When Fran Carey first walked into the Port Townsend Church in Washington, she had no idea she was an answer to prayer.
The visible tattoos on both arms told a story. “I had a former life outside of church," said Fran. "I was a bartender, a biker, and at one time, I was also a truck driver.”
Her practical, no-nonsense approach to ministry was immediately evident upon her arrival. “The day I walked into church it was a Sabbath morning. We had nobody standing at the door," said Fran. "I’d been here on vacation before, but it was my first day of actually being part of the church. I walked in and the very first thing I did was pick up some bulletins. These people didn’t even know me, but I was standing at the door greeting because that’s what God wanted me to do. I really feel that I’ve come to this church because God wanted me to be part of the ministry.”
“We have about 125 members on our books,” said Collette Pekar, Port Townsend Church pastor, “but we went through several years where legalism and judgment and people moving away brought our attendance way down. The church didn’t always feel like a safe place."
Two newly-baptized members wanted to know what they could do to help the struggling church grow. They talked with conference leaders and one said, "Pray."
So, the members started a prayer meeting and prayed for laborers for the harvest. Just a month or two later after they’d started praying, Fran moved to town.
The emphasis on prayer marked a turning point for the Port Townsend Church. In addition to Fran's arrival, something else began to happen. Members' warmth and interest in the community and the church itself began to grow. God was sending willing servants their way.
“One by one, new church members moved to our area,” said Pastor Collette. “Without exception, those new members were committed to serving God and the community, and they chose to join our little church because they wanted to get active. By the time I became their pastor in February of 2016, God had really already started filling the church. It was really an answer to prayer. It wasn’t [Fran or me] that did this thing — God did it."
As always, God’s timing couldn’t have been better. While no one knew it, the world was headed toward a pandemic. The Port Townsend Church was already preparing itself to be a light to their community.
“Before COVID, our attendance at the Port Townsend Church averaged about 50,” said Pastor Collette. “There was a sense that God was blessing us, and whoever walked through the church door, whether they were Adventist or not, they were invited to get busy and work with us. They didn’t get a chance to become what I call, ‘pew potatoes.’ I do a ministry placement interview with new members and I try to help them find the perfect niche in the right ministry. From day one, everyone knew this was a church where we work together and everyone counts.”
When it comes to community connection, the Port Townsend Church has taken an immersive, cooperative role with their neighbors. Instead of relying solely on their members, they’ve partnered in a number of ways with others in their community. One of the ways they’ve collaborated is through their thrift store ministry.
Fortunately, a volunteer staff had already been established at the free store. It made the transition to the thrift store easier. Fran continued to grow the volunteer team. "I opened up the invitation to those outside the church,” said Fran, “and pretty soon there was a mixture of community members, homeless and volunteers from other churches. Each one of them has a unique personality. ... We are really respectful of their beliefs. They don't have to be Adventist to serve here.”
This distinction of serving with the community rather than doing things for the community should not be overlooked. Both Fran and Pastor Collette point to several ways God has led them to roll up their sleeves and minister alongside whoever He sends their way.
Building close working relationships as a church and thrift store starts with prayer. From those prayers, willing individuals show up. Pastor Collette knows this is true whenever she watches Fran interacting with all who come through the thrift store doors.
“I’ve observed Fran in action many, many times," said Pastor Collette. "She knows every client’s name. She greets them, each one, like they’re long lost friends. If I’m in the store, she introduces every one of them to me."
Fran usually follows up her greeting by asking a question that relates to whatever it was that the person told her the last time she spoke with them. She remembers each of them and the challenges in their lives. She asks them, almost without exception, "What are you needing today?" The answer might not be clothes, shoes or household items. No matter what, she always asks that question. It gives them the freedom to talk about what their life is like.
In addition to listening, Fran models the important practice of observation. She keeps her eyes open, and when she sees a family that looks like they may not have enough money to pay, she just quietly tells them, "There's no charge today." If they’re buying school clothes she’ll say, "I see you’re buying pants and a shirt, do you need shoes, too?" And with that question, she’ll look at a child’s feet and try to go find shoes that will fit.
Service is more than handing out clothes or food. It’s that extra step of really thinking about the whole package of what people need and serving them like Jesus. This unconditional interest creates lasting bonds with people who walk through the thrift store doors. They know they are cared for and loved.
At first glance, it may seem like a thrift store is limited to a specific type of ministry by providing clothes and household items to those in need. However, a closer look at what’s happening reveals that the thrift store is a starting place for ministry that spans many different directions and pockets in the community. It’s a central hub for many other things.
One example of this is their partnership with the church’s jail ministry. “We lead two small groups at the jail every Sunday evening — one for the women and one for the men,” said Pastor Collette. “When someone is just about ready to come out of jail, Glen, our jail ministry leader, lets the thrift store know ahead of time that they’re coming. Often they’ve lost their housing. Many times their kids have been put into foster care. It’s just really a hard time in their life.”
Inmates reentering society are given a code phrase they can share at the thrift store to be given a voucher without question. It provides them chance to find what best fulfills their physical needs while restoring and preserving their dignity.
Fran works closely with those who have been previously incarcerated. In addition to helping them find clothing, she actively looks for other ways to help them get back on their feet. “I always advise people coming out of jail, and anyone else, that if they come into the thrift store and they volunteer, they can use me for a job reference,” she said.
It isn’t just the services offered that have changed and grown since the Port Townsend Church began investing in their thrift store ministry. Their methods for reaching the community and meeting their needs have grown, too. Pastor Collette shares a simple idea that has expanded the ways the thrift store ministers.
“One day last winter, I read an article in a healthy cooking magazine about a ‘Little Pantry.’ It’s kind of like a ‘Little Library,’ but instead of putting books in a little bookshelf that’s all glassed in to keep things dry, you put nonperishable food. I read that and I brought it to our board meeting, and two days later someone said that they had one! One of our church members had one already! She was going to do a little library, but she said, ‘Let’s put it up!’ We [decided to] put it up in front of the thrift store and the deacons had it up within a week!”
“We filled it with food,” said Fran, “and it started being used immediately. We fill it and people know it’s there. But the best part about it is that, yes, we put food in it, but I’ve sat there in the store where I can see where it is out by the street, and our community is now putting the food into the pantry for other people in the community to be able to use. So it’s not only us, it’s also the community that’s feeling part of the giving. It’s exciting to be able to watch the community interacting with other parts of the community so that everybody is blessed.”
Some may be wondering if there has been a culture shift in the process of growing the thrift store ministry and partnering with the community and, if so, what does that look like?
In Pastor Collette's view, a cultural change is something a church should work toward whether or not there are visitors. “If we get in the habit of talking down or bad about anybody, the chance of offending goes exponentially higher,” she said.
But culture change isn’t all about correcting behavior. “Both Fran and I like to watch for people who are being affirming and being welcoming,” Pekar said, “and we try to affirm those people in our church family for helping us change the culture to become a welcoming place.”
“Once in a while, one of our dear recovering legalist saints or members will say something offensive or judgmental in Sabbath School," said Pekar. "I systematically schedule a visit with them and try to recast a vision of a welcoming church."
Pastor Perkar encourages people to share when there has been a bridge broken or heart hurt. It's an opportunity to make amends and to work together on the church culture. Each member plays a part as guardians of church culture. In the same way that Fran and her team guard the thrift store culture, church members can proactively look for ways to make each visitor feel welcome and loved.
Fran knows how difficult it can be to walk through the church doors from the outside. One of the ways she brings the thrift store community into closer contact with her church is by inviting them to potluck.
“I feel that a lot of the fear of coming into the church is not knowing who’s there,” said Fran. “By inviting them to a meal and inviting them to meet the people in the church, and realizing that these people are open and willing to interact with them, the fear of coming into the church is lessened. We have potluck twice a month and, if I see anyone who looks hungry, I invite them.”
“I know from experience, coming into church is not always easy,” Fran said. “I have been told many times that someone will come to church on Sabbath and they don’t show up. But that’s ok! Their heart was right, they wanted to come. But to actually be able to come through the door is not always the easiest thing to do.”
“Years ago, when I got baptized, it was down in Texas,” Fran recalls. “I asked my husband to come to my baptism. I went to church and I watched for him and watched for him, but he didn’t come through. I was thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t he come for something as important as my baptism?’ So I was getting ready to go home and when I got into my car, there on the steering wheel was a note. It said, ‘I came, but I couldn’t come through the door.’ It meant so much to me that he tried to come. He was there and he tried. I know that it’s a hard thing to do, so if someone doesn’t show up, that’s ok. It was in their heart that they wanted to and maybe someday they will.”
The persistent pursuit of love and service to their surrounding community is a key lesson that God may be using from the Port Townsend Church to inspire each of us today. As Pastor Collette shared, “Our love for these people is not dependent upon them coming to church and it’s not dependent on them becoming Adventist. We just love them because they’re God’s children.”
Across the Northwest, each of our churches, ministries and communities exist in different places with different needs and cultures. The story of God’s work in the Port Townsend community is just one of the infinite stories we will learn more about as we someday get to pour through the records of Earth’s history in heaven. Our great calling to minister to this world spans generations and countless circumstances, but is united in principle: sharing Jesus with our neighbors.
In Port Townsend, Jesus is being shared through a thrift store. Where is He being shared in your community? How can we continue to find places beyond our church walls to spread Jesus' love? What does that look like in your community?
Though the methods and needs may vary, we know we must do all we can to serve those in need. As James tells us, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead," (James 2:14–17, NIV).