Political forum one example of welcoming attitude
By Myra Holmes
In a heated and often polarizing national election season, one USMB congregation’s involvement in local politics is bringing their community together. As they’ve done every year for at least eight years, Birch Bay Bible Community Church (BBBCC), a USMB congregation in Birch Bay, Wash., will host the community’s annual candidate forum this week on Oct. 6.
The stage will be filled with candidates for the school board, county executives, sheriff‘s office and local and state government offices. In this nonpartisan forum, each candidate will have a chance to speak to community members and answer questions on issues like environmental conservation, taxes and growth strategies. Attendees will walk away with valuable information to form opinions and make their vote count.
But the impact goes beyond informing local voters; by opening their doors to events such as the forum, BBBCC has given community members a place to come together.
Community had no place to meet
Birch Bay is an unincorporated resort area with about 8,000 residents located near a beautiful, horseshoe-shaped bay of Vancouver Island. The area has abundant vacation cottages but no local school, post office or town hall–no place to gather as a community. No place for civic leaders to gather to map out growth strategies, for residents to brainstorm ideas or discuss the pros and cons of a local issue.
So about 10 years ago, BBBCC invited community leaders to meet in their building. And when the church set forth to build a new facility several years later, they designed it with community gatherings and meetings in mind.
BBBCC pastor Tim Thiessen says, “If we’re a community church–it’s in our name–we’d better be available to the community.”
According to church records, the church has hosted at least 483 meetings since 2007, sometimes multiple meetings each week. Kathy Berg, Birch Bay’s “unofficial mayor” and now a BBBCC attendee, says BBBCC’s hospitality “allows us a place to come together as a community. There is no other place it would be possible.”
Berg says at first community leaders wondered if the church would proselytize or try to force a particular point of view. Instead, “they were just welcoming members of the community offering their facility.” The church never asked to be reimbursed for use of the facility. Volunteers unlocked the doors, set up chairs and sound systems if needed and sometimes set out coffee and cookies.
Berg says that’s part of the reason BBBCC’s hospitality has been so well-received. “The way they do it is so respectful.” She recognizes now that BBBCC’s hospitality flows out of faith. “It was and is an expression of their Christian commitment to the community.”
Civic leaders fight for church
By the time the church was building that new facility, BBBCC had become a valued part of the community. So much so that when the church hit a sizable obstacle in the building process regarding wetlands mitigation, civic leaders spoke on the church’s behalf at a hearing.
Doralee Booth, member of the Birch Bays Chamber of Commerce and a Christian, was among those who spoke, telling those present that BBBCC “has partnered with the community of Birch Bay in a scandalous way” by opening their doors to the community. “It serves the local community as a gathering place not only to build and encourage people in their spiritual lives but also to plan and build a better civic community.”
Thiessen says that to have civic leaders say that the community needs the church was “pretty profound”–especially coming from those who, unlike Booth, wouldn’t necessarily admit to needing Christ.
By the end of the hearing, the examiner–a man Booth describes as “an old gruff fellow”–sat in stunned silence before turning to the county representatives and saying, “Can’t we do something?”
Booth says that the permitting process for the church, which had been stalled for several years, moved forward quickly after that. BBBCC’s building was completed in 2012.
The positive relationship between the church and community has continued as the church welcomes various community gatherings. Now, when leaders announce a public meeting in the local paper, they simply say it will be held at “the church.” No address or further explanation is needed.
Pastor recognizes fragile reputation
After so many years of BBBCC hosting the candidate forum, community leaders more or less assume the church will host each year. But Thiessen doesn’t take either the forum or the church’s positive reputation in the community for granted. “It’s still fragile,” he says.
He notes that when pastors fail morally, it can have a huge, negative impact. So he feels the weight of that personally and takes it as a challenge to guard his witness carefully.
In addition, he sees a day coming when the church will have to take an unpopular stand on cultural or political issues. “Will that end the relationship in the community? I hope not. I hope they see people of conviction, but experience a balance of grace and truth: They hear truth, but experience grace.”
In the meantime, Thiessen expects the church will continue simply opening its doors to the community. “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.”
Photo provided by BBBCC: Balloons often decorate the church building for the annaul candidate date.