Steve Shay
Rev. Dr. Joanne Carlson Brown is the popular pastor at Tibbetts United Methodist Church in West Seattle. She holds the church's "official greeter," her beloved West Highland Terrier, Thistle, as she contemplates the century-old church's promising future.

Nothing old fashioned about 100 year-old church

On its Web site, the 275-member Tibbetts United Methodist Church in West Seattle declares, “Open minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.” For its popular reverend Dr. Joanne Carlson Brown, a relative newcomer to the church who is ushering in Tibbetts’ first 100 years in 2009, this statement is not a platitude, but the path she believes the church is on for the next 100 years.

“A lot of people in the Seattle area talk about spiritualism, and not organized religion," said Brown, who earned her PhD in church history and historical theology at Boston University. "To many, organized religion equals organized crime."

She teaches the reformation and North American church history at Seattle University.

“What happened to religion in people’s minds is that they find it intolerant, violent, homophobic, and believe it divides more than unites,” said the outspoken minister who proudly recalls another minister throwing her out of sunday school class back in her hometown of Pittsburgh when she was a pre-teen for contradicting his “conservative views.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers fan explained, “He didn’t like my questions or statements. He would say children were born with ‘Original Sin,’ and I would tell him that my God does not create bad babies, but that people grow up and make choices about how to live. I think the last straw was when I said, ‘All Jews don’t go to hell.’ That really got him,’” she said.

In fact, she belonged at that time to the Jewish youth group, B’nai Brith Girls, and remembers “marching around on ‘Simchat Torah,’” the Jewish holiday celebrating the first five books of the Bible. Even now she occasionally attends Friday night services at Temple De Hirsh, the Jewish synagogue on Capitol Hill.

“I feel more welcome there than in a conservative church," said Brown. "A rabbi once called me ‘The spy from the other side.’”

Brown studied Hebrew, along with German, Greek, and Latin at Garrett Theological Seminary at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, and at Boston University.

“There are times when I don’t even call myself a Christian, but rather a follower of Jesus," Brown continued. “It’s what fits for me. No one should have to ask am I a follower of Jesus. They should be able to tell, by how I live, what I do. St. Francis of Assisi had a wonderful saying, ‘Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.’”

Controversy followed Brown from Sunday school to seminary school.

“I earned my way through seminary and graduate school as a bartender,” she said. “My bishop was not amused. But it was really good pay.”

She worked at a bar on East Division Street, “party-central” on Chicago’s North Side.

“People are not at a bar at 2 in the morning just to drink," said Brown. "They want someone to talk to. Who better to be behind a bar than someone trained in pastoral counseling? You listen, share your compassion- A lot of people are lonely.”

She still tends bar for private parties if asked but said she does not charge.

The American Methodist Church is grouped into regions, or “conferences,” including the Pacific Northwest Methodist conference, which includes Washington State, Northern Idaho, and Alaska, a huge geographic region compared to other conferences.

“I think this is due partly to ‘people of independence’ who went west, and the further west, the more they dropped their institutions and organizations," said Brown. " By the time you get to Washington, you have nothing left.”

She said polling data indicates that in this area more than anywhere else in the nation, people surveyed on religious preferences check “none.”

“This is the ‘none’ zone," said Brown, punning on the word “nun.”

She sites the book "Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone" (by Patricia O’Connell Killen.) So how does the reverend both preach religious tolerance while battling the intolerance of religion itself in secular Seattle?

“I try to show people that Tibbetts Church is active and caring in the community and that Jesus called us to the least and the lost," said Brown.

Tibbetts partners with 13 other churches and a synagogue participating in “Family Promise.”

“We house homeless families, four families at a time in our church," she said.

A van takes homeless families to different churches to stay, takes the children to school and the adults to work, or to a day center if unemployed.

“We have a different way of looking at missions," said Brown. "Rather than taking the Gospel to the ‘poor, benighted heathens and whipping a little Jesus into them,’ which is traditionally the way missions are seen, what we do is post-modern, even ‘post-Christian.’ We only go if invited, to schools, orphanages, hospitals. This conference has recently built an orphanage for girls in the (Democratic Republic of the) Congo, and is now raising money to build an orphanage for boys."

And Tibbetts at 100?

“I think this is great that we’ve been living the way of Jesus in West Seattle for 100 years, and we’re not going anywhere," said Brown. "The emphasis on our Centennial is not just looking back, but also our vision for the next 100 years. We’ve been doing a Lenten Study on the book ‘Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations’ (by Robert Schnase.) Those include ‘radical hospitality,’ ‘passionate worship,’ ‘risk-taking mission and service,’ ‘intentional faith development,’ and ‘extravagant generosity.’ We look at all five and ask, ‘What have we done well? What do we do well. What will we now do?’"

Brown winces at how, in her view, conservative fundamentalist churches “accept” certain congregants but reject their lifestyle.

“I believe fundamentalism is so narrow and intolerant,” she said. “Bruce Bawer wrote a book called ‘Stealing Jesus, How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.' Conservative fundamentalists, especially those who run the church, say, ‘Love the sinner, but not the sin,’ and,‘We will pray for you.’ Here at Tibbetts Church we say to gays and others who feel excluded from those churches, ‘You are all beloved children of God.’ We have gone on record that anybody is welcome.”

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A verse that comes to mind after reading this article...

"For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3)