PORT ORCHARD — While the building that houses worshippers comprising Port Orchard United Methodist Church has been in existence for just a portion of church community’s 130 years, its predecessor structures — and those who attended services inside them over the past century — have left a legacy of service to the greater community.
That church community is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year perched overlooking downtown Port Orchard.
With an oversized mission to serve God, the first members of the Drew Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church on Prospect Street in Sidney (the city’s name in its early days) had to make do in a compact, cedar building painted cream that sat on a small, 30-feet-wide lot.
While it was small in stature, the church’s outward appearance spoke of grandeur with windows that typically might grace a much larger house of worship. With plaster above them and wainscoting below the window level, the building included pews that were factory made and coal oil lanterns that hung from the arched ceiling. Built with a belfry, a hanging bell chimed in an acoustical setting that oldtimers claimed was “absolutely perfect,” according to church records.
Dedicated in 1894, the original church building burned to the ground one early morning in 1929. But determined to rise up once again, the congregation made plans to rebuild on the corner of Kitsap and Sidney in the depths of the Great Depression. That new structure ably served the church community well through the construction of a new education building in 1967, followed by the creation of the current church building in 1987.
Its brick exterior today exudes an air of permanence at the corner of Sidney and Kitsap, up the hill from the downtown Bay Street business area. And like the sturdiness of the building, those members who worship inside have resolutely carried on in the footsteps of church members who have since passed on.
Chas and Lois Henson are two church members whose lives intertwined with Port Orchard United Methodist Church for more than 40 years. It’s where they have worshipped on Sundays, joined men’s and women’s groups on weeknights and involved their children in youth activities when they were younger.
The church and its members are examples of a community of people who not only are in continual search for personal meaning but in being of service to a community, inside and outside, that might be in need.
“Where there’s a need, a lot of the time we can fill it,” Lois Henson said. Husband Chas said that even though he wasn’t raised in the Methodist Church — he was raised in the South and was part of the Southern Baptist tradition —the church’s mission to serve others meshes with how he was raised as a child.
“I was involved where I was raised,” he said. “My mother was the leader in that regard, so we were involved for all of our lives. But we’re involved in things here all the time.”
Chas is part of the church’s men’s club, which he said helps elderly people and shut-ins with work that might need to be done on their homes. If a member becomes incapacitated, another church member will coordinate getting meals prepared and delivered to that person.
In fact, he will be leaving with about 10 other men at the end of this month to eastern Washington, where they will help rebuild houses burned by forest fires this summer. This is the fifth year they’ve taken on that work in collaboration with other churches that are part of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Effort.
David Kingsbury, another longtime church member, said the group is helping people there who live up in the hills off the grid. “The fire department can’t necessarily respond, so they weren’t able to get insurance,” he said, “or are woefully underinsured.”
The church’s women’s group works a little closer to home by filling the spirit of those who may be ill or in distress.
“We have a prayer shawl that we make for someone who is ill,” Lois said. “We will send them a lap blanket or a shawl you can put over your shoulder. Or we’ll make something someone in the congregation wants as a project. It’d done to show concern and encouragement.”
Age hasn’t kept some of the members from fully participating in church activities. One member who has kept pace is a 102-year-old woman who not only attends service each week, but she gets to church after driving behind the wheel of her own car.
“She was just here helping fold bulletins,” Lois said. “In fact, she just got her new driver’s license, good for the next six years.”
But while congregation members by and large are remaining active, they concede their numbers are aging, and member numbers are declining.
“I was talking with a friend who goes to the Lutheran church,” said church member Dan Carlson. “She and her group of friends said that young people growing up today don’t want to be a Methodist or a Catholic or a Lutheran, they just want to be part of a Christian church. Maybe kids don’t want to be tagged who they are.”
Their lament echoes throughout mainstream churches in America. Church attendance is in decline. David said he remembers when it was common for 20 to 30 kids to go bowling or roller skating on a Sunday night as part of a church activity. Today, he said, there might be four or five who would participate.
“There are so many extra things that parents are involved in with their children today,” Lois said.
Where three services were held on a Sunday years ago, today, the church’s pastor Shirley DeLarme conducts just one service at 9:30 a.m. But despite the change, these church members are firm in their belief that their participation holds a greater meaning than just being part of a Sunday routine.
“It’s the camaraderie and fellowship, and sharing in a common purpose” that brings them together as part of their church family, Chas said.
“You’re doing something that is tangible and you can see that is a benefit in helping someone. You’re reaching out to help someone who can’t accomplish something or needs help.
“That’s the joy I get out of it.”
Celebrating 130 years:
In the near future, church community member Kathy Reichstein said, a homecoming banquet dinner will be held for current and former members and pastors. The event will include music, a video presentation and interviews with some of the senior congregation members.
On Oct. 21, the church will celebrate the anniversary with a choir festival and hymn sing at 3 p.m. in the sanctuary. It is being planned and will be hosted by choir director Jeff Mitchell, the church choir and musicians. Several visiting choirs also will participate in the event.
And on Dec. 16, Port Orchard United Methodist Church will complete its official “130 Years and Counting” celebration year with the church choir’s annual Christmas Cantata.