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Monday, November 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New leader for city's 'moral voice' as church revisits social-justice role

Seattle Times staff reporter

The pregnant teen appeared on the doorstep of the Rev. Sanford Brown's Fall City United Methodist Church 20 years ago.

She was about 15, living in nearby woods. Her parents had kicked her out, she told him.

"What have you been living on?" he asked, shocked.

Food scavenged from trash cans or begged from churches, she said.

That became a pivotal moment in Brown's life. While he knew, of course, that churches are often "at the front lines of human need," he also realized he didn't know what services were available to help that girl.

Brown, a 45-year-old Montlake resident and Methodist minister who believes his faith calls him to act against social injustice, today becomes the new executive director of the 84-year-old Church Council of Greater Seattle.

He assumes the leadership post at a time when such church coalitions across the country are struggling, their traditional base of mainline Protestant churches facing their own stresses: declining memberships, financial woes and internal questions about their role in public life.

While the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which includes about 450 local Protestant and Catholic churches, has operated in the black for the past four years, it's also facing a drop in contributions and has, over the years, had to cut staff. Fund raising is now one of its top priorities.

Perhaps more important, the Church Council — once seen by many as the community's dominant moral voice — is facing questions about its very relevance:

• Is there still a role for it to play in a community where most people don't belong to a house of worship?

• Is there a role for it in an increasingly diverse community that's not just Christian but also Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist?

• Does the Church Council add something unique to a city with many service agencies pushing similar agendas?

• Does it have the same resounding voice it had some 30 years ago, when headlines proclaimed the activities of its outspoken director, the Rev. William Cate, and Cate's friend Raymond Hunthausen, then the Catholic archbishop?

Of course the Church Council is still relevant, says Brown, calling it a model that can inspire individuals and churches to act on their convictions, "coming together to help God's vision for our community come about."

There are still poor people on the streets, he says, still people being hurt and being treated unjustly, and as long as the Church Council is taking up their causes, it is relevant.

Brown is quietly intense, his words coming quickly but calmly as he sits, hands clasped over his lap. He is a father of two sons — ages 16 and 20 — from a first marriage, and he is engaged to an anesthesiologist.

It is clear Brown feels committed to the Church Council, with which he first got involved as a University of Washington student some 25 years ago.

It is also clear he brings to the job a set of less spiritual, more earthly attributes: experience in fund raising, management and community relations. Most recently, Brown served as executive director of Deaconess Children's Services in Everett, where he says the organization turned seven years of deficit into a balanced budget in the 2-1/2 years he was there.

He also has served as a pastor at United Methodist churches in Wenatchee, Kirkland and Fall City and on various nonprofit and governmental boards.

Brown "had the balance of skills and commitment" the Church Council board was looking for, said the Rev. David Meekhof, board president.

The Church Council, with a $2.4 million budget last year, runs services for young people, the elderly, the homeless and hungry; and it has groups seeking to foster interfaith cooperation and racial justice. Without a sustained financial base, Meekhof points out, continuing that work would be tough.

Some wonder, though, whether Brown's hiring meant the council was emphasizing financial stability over taking strong public stands on larger issues.

"Some of us would like to see the collective voice enhanced, not (have the Church Council) just be a service agency," said the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, former treasurer of the council.

The Rev. David Bloom, former associate director of the Church Council, talks fondly about what he considers its heyday — the 20 years in the 1970s and '80s when Cate headed the organization.

Together, Cate and Hunthausen made news, participating in high-profile demonstrations and withholding their personal income taxes in protest of the U.S. nuclear-arms build-up.

In 1977, the Church Council, along with and three other groups, threatened to sue the Seattle School District for stalling on desegregation. The schools adopted a busing plan that year.

In the 1980s, protesting South African apartheid, the Church Council led efforts to get Seafirst Corp. to stop investing in that nation. In 1984, the bank stopped making loans to the South African government and to companies doing business with the country.

That Cate-Hunthausen era was "a moment that would be very difficult to replicate," Bloom acknowledges. "It was a confluence of two personalities with passionate feelings about peace and social justice, about which they were willing to take public and controversial stances."

The Church Council is still involved in social-service and justice issues, lobbying before city and county councils on behalf of the poor, running an emergency feeding program, helping people move out of homelessness.

Under acting executive director Alice Woldt, it also took an early public stand against the war in Iraq, organizing demonstrations that drew thousands.

But the Church Council has been accused of being too liberal and siding with Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others have criticized the council for not including other faiths as voting members, and for not being as outspoken as it once was.

Now, a less outspoken role may be the proper one, suggests Meekhof, the board president. "I think the culture has changed" in the past 20 years, he says.

"No longer is the Christian church the voice of morality in the American community. With the great diversity of religious communities now, it's presumptuous for the church to think it's the moral voice. So I think we need to be more humble and more quiet."

But Brown says he has no intention of shying away from strong stands. He has taken them before, he said. While serving on the Lake Washington School Board, he said, he voted to support educating students about condom use in the prevention of AIDS.

And in 1999, Brown and a fellow church leader in Wenatchee challenged the election of the city's mayor, whom Brown accused of lying about meeting a one-year residency requirement for mayoral candidates. The state Supreme Court eventually ousted the mayor for that reason.

On the wall above Brown's desk at home is framed artwork depicting those he calls "modern saints" — Martin Luther King Jr., Steven Biko, Dorothy Day and others who have "lived out their Christian faith to the point that the result has sometimes been martyrdom."

They are, Brown says, "what Christian faith and social action look like when they're combined" — models, he said, for an organization whose real heyday is "ahead of us."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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