By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After 20 years without their own building, the Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation finally has one.
Friday was WSUU’s first full day of owning the former Gatewood Baptist/Seattle International Church building at California/Othello (map).
Congregation leaders and members didn’t waste a minute of Day 1. At 9 am Friday, a group was on the site whacking weeds that were starting to get out of control, and when we visited to speak with church leaders between 5 and 6 Friday night, another work party was busy tidying up the church’s side yard along Othello, looking for all the world like they weren’t likely to leave before dark (if then):
The building needs work inside too before the first scheduled service in 4 1/2 months – but the Westside Unitarian Universalists couldn’t be more excited – read on:
Congregation president Paula vanHaagen (above left) and minister Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan took us on a tour, along with congregation member Laura Matson. (We’ve walked and driven past the building, a hulking brick icon where the Morgan Junction business/multifamily-housing district ends and the Gatewood single-family zone begins, hundreds of times, but never before been inside.)
The prior owner, Seattle International Church, has moved to Renton, after the Gatewood building became the subject of foreclosure proceedings. Two years after Seattle International bought it in spring 2007, we had reported a year ago that the building was for sale again. Its original owner, Gatewood Baptist, moved out in 2006 after selling the church building as well as land to the west and to the east across California, all to a local developer, who built townhomes on the former church land across the street and has rented out the building to the west, mostly as artist studios.
Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation, meantime, has rented space from the Alki Masonic Hall for its entire existence. Church offices have been there too, but the leadership says those offices will move over to the new Gatewood building immediately.
Full of the excitement of new homeowners who just got the keys, they showed us every space last night, including upstairs offices with Puget Sound views (that’s The Kenney‘s cupola in the background):
Then there’s the baptismal tub – “this was a Baptist church, after all,” noted Rev. Morgan – the future use of which, they’re still pondering (immersion baptism is not part of Unitarian Universalist practices):
The building’s origins as Gatewood Baptist Church in 1950 are commemorated in granite by the front door, and WSUU says that will stay:
As for a set of nearby stained-glass windows, paying tribute to the church’s original minister and his wife, they are trying to figure out “who to give them back to” – possibly even that couple’s descendants – so they can install their own display by the lobby’s front desk.
While we tour the building – “we’re still finding rooms we didn’t know about!” vanHaagen says – the trio points out places that will become offices, classrooms, and as the crowning glory, a huge “social space” on the lower floor, with a stage of its own, and a partition that will be removed.
No one is more excited, they say, than the congregation’s 80 children. Rev. Morgan recounts young congregation members’ role in the surprise announcement of the “Home of Our Own” capital campaign, which raised $750,000: They put on a skit which began with a child announcing the other kids were “rioting” over having to have their Sunday school classes “in a bathroom” – an exaggeration (but not by much) of the space crunch in their Alki Masonic Hall digs – then burst into song, “We Need a Bigger Building,” to the tune of “We Need a Little Christmas.” (Added 10:50 am: WSUU Religious Education director Kari Kopnick e-mailed to point out this was actually captured on video – here’s the clip:)
And their skit included a vision of themselves as church board members in 2035, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the new building. WSUU kids even wrote letters to their grandparents suggesting capital-campaign donations, Matson says.
The new building has a multitude of other spaces that could be used for classrooms and events, and WSUU envisions those being available to the greater West Seattle community as well as the congregation. They also will be able to participate more fully in some of the community responsibilities they’ve taken on, such as participation in Family Promise of Seattle, in which local congregations take turns providing sustenance and shelter for newly homeless families – they’ve been partnering with Tibbetts United Methodist Church (WSB sponsor) since they have not been able to provide actual space for Family Promise clients to sleep in, but now they’ll be able to do that.
The path to their own church building stretches back to the congregation’s founding as a fellowship, meeting in homes, in 1963. One more recent milestone was the hiring of Rev. Morgan as WSUU’s first full-time minister in 2002. She was a longtime social worker before joining the ministry 15 years ago – roles including a quarter-century plus as director of Director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services left her with the organizational skills upon which she has drawn, not just to lead WSUU, but to lead it into the kind of growth phase that has made the new building possible as well as increased the congregation to 150 adults, along with those 80 kids, “and 10, 15 new members about to join,” she adds.
So, we asked, will this Sunday’s sermon be about the new building? Actually, says Rev. Morgan, it’s about Earth Day – which will always hold extra meaning for WSUU, since April 22 is also the day on which their building purchase closed. She’ll be talking about Charles Darwin, who had Unitarian roots, and his use of reason and intuition – “head and heart,” as Rev. Morgan puts it – both of which will be used by the minister and her congregation as they embrace and renovate their new building.
At 1:30 this Sunday afternoon, they’re planning a BOVC party – “bring your own vacuum cleaner!” our tour guides smile – to help make a dent in the tidying that needs to be done. Many more work parties, and professionally handled renovations, are in the works, and once the space is up and running in fall, they hope to host the aforementioned community events as well as church events.
For the latter, though, it’s clear that the new space will be a dream come true – particularly for weddings.
Seated in the sanctuary, Rev. Morgan daydreams, “I can see a bride and groom coming down the aisle here … or a bride and bride, or a groom and groom.” (WSUU is a certified “welcoming congregation” – explained here.)
And in the weeks ahead, she will see her congregants coming down the aisle … the stairs … the sloping lawns … all to keep working to transform the church into “A Home of Their Own.” The first service is planned for September 12, with the congregation continuing to meet at the Masonic Hall till then; a formal dedication service is set for the evening of October 24, and WSUU expects more than 50 clergy members from around the region to join the celebration.