By Sam Geyer
One thing that I never thought that I would do in ministry was to be the last pastor that a church has when it closes its doors. That is what has happened for me over this past year as I have served as the pastor of Kahlotus Community United Methodist Church in Kahlotus, Washington. For those of you who don’t know, Kahlotus is a small town of about 200 people located about 50 miles north of the TriCities.
The church was founded in 1906 by a small group of early pioneers who moved to Eastern Washington to farm; what is interesting is that the church did not receive its first Pastor until K. O. Pearson was appointed in 1921. According to Howell and Foster, who were the authors and editors of the book, Methodism in the Northwest, the church was served by “irregularly visiting ministers”, so for the first sixteen years of its life the people of the church themselves led the ministry work within the community.
That ministry included building three church buildings; the first one burned down in 1916, so a second building was erected in 1917 and that one was also later replaced in 1957 when the congregation built the current church building. Thirty-one Pastors have served the church, most of whom did so on a part-time basis. Its longest serving Pastor was the Rev. Dennis Evans, a Presbyterian minister who served them part-time while he also served the Washtucna Presbyterian Church from 1995-2013.
Despite the regular changes in pastors, this has been a faithful and fruitful congregation. It shared the Christian faith with multiple generations of children. It was the center of community activities including the yearly Hunters Breakfast. For many years it had a pre-school and it organized and led the annual Community Easter Egg hunt (it did so again this year as well). In the 1950’s through the 1980’s the church hosted a community-wide Vacation Bible School and pictures from that time show large groups of children who attended the VBS.
And for over 30-years, Kahlotus Community UMC managed a Food Bank that provided a supplemental supply of food for up to half of the population of the city once each month; that program ended last summer.
In the 1960’s Lower Monumental Dam was built on the Snake River about 10-miles from the city which brought a population increase to the city which grew to about 350 people. Unfortunately, after the dam was completed the population of the town began to decline to where it is today. Along with the decline of the city the church also experienced a corresponding decrease of people attending and participating in the life of the church.
Over the course of its life the church has faced closure multiple times. Each time they faced it they remembered that they were tasked with being the light of Christ for their community and they kept going. Last year I was appointed as their Pastor and one thing we did was engage in an intentional and holy discussion about what the future held for them. What we discovered was that the remaining members had many ideas for what they would like to do but they had little energy to do the work; they had the will but no longer had the people or the means to keep going. Given all of that, the decision was made to close the church this year.
One of the things that I believe is always true is that with God all things are possible. (Mark 10:27) As we began to recognize that the future likely meant that the church would need to close, we contacted Patti Hamilton, who is the Mayor of the City of Kahlotus, and arranged for a meeting between District Superintendent Juli Reinholz, Conference Treasurer Brant Henshaw, and myself to discuss with the city options for further use of the church building. The building is a little over 4450 square feet in size with four large classrooms, a large Fellowship Hall with an attached kitchen and two restrooms. The Sanctuary comfortably seats up to 80 people on padded pews.
At that meeting an agreement was reached to sell the church building to the City of Kahlotus. That happened because Mayor Hamilton and the City Council have a vision for how the building can still serve the city and its people as a Civic Center. With this agreement the city will be able to bring under one roof its City Hall, its branch of the Mid-Columbia Regional Library as well as bring the Food Bank back into the building. Last summer the local Lions Club, who had taken on the work of the Food Bank, found that they needed more space than what they had to adequately manage the Food Bank so moving it back into the space from which it was birthed met that need. What is also helpful is that city has indicated that if the remaining members would like to meet for fellowship, that they can use the church building for that as well.
Closing this church is both a time of sadness and a time of joy. I have to admit that it feels as if a close friend has just died. But I also remember that our faith teaches us that with death comes resurrection; so even though the church will cease to be we can trust that God will continue to be with the good people of the church and the community as they continue to use the building for the benefit of all.
I have one final thought about Kahlotus. The last funeral that I did for a church member was in February of this year. Alex was the youngest active member of the church but he died late last year at the age of 64. His brother asked that we use a scripture in the service that he and Alex had selected for the funeral of their own mother, herself an active church leader, who had passed away in 2012. What they selected was from the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy as Paul was nearing the end of his own life.
In that letter, Paul was reflecting upon what it meant to him to have followed Christ Jesus. He wrote, “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
When I think of the people who founded this church and those who followed them; this is what I think about. This church was always a small but vital part of the community in which they lived. Their impact is still felt to this day and will continue as the building they erected as a place of worship and fellowship will still be used to do good things. Kahlotus Community UMC will be missed, and it is sad that it had to come to an end, but during its life it brought joy, peace and love to the community and the people who live there. It was a faithful church and for that it will long be remembered by those of us who knew her.