By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After almost 15 years, Rev. Peter DeVeau will deliver his last sermon to West Seattle’s St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church tomorrow.
His departure is entwined with a return – he is going to lead the Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral congregation in Kansas City, where he served for more than 6 years earlier in his career.
Sunday night, community members are invited to a farewell celebration at St. John’s. We caught up with him late Friday for a look back, and ahead.
Walking through the hallways of St. John’s to get to the library, Rev. DeVeau points out wall-hangings depicting its history. The church is the oldest congregation in West Seattle, he says, founded in 1892, and its current site is on the site once home to Holy Rosary Catholic Church (now of course on the north end of The Junction).
He is clearly excited about his new congregation and his new city, describing it as “Midwestern but not, Southern but not, Western but not, looking west for its energy, unlike St. Louis” (on the other side of the state). The cathedral, he says, is at the city’s “crossroads,” in an 1886 building “full of treasures” including Tiffany glass, with other attributes including its renowned music program and social outreach.
But he is also sad to be leaving the “unique culture of the Northwest,” where people “participate in the life of churches because they are very committed to (the church/faith),” as opposed to joining simply for social reasons, as is the case in some other regions. That commitment doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in frequent attendance, DeVeau notes: “You can have a very active congregation, but only see (individual members) on one of every three Sundays.” The congregation he’s leaving, he observes, “has always had a good outlook on things.”
We ask what he will remember most, be most proud of, looking back at his St. John’s years. The integration with neighboring West Seattle High School - in terms of sharing the parking lot, for example – is a point of pride. After his arrival at St. John’s, he explains, he heard that WSHS was in line for remodeling, and he asked if the church had spoken to the school about possible ways their sites could better interface; that led to their participation in architectural charrettes for the project, and results that ultimately led to better visibility for the church, as well as other benefits. For a while, he says, there also was a program of “ecumenical outreach to high-school kids” once a week, serving 90 teens at its peak.
Another point of pride – the remodeling of the main building for full accessibility to those with disabilities, and best use of its spaces, to help it fully realize its potential – like the congregation it serves.
Then, there are the houses on SW Roxbury, miles away from St. John’s location in the Admiral District. Half a century ago, DeVeau explains, the church bought land along that busy street in the Roxhill/Westwood area, intending it for a third “mission church,” in addition to churches in Burien and on Vashon Island.
In a complicated set of circumstances that also involved a house that once stood on the St. John’s property in Admiral, the church teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to build distinctive houses on the Roxbury property – two used for transitional housing as part of a program serving refugees.
St. John’s congregation also reaches across the world to offer help to impoverished people in their own countries, he recounts, including a “Books and Bricks“ program for schoolchildren in Mulundi, Kenya. According to the minister, a mission of five people from St. John’s just traveled to the area; inbetween visits, he says, they prepare intensively, even gathering to study Swahili.
Within the West Seattle community, outreach and giving are extensive too. They include charity programs such as Lettuce Pray – with a food-growing garden in St. John’s future, DeVeau notes – and the Seafarers’ Mission, as well as St. John’s regular turn as a host congregation for Family Promise of Seattle, whose participating churches spend a week each quarter or so providing shelter and meals for homeless families in the program.
Then there’s the arts and crafts co-op – which has a sale coming up next weekend, DeVeau is quick to point out – and other forms of outreach, including its “famous rummage sale” (and a friendly rummage-sale rivalry with other local churches) plus the annual Blessing of the Animals, which we covered again this year:
The parking-lot sharing with WSHS enables St. John’s to have space for that, by the way. Meantime, the Montessori-based Sunday-school program is something he’s proud of, too. And there are even smaller details, such as the fact the church offers gluten-free communion bread for those who need it, and a simple way of gesturing to the server for that option.
Rev. DeVeau’s memories of St. John’s also will include some days indelible from all our memories: “I’m really proud of how the church reached out to the community (after) 9/11,” a strong memory as well as the day of the Nisqually Earthquake, which he remembers as the “Ash Wednesday quake.” A sculpture in the sanctuary was moving back and forth – evoking memories for some of the 1964 quake in which the same thing happened.
We ask Rev. DeVeau also to muse on the state of the church and his denomination, in an evolving world, as he gets ready for a personal transition. He points out that the St. John’s congregation is somewhat younger than some, including members spanning a wide age range, “even some 20-somethings.” Episcopalians are “decidedly Christian, but open-minded,” he says, “not afraid of questions.” And the faith, he says, is not about focusing on “how everything’s going to go to hell at any second now” – while of course, he says, they believe “God has the final word,” there’s just not a focus on the future as much as how to live right now the way they believe He intends – “justice, mercy, peace.”
While St. John’s is the only Episcopal church in West Seattle, it has strong ties to the leadership of the Diocese of Olympia, to which it belongs (Diocesan headquarters are actually in Seattle, not the city of Olympia). Its Bishop, Greg Rickel, is a West Seattle resident, Rev. DeVeau points out.
Now, to the farewells. His final sermons, for the Sunday morning services at 8 am and 10:15 am, are the first after All-Saints Day, and will include baptisms as well as the other traditional components. He says he has built the sermon around “Occupying Your Street” – a takeoff on the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. “The call is to get out there and make a difference.”
He plans to be doing that – it’ll just be that he’s “(going) out there” 1,900 miles from here, once he and wife Mary move next month. His successor has not yet been chosen – or “called,” in the church lexicon; he says St. John’s elected “vestry” will embark on the process of calling an interim minister shortly, and will take it from there.
St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church is at 3050 California SW, south of West Seattle High School. Sunday night’s farewell reception is scheduled for 5-7 pm.
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