BELLEVUE — Grace Lutheran Church’s library sits dark and empty, its prayer garden littered with rubble, vines spilling onto the walkways of the 3-acre property. The worship hall, many years ago filled twice a day for services, lies quiet, late-afternoon light streaming in as long grass flutters against the colored windows brought from Italy.
“Pretty sad to look at now,” says Judy Johnson, who served as church librarian for 35 years. “ … Oh, it was gorgeous.”
Pieces of the church still live on, however. Most of the 2,500 books Johnson tended to are now spread among other church libraries, the South King County jail and a project in Kenya. The columbarium found a new church to rest in, and the playground for neighborhood kids has been donated to a Christian camp.
The church also lives on through its largest final gift: over $8 million from the April sale of its property, spread among local charities and faith organizations.
For members, this final gift of the dying church makes it a little easier to give up what has been their community for decades.
“Some of your tears are tears of happiness as well,” said Gail D’Alessio, who first went to the church over 30 years ago.
It was in the now-empty worship hall that the asset committee Johnson and D’Alessio served on, tasked with distributing all the items gathered in the 71-year life of the church, met to consider the gift. They started with a list of organizations they’d donated to in the past because they wanted to continue their legacy of charitable work.
The largest portion of the donation — over $3.6 million — went to services related to homelessness, a reflection of a church increasingly focused on helping people experiencing homelessness on the Eastside.
The 2019 point-in-time count found 906 people experiencing homelessness in East King County. The numbers, both in East King County and at large, are a slight drop from 2017, but experts caution that the results are inexact.
Congregations for the Homeless and The Sophia Way, which operate Eastside shelters, each got $1 million, as did Imagine Housing, an Eastside affordable housing developer. Villette Nolon, CEO of Imagine, pointed to the January freezing death of a woman believed to be experiencing homelessness as evidence of the issue.
“Most people know somebody who can’t afford to live on the Eastside,” she said.
As the church planned its eventual end, members were interested in developing the property into affordable housing, something a number of other Lutheran churches facing declining enrollment have done locally.
“It’s built in to the DNA of our faith history,” said Kirby Unti, bishop for the Northwest Washington Synod that included Grace Lutheran.
In the six years he’s held the position, he says he’s seen three Lutheran churches close locally. He’s also seen two properties — Renton Lutheran Church and St. Luke’s in Bellevue — develop or redevelop with affordable housing.
Church closings are expected to continue as the number of Americans who identify with organized religion wanes. A 2017 poll found 47% of Washingtonians identified as nonreligious, a 4% increase from 2008 and the sixth most of any state. Younger people across the country were less religious than older generations.
This causes an issue of generational replacement, with younger people not returning to church to replace older generations as they pass away, said Gail Caffereta, a sociologist and Episcopal priest who started studying the impact of church closings on preachers after her congregation closed.
She also pointed to pedophilia scandals, splits over inclusion of women and LGBTQ people, and changing rural and urban demographic as eating away at church attendance.
For many churches, the decision to close is financial. For Grace Lutheran, it came as membership dropped from its historic peak of 300 to 400 members down to around 25, and they considered the work it would take to keep it open.
“We just realized at some point this wasn’t going to turn around and we should think about selling,” said Marcia Bodin, who also served on the asset committee.
The loss of churches has had an impact on those who use their spaces. ROOTS, the largest young-adult shelter in Washington, faced displacement from its 20-year home in a University District church basement this year when the property was slated for redevelopment.
While it has been able to relocate to a new location, a survey by the U District Partnership released this month found more than 50% of homelessness services providers in the area were at risk of losing their spaces due to redevelopment of property owned by faith-based organizations.
“This situation proved to us and a lot of service providers how fragile this relationship is,” said Arthur Padilla, ROOTS interim executive director. “And even though there’s a lot of symbiosis, we weren’t really prepared for change.”
A final gift
The closing of Grace Lutheran had its own impacts. The popular neighborhood P-Patch is gone forever, and the preschool housed in one of its buildings had to relocate, as did the Korean-American Baptist Church that used the property.
While the church had initially hoped to build affordable housing to replace them, it ran into issues with the area’s single-family zoning. Changing it would have required approval from those living in the surrounding million-dollar-plus homes, but the neighborhood had already opposed efforts to house a shelter for teens experiencing homelessness on the church property.
Unti said local Lutheran churches often encounter backlash to their affordable housing projects. This time though, after seeing how pushback had cost St. Luke’s efforts years and tens of thousand of dollars, the group remaining at Grace Lutheran decided it wasn’t worth it.
Instead, they sold the property for $8.5 million to real-estate developer BDR, who has filed permit applications to divide the property into eight single-family homes. With that sum, minus taxes, Grace Lutheran has been able to leave gifts for over 25 different groups.
“The joy was deciding who to give it to,” Bodin said.
Joy is a word that comes up often when speaking to the members of the asset committee — a final gift they hope will serve as an example to others on the Eastside.
For Imagine Housing, the $1 million donation was a third of its annual operating budget. While it doesn’t have immediate plans for the money, it’s stocking it up to allow it to potentially build more units in the future. “
For Caffereta, the priest and sociologist whose church closed, Grace Lutheran’s ending sounds like the best-case scenario.
“They were able to leave a legacy. They were able to stay to the end,” she said.
In her research, the most common holiday pastors compared their church closing to was Good Friday — a holiday of fasting and penance. To her, Grace Lutheran’s closing sounds more like Easter — one of joy and rebirth.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said St. Luke’s in Bellevue had closed. It has not.
Staff reporter Sydney Brownstone contributed to this report.