church first opened their doors 10 or more years ago, after then-pastor Rick Eshbaugh attended a community meeting held in the local fire hall, which was clearly too small. So he invited civic leaders to meet in the church building next time.
The building BBBCC was meeting in then was small and in such an out-of-the way location that many didn’t know it was there. Still, the worship center was bigger than any other space available in the area, so leaders accepted Eshbaugh’s invitation and began meeting there.
At the time, the community was in the midst of a critical transition. Birch Bay is an unincorporated resort area of about 8,000 located near a beautiful, horseshoe-shaped bay. It’s a perfect vacation spot, so families and retirees flock there during the summer months. Almost without notice, those seasonal vacationers began to stay year-round, and Birch Bay grew exponentially—86 percent in the 1990s and another 79 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Residents knew they needed a plan for growth in order to protect the beauty that drew them in the first place. So they formed the Birch Bay Steering Committee to develop a strategic plan for growth. Forming that plan required lots of meetings, and implementing the plan required more meetings.
Because the church was willing to simply open their doors, BBBCC became the community meeting place. According to church records, the church has hosted at least 483 meetings since 2007. During the height of the planning period, that meant multiple meetings each week.
Making an impression
The church never asked to be reimbursed for use of the facility. Volunteers unlocked the doors, set up chairs and sound systems and sometimes provided coffee and cookies. Not earth-shattering stuff, really. But it made an impression.
“It was just scandalous the way they treated us,” says Chamber member Booth, who is a believer but does not attend BBBCC.
If the church had not welcomed the community as it did, she says, the community certainly wouldn’t have had a place to gather at such a critical time in its development. Perhaps Birch Bay would look much different today. “It’s been so good for our community,” Booth says.
When the church set out to build a new facility, they designed it to continue to welcome the community. Thiessen says, “If we’re a community church—it’s in our name—we’d better be available to the community.”
The new facility, completed in 2012, is located on a strategic corner lot, and room sizes were thoughtfully planned for various gatherings and meetings. Now, when leaders announce a public meeting in the local paper, they simply note that it will be held at “the church.” No address or further explanation is needed.
“We all know BBBCC is a place where the doors are open,” Booth says.
Ready when the need arises
Thiessen says it’s important to open those doors and build relationships long before there’s any spiritual fruit. “I do it for the day when the need comes,” he says. When those in the community have a need, they know where to turn.
Like Kathy Berg. She is a long-time resident of Birch Bay and is known as the “unofficial mayor.” As part of the Birch Bay Steering Committee, she was among those leading the charge in community planning and was in and out of the church building many, many times for meetings. She got to know Thiessen, church administrator Vivian Wheeler and others from the congregation.
While she had attended church as a child and made a decision to accept Christ as a young adult, church was no longer part of her life, aside from those meetings.
Then her life took an unexpected turn when her 50-year marriage crumbled. In the midst of this painful time, she remembered something from Sunday school: “It dawned on me that Jesus loves me.” She began to attend church again after 20-some years, and BBBCC was the natural place for her to turn.
She says that at BBBCC she can be honest with herself and with the people there, which has been vital in her healing. While she still has questions about what it means to follow Christ, she is learning and leaning in. She plans to go to Israel with a group from the church in September and hopes the trip will help clarify her faith for her.
“I’m a different person in many ways,” she says. “It was a really scary time, but I’m not scared anymore, and I know who I can depend on.”
People like Berg and the community in general can rely on BBBCC to continue opening their doors, says Thiessen. “My goal is to continue to be a church that is the church for Birch Bay, continue to be a place where the community feels comfortable, where they know they can turn in their time of need.”
Will the church host a 2016 candidate forum? Birch Bay leaders will decide later in summer—after tourist season—whether they’ll have another candidate forum at BBBCC, but after eight or so consecutive years, Booth says it’s “a done deal.”
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