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Congregational Vitality: Stories and Learning

Finding family again


As a high school student in Tacoma, a young man was at odds with his mom, and he no longer felt welcome to live at home. He found support at Peace Lutheran Church and through the church’s tutoring program, eventually living with a family of the church for a few years. Now he has taken some college classes, finished an internship at Peace Lutheran Church and Peace Community Center, and is moving forward in life. His name is Juwan, and here is his story, in his own words. — Pastor John Stroeh

Like most Tacoma kids, my life started out as a struggle. But like a resilient underdog, I was determined to change the hand I was dealt into a royal flush. Know that I am a young man who loves to smile. But in my smile I hide a lot: years of pain and strain, of abandonment, lonely nights and heartache.

Years ago, I felt alone, empty, worthless.

You see, my mother and I started off like any loving relationship. She was my teacher, my madre and my best friend. She taught me wrong from right, how to tie my shoe and ride a bike (although it took me longer than most kids). She just stood with me. And picked me up when I fell down.

In the beginning of my junior year, my mother, the woman I love and care for with all the love that I have, began to go through a huge depression. The loss of her father, my grandpa, and the separation and ultimate divorce from the second man who promised he’d be there for her, no matter what, had devastated the loving and nurturing woman she was throughout my childhood. There were times when I saw her cry so many tears, from years of pain she had hidden away.

Depression, as we all know, is a tough issue to deal with. Over time she began to lash out and her sadness transformed into an uncontrollable anger. This anger turned into a beast that caused fights and turmoil in our household, and ultimately, in our mother-and-son relationship.

We began to fight. It started with verbal arguments, which turned into verbal punches to my heart and psyche. Things that I would never have thought would have been said began to come off her tongue like poisonous venom. Things like, “you’re not my son,” or “you’re never gonna be anything,” began to repeatedly spill from her tongue. “Hurt” and “confused” were simple words expressing the way I felt. Now I have these words to express my feelings in those times and in those circumstances:

Never in a million years would I have thought that things would’ve changed —

too fast did her love become pain.


Never did I imagine I would be sharing this story, but I’ll never put my mother down.

I used to think our past gave me the right — all those silly games we used to play transformed into horrific fights.


No longer was it lessons of wrong or right; no, it became, I was wrong and she always was right,

staying up at night praying that I might see a glimmer of God’s light.


You see, it started, I wanna say my junior year; yes, my junior year when I shed the most amount of tears (and she did too).


My grandfather was taken from this world while his baby girl held on;

saddest words ever when the doc said, “ma’am, your dad is gone.”

Same day I saw the life leave him, was the same day I saw life leave her.


Depression, we all know, is a furious beast and sometimes those who suffer from it lose themselves in its mitts.


Night after night, tears began to roll off her beautiful face;

oh, the beautiful face that raised six boys and one girl on her own.

Proud of momma for standing strong, even if she was alone.


The tears of sadness

turned to tears of madness as she lashed out on my siblings and me.

Childish arguments fueled with depression and heartache

left me alone, kicked out on the streets.


And the first time

was the worst time.

It broke my family apart.

I was me and they were them

and I had nowhere to go but to the church I called home.


And then it became the church against her.

But through the church I found my family again;

my family with God and the community.


Though we are not biological, me and my church family create a perfect unity.

They put me in a place to lay my head, put the smile back into my face;

and to a child all alone, they told me I would always have a place.


I’ve been on my own since the age of sixteen. Well, to say “on my own” would be a lie; through God’s mercy and love I’ve done things that can only be called a miracle. I’ve learned so many things through the church and the community. Things about love, life and happiness. Without the church and the community I can only say I don’t know the person I would’ve become or where I might have ended up. Thank God for being in my life, and the changes God’s continually making each day.

I’m a college student I will proudly say, who has had a bad past, lying in parks, cold nights in the dark. Who knew that with God and faith, anything is possible? My circumstances have helped mold me into the man I am, but they do not define me. No, what defines me is the faith I have in God because of the things in my past.

I would like to thank Peace Community Center and Peace Lutheran Church for always staying by me — sticking with me through the ups and downs, the battle with my mother — and the love they’ve helped me to find in myself. I thank God for putting the people there in my life, to help me take my life by the reins and flip the circumstances I was handed; flip them like an Olympic gymnast, into eventual accomplished dreams and fairy-tale endings. God, the church and community center have helped me to become the man I am today; the man that I am continually changing into. The man that God best sees fit.


The Rev. John Stroeh is pastor at Peace Lutheran Church, Tacoma. He is also a leader of the Homeless and Justice Ministries Network of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This network provides strategic leadership and resources to ministries across the country to walk with the marginalized — those who struggle with homelessness, poverty, mental illness, reentry and addiction — to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people wherever they are. Learn more about the ministries of Peace Lutheran Church and visit the church’s website. Learn more about the Homeless and Justice Network of the ELCA.


edited by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality

Connecting creatively, growing authentically in Seattle


Church of the Apostles (COTA) in Seattle, Wash., does church differently. Embracing the essential Pacific Northwest traits of exploration and self-expression, the church has been drawing in young adults between the ages of 20 and 40 (and now their families) since its beginning as a storefront new start in June 2002. A key part of COTA’s identity is its focus on connecting with ancient church traditions in creative ways to grow authentic relationships with God and each other.

COTA is a mission of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. It became an organized congregation in May 2017. Located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, the church reflects the broader arts culture of its community. COTA seeks to free people to grow in faith by sharing their artistic gifts, boldly, in worship and in life. “We are not about getting to God, but about finding ways for God to get to us,” said the Rev. Ivar Hillesland, pastor.


Worship service at Church of the Apostles, also known as COTA, Seattle

Church of the Apostles calls the beautiful and historic Fremont Abbey (constructed in 1914) its home. In 2005, the Mission Investment Fund of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America invested in COTA by purchasing it. COTA is currently on track to buy the building from MIF. “Without the support from both the synod and the ELCA we would never have been able to make it to our current thriving state and we are eternally grateful. Because of the support these last 15 years, we have also been able to be the springboard for at least 13 ordained clergy with 3 more currently in the ordination process,” said the Rev. Ivar Hillesland. Photo courtesy of JUMAYDESIGNS.COM and COTA.

Reclaiming the ‘de-churched’

Seattle and the neighborhood of Fremont, in particular, is well-known for large concentrations of unchurched, or “de-churched,” people. “COTA holds a particular mission towards those who are wary of, or direct victims of, the institutional church and the harms that have been caused in its name,” said Hillesland.

Church of the Apostles seeks innovative ways to replace the negatives with affirming alternatives. Church leaders continually reimagine the context and flow of worship services, finding new ways to build on ancient traditions. Hillesland says he is fascinated with figuring out new ways to be and do church. He thinks of the COTA ministry as a sort of church research and development lab. “We have tried to find as many ways as possible to let God speak through our worship and being, and we’ve had many failures along with our ‘successes.’”

In another nod to the past, the church’s home is the Fremont Abbey, a beautiful Lutheran church building constructed in 1914. The Abbey also houses the Fremont Abbey Arts Center, established by the COTA congregation to meet the community’s desire for a place to come together to create and experience the arts. COTA continues to partner with the center, currently under the leadership of an independent director, to integrate the arts into worship and community life.

Priesthood of all believers in action

Taking to heart the theology of the priesthood of all believers, the church strives to have leaders with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. The tasks of planning worship and preaching can be especially meaningful to those who have been unwelcome to use their gifts in the church because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. “Centering the voices of those traditionally marginalized speaks to our intention to expand gender and racial representation and experience, and it gives us a more expanded understanding of the imago dei, or divine image present in all humans,” explained Hillesland.

COTA members and friends come together Sunday evenings for worship—a mix of personal interaction, art, music, a message, and a time of exploration. Opening the pulpit creates space for varying perspectives and authentic reflection. Worship is also a time to experience the divine through creative expression of ancient liturgies. For example, worship music, often written by Music Director Lacey Brown, reflects “themes of ambiguity, expressed spiritual pain or longing, and expanded multigender metaphors for the Divine persons.” Brown also encourages musicians in the COTA community to create songs centered on specific themes or seasons, culminating in projects like the recently released Epiphany Songs.

In an ever-changing world, COTA grounds itself by connecting the past to the present in a way that is authentic to its identity and purpose. According to Hillesland, “As more and more things seem ephemeral, we find ourselves seeking ancient things, things deeply rooted in tradition that can anchor us in the turbulence while at the same time give us more freedom and space to creatively experience God.” It is this connection that inspires the people of COTA to go out into the world as people transformed in Christ.

by Kris A. Mainellis, Program Director for Communication and Events, Congregational Vitality