Arbora Court: How one church is helping low income people find places to live

May 18, 2016

Arbora CourtEvery urban congregation faces the challenge: to respond to the housing crisis that forces many people to live on the streets.

They can offer a helping hand by providing free meals, emergency shelter, counseling, and referrals, food subsidies, advocacy, and friendship. Even as church people offer these ministries, they know that more is needed. Would it be possible, they wonder, for their church to use its resources—its members, money, buildings and property, and social standing—to resolve seemingly intractable problems in its neighborhood.?

One congregation that has answered the question with a dramatic “yes” is University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Seattle. On May 14, 2016, this church and its community partners celebrated the completion of a long process that is giving birth to Arbora Court across 15th Avenue Northeast from the church’s historic building. Ground breaking is planned for this fall, and in early 2018 a new structure will provide living units for 133 households, with incomes ranging from zero to 60% of the area median income.

Apartments will range in size from studio to three-bedroom, with a strong emphasis upon families with children. They will live in the middle of the University District, within walking distance to grocery stores, restaurants, public library, community center, high-quality public schools, and transit opportunities. The estimated cost of Arbora Court is $41,000,000, with funding coming from several sources including Washington State Housing Trust Fund, and King County County Housing Finance Program.

University Christian Church has been the central player in this process. Since 1915, it has been one of the ecumenical Protestant churches that line 15th Avenue on the western edge of the University of Washington. Nearby residential neighborhoods are long-established and costly and tens of thousands of university students compete for places to live. Business establishments run the gamut of types one would expect near a major university.

And Seattle is one of the most expensive cities in the nation in which to live. Many people struggle with incomes and personal circumstances that make it impossible for them to afford housing.

University Christian Church has long recognized the need for affordable housing while it has also addressed its own need for parking. In the late 1980s, it used funds from its endowment to purchase two old houses across 15th Avenue and adjacent to the church’s small parking lot. The houses were reconditioned and made available to low-income university students, many from migrant farm families, who otherwise would not have been able to stay in college.

For one short period, the parking lot became the location for “Nicholsville,” a self-managed tent city community housing a tiny portion of Seattle’s homeless population. It was clear, however, that a more substantial effort to make long-term, affordable housing was needed and that University Christian had the opportunity to turn its “mission-to-the-community” energies in this direction.

Over the years a stable church committee with a gradually changing set of participants worked at this mission challenge. The church concluded that the best way forward—for the church and for its community—was to convert its small parking lot and the adjacent old houses into a new, multi-story apartment building with affordable rents and support services that would help residents respond effectively to life challenges they were facing.

The process turned out to be complex and daunting. Coalitions needed to be developed; the support of residents, businesses, churches, and community organizations had to be secured. A maze of legal and political issues—especially zoning–had to be resolved. Funding for this costly project had to be found. The active period of hard work has taken a decade, but the preparatory labor has been completed and Arbora Court soon will add to the quality of life in the University District.

University Christian Church has been crucial to this entire process. Its members and leaders provided the vision and constancy of purpose. The church’s stability over a multi-decade period of time kept the project going even though the membership of its planning committee has changed over time. The wide range of personal skills in dealing with the practical politics of urban life and political systems was invaluable.

Arbora Court is being made possible by a generous below-market sale of land by the church to a new corporation that will carry the project forward. Compass Housing Alliance will provide on-site support for the households transitioning from homelessness. The church will own 60 parking spaces in the building’s garage.

The project will include a prominent art installation honoring the legacy of University Christian Church. The most significant and long lasting monument to the church’s ministry in Christ’s name, however, will be the generations of families that will be blessed by living at Arbora Court in the decades that extend far into the future.


Ride Around Clark County 2016

May 8, 2016

The first day of cycling summer in Clark County, Washington

RACC Metric CenturyWhere I live the summer cycling season begins with RACC—Ride Around Clark County—sponsored by the Vancouver (USA) Bicycle Club. It takes place on the first Saturday in May, which is well ahead of the official start of summer and explains why cyclists often ride through rain. Confirmation that summer has started in this part of the world was in full display at the Vancouver Farmers’ Market when I finished my ride: strawberries—real strawberries— were for sale in large quantity by several vendors.

This year cyclists rode through a perfect Pacific Northwest summer day: cloudless sky, full sunshine, and temperature near 60 degrees when we started and the low 80s when we finished. A light breeze refreshed the spirit without impeding the body.

The route is one of the most interesting century rides I know. It takes cyclists on a kinky, easily followed course through a semi-rural countryside in which country estates and hardscrabble cottages coexist in visual harmony. Unexpectedly churches appear in secluded rural locations and on the edges of residential developments. They represent a wide range of denominations, including Adventist, Catholic, Episcopal, unaffiliated, and Apostolic Lutheran (historically connected with Finnish immigrants).

Working farms and vineyards are interspersed with show places resplendent with flowering trees and magnificent shrubs, such as rhododendron, in full bloom. One large field had become a parking lot for people who were spending the day at a horse show. Only in three or four short stretches have suburban residential developments turned rural roads into angry thoroughfares.

Most of the route passes through countryside with second growth timber providing shade for cyclists. We rode through dappled sunshine with green fields and wild flowers everywhere.

The full 100-mile version of Ride Around Clark County travels across the northern part of the county, close to the Lewis River, and passes through the small communities of Yacolt, Amboy, and LaCenter. Knowing the challenging character of the Clark County hills in the region where I regularly ride, I was apprehensive when I first cycled in the county’s northern reaches, but was greatly relieved to discover that there are long stretches of gentle terrain.

In recent times, I am finding that the metric century (rather than the statute mile century) suits me, especially this early in the season. This was the route I chose again this year, although with two minor adjustments near the end in order to bypass late-in-the-ride hill-climbing challenges. When RACC veterans speak of the Felida Hill, it usually is with tremolo in their voices. Even my doctor knows this climb and suggests that it is one I should consider walking—which I hate to do on sponsored rides with the “whole world” watching.

My alternative route starts at the bottom of the Felida Hill and wanders along Salmon Creek. A friend whose family farm backed up to the creek once told me that in the early 1930s his dad would fish for salmon with a pitch fork. All year round everything in the creek bottom is intensely green, and this is especially true at the beginning of summer.

Despite the fact that registered riders number in the thousands, I cycled by myself the entire distance, but I was never alone. Always there was someone up ahead a quarter of mile or so and others coming up from behind. On these rides, there is a strong sense of comradery and riders are energized by being with others, even though most of the people around them are complete strangers. We find ourselves traveling with some of the same people all day and see them and talk as we ride along and stop at the rest stops or stand at quiet places to take photos or stretch a little.

At the rest stops, food, water, toilets, and bike repair stations provide support services for everyone, and we know that the volunteer support staff are ready to drive out into the country if we need help.

This perfect ride came close to disaster in Hazel Dell, about five miles from home, when I realized that my rear tire was half flat (the third time this tire has let me down in the last two weeks). Hoping for the best, I pumped it up again, and made it home in good shape. By evening the tire was flat, but I—showered, rested, fed, and weary—reveled in the peace of a wonderful ride on the the first day of this year’s cycling summer.

Bicycling to the World’s Lowest Places

April 25, 2016

Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents, by Jim Malusa (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008)

MalusaJim Malusa and his wife Sonya took a long honeymoon, “six months on bicycles with no particular destination.” Three years later they did another bike trip, “Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—the back door to China, over the mountains”—to a place in the Takla Makan desert called Turpan, five hundred feet below sea level.

During that journey, concluding that “down was better than up,” Jim developed an idea: “Why not visit the lowest points on the planet? The bellybutton of each continent. The scheme had two golden attributes: I wouldn’t need insulated underwear, and I could ride my bicycle.”

Easy enough to identify the six destinations. More difficult was developing the plan. What he did was make one trip a year for six years: first Lake Eyre in Australian, followed in succession by the Dead Sea in Asia, the Caspian Sea in Europe, Salina Grand (Patagonia) in South America, Lac Asssal in Africa, and concluding with a trip from his home in Tucson to Death Valley in North America.

A life-long desert dweller with a PhD in botany and an academic post at the University of Arizona, Malusa knew a lot about desert flora (and fauna). He was temperamentally inclined to travel alone and unprotected, depending upon his knowledge of the desert and his ability to get along with everyone he met. He was quick-witted and was confident that he could extricate himself from any awkward circumstance he might encounter.

Malusa writes with verve that conveys facts and feelings inseparably intertwined. “Evening is the sweetest time in a hot place…With dusk comes the promise of the night. The wind quits, the leaves relax, and I keep riding. With the road to myself I ride as the stars blink on and Venus becomes queen of the sky. Birds in the dark whistle laconically, and I ride, all alone, approaching the center of Australia.”

He meets amazing people. Passing a refugee camp outside of Djibouti Town in Africa: “In occasional clearings by the road, kids chase cans or balls. I expect them to yell and wave when I pass. Instead they sprint for me. Out of the swarm of a hundred, one rushes up and grabs my brake lever and nearly topples me. Most of the kids scream and laugh and back off, but the bolder ones snatch up rocks, and in an inatant I’m more target than tourist.”

Thankfully missing: mileage logs, technical data, efforts to report everything that happens, confessions of being unprepared.  Malusa refers to books he’s read in preparing for the trips, but there’s nothing didactic in his use of these materials.

In the final pages he summarizes information about his bicycle: hybrid style, with drop handlebars, 700 x 47 road tires, 21-speed with low gears, and racks for carrying loads on front and rear. He could carry up to two gallons of water along with food, clothes, repair equipment, and camping gear.

On the last of the trips—Tucson to Death Valley—Malusa spends his last night alone, as always, at the deepest point in the continent. At 8:00 pm, with the moon “just a grin on the western horizon,” he muses: “There goes the moon. The earth is spinning, and I’m pinned by gravity and good fortune. I think of the Seven Summits and the urge to leave Everest not long after you arrive—and how different this is, lying on a glazed sea of salt.”

He continues: “Everyone has a plan, something that may or may not happen—but that’s not the point. It’s the plan that counts, the pleasure of possibility. You might hope to sail alone to the palm islands in a boat of your own design. To please your spouse in a remarkably athletic way or marry the right person the next time around. Or to sell your house before the plumbing goes and move to a carefree condo at the clean edge of a golf course until God’s call.

“As for me, I wanted to pedal my bike to the lowest points on earth. To my everlasting surprise, I did.”

Not until page 314, at the conclusion of his acknowledgements, does this solitary cyclist reveal the source of his courage and strength: “My trips and my story would have been very different if I didn’t hold in my mind my true home. Wherever I was in the world, I knew my children were in good hands with my sister, Sue; the Black family next door; my tireless mother-in-law, Rosa; and my wife Sonya—the grand prize winner for my warmest thanks. The pits are pretty nice, but I know where my heart belongs.”




Wheeling Through Europe in 1898

April 9, 2016

Keith Watkins Historian

In the summer of 1898, Winfred Ernest Garrison was twenty-four years old, single, and the possessor of a newly minted PhD degree from the newly minted University of Chicago. In the fall he was to begin his teaching career at Butler University in Indianapolis. Rather than scramble to make a few dollars that summer or prepare for his classes, he and a friend bicycled through England, Scotland, and Wales, 3,018 miles in sixty-eight days. The next summer he took another bicycle vacation (his word), this time in central Europe, 3,132 miles which he describes as “a trip from Rotterdam to Berlin by way of Naples.”

Garrison had an advantage over most twenty-something cyclists. His father was owner-publisher-editor of a weekly magazine that published news and opinion distributed to church-going people across the nation.

He also ran a book-publishing enterprise. Justly proud of his son’s budding literary talents, Dad (J.H.) Garrison…

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Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures

April 8, 2016

In 1970 when I was a young professor at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, I preached a sermon in the chapel entitled “Angela Davis and Margaret Mead: At the Crossroads of Two Cultures.” This week I came across a copy in the seminary archives and have prepared a lightly edited version to post online. Although many of the important issues have changed, people around the world are at an even more critical crossroads today. A sequel to the sermon preached forty-five years ago would describe the generational divisions of our time, outline the role of faith traditions in such a time, and suggest ways for all of us to move forward.   


I am the father of three daughters, each of whom has in her time been ten years old and a Girl Scout. That may be the reason I was moved nearly to tears by a picture in a recent news story showing a national celebrity with ribbons in her hair, smiling sweetly in her Girl Scout uniform back when she was ten years old.

She went on from those simple days to study at New York’s Elizabeth Irwin High School, Brandeis University, the Sorbonne, the Institute of Social Research at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfort, and the University of California at San Diego. There she began her doctoral dissertation on the topic of Kant’s analysis of violence in the French Revolution.

She was hired as an instructor in the department of philosophy at UCLA for two reasons: she was Black, and she was well schooled in the Continental European philosophical tradition of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and the existentialists, whereas the other members of that department were under the influence of British empirical philosophy.

Step by step this little Girl Scout and budding philosopher became identified with movements and efforts that were increasingly hostile to the established patterns of American society, especially those that affected Black people and other disinherited Americans. It is a long and complicated story that has led Angela Davis to be on the FBI’s list of the ten most wanted.

Of her, the Newsweek editors wrote recently: “For she has made her home at the crossroads of two cultures, and somehow she managed to inhabit both, declining the rewards that either would have bestowed on her if she had been willing to live within its rules alone” (10/26/70, p. 20).

My purpose in referring to Angela Davis is neither to explore her two worlds nor to praise her, although both tasks are well worth doing. Rather, it is to let the example of her life help us to see more clearly the condition experienced by the whole human family, for all of us are migrating from an old world into a new one.

My advance scout in this migration is Margaret Mead who has just published a slender volume in which she states her understanding of what is taking place. Her title is significant—Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap.

 Most of the time, Mead writes, the human community has depended upon the presence of three generations. Adults who are rearing their own family have at the same time continued to see their own parents who a few years earlier had reared them. In this old pattern of things, children become committed to the values and structures of the past.

There never is any question raised. The steady presence of the generations provides a continuing pathway for commitment. And what is most important: the old always teach the young.

To read more, click Angela Davis and Margaret Mead.


An Easter Prayer: Confessing What We Believe

March 27, 2016

Easter 1

One of the first principles of Christian worship is that prayers are the most important words of a service. They are spoken to God and therefore express the central reference point for everything that takes place during the ritual. They express the theological meaning of the actions and ceremonies that the worshipers perform.

Since Easter affirms the central claim of the Christian faith—“That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19)—it is especially important that these words be chosen carefully. They need to affirm this meaning concisely. They need to do so in a way that transcends the confusion that often exists in church teaching and popular piety. The prayer below is how I expressed the core of the Easter faith in the church were I was one of the worship leaders on Easter 2016.

Life-giving God: On this holy and joy-filled day we gather with Christians around the world to proclaim that Jesus lives

  • In the testimonies of his friends and companions long ago;
  • In the sacraments of baptism and feast of joy that his followers have celebrated ever after;
  • In the secret recesses of our hearts as we open our lives in prayer;
  • In the courageous actions of people when they face the struggles of life in the world;
  • In the faith, hope, and love that sustain us and continue with us when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

On this day, when the world groans in travail waiting for its redemption, we dare to pray: Marnatha, Lord Jesus, come.

  • Come again to confound the forces of evil, especially in those places where innocent people suffer grievously.
  • Come again to renew faith, rekindle hope, and model the steadfast love that binds the world together.
  • Come again to free us from guilt and all that separates us from God’s love.
  • Come again to bring comfort as we mourn the death of the people we love.
  • Come again to proclaim the coming of the world of peace, joy, and life abundant that has been God’s will since the beginning of creation long ago.

All this we dare to pray, eternal God, through Jesus Christ, who embodied your presence with us, who willingly, because of his great love, gave himself up to death in order to reunite us with you, and whom who raised to take his place with you in everlasting glory. Amen.


A cyclist’s antidote to the winter blues

March 23, 2016


A Winter’s Ride in the Southern Arizona Grasslands

 I love my homeland in the Pacific Northwest, including the mild winter rains, evergreen forests, and rich agricultural valleys. As winter lingers into February, however, I long for warm sunshine and open roads. For eight years I have been satisfying that desire by taking my bicycle to southern Arizona. A week of hard riding through the “Sky Islands” of the high desert grasslands southeast of Tucson seems just right as antidote to the winter blues.

Vigorous cycling with congenial friends renews a sense of physical wellbeing, and traveling slowly through this distinctive environment stimulates ever wider contemplations upon life in our time.

My 2016 ride combined two features. The cycling itself was the Historic Hotels Tour offered by PAC Tour, the touring company operated by Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo who have been noted long-distance cyclists for more than 30 years. We traveled from Tucson to Sonoita, Tombstone, Bisbee, Douglas, the Kartchner Caverns, Benson, and back to Tucson.

My contemplations were shaped by one of the most hopeful books I’ve read for some time—Stitching the West Back Together, edited by a team of experts on the challenges facing the Desert Southwest. I’ve written a 6,800-word essay outlining the tour and my contemplations prompted by the book and the things I saw.

One of my goals in the essay is to explain why open road cyclists enjoy long, challenging rides like these.

Another purpose is to describe two watershed-wide ventures in the high grasslands southeast of Tucson and another venture that is responding creatively to the tendencies toward urban sprawl around the city itself. All three illustrate the principle of working from the radical center that is a theme of the book I’ve been reading.

Friends who have read the essay say that it is interesting. My roommate for the week says that it reads like an essay from The New Yorker—maybe too strong a commendation, but I’ll take it, anyway.

To read the essay, click Winter’s Ride 2



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