News Archives

Church provides spiritual home in more ways than one

11/24/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photo is available. For related coverage, see UMNS story #567.

By Tim Tanton*

PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS) -- For the Rev. John and Pat Schwiebert, attending church services is as simple as walking downstairs.

The Schwieberts and two other people live at their United Methodist church, Metanoia Peace Community. The church is actually a 95-year-old house, shaded by huge trees and nestled on a quiet, wooded lane near downtown. The expansive, three-story structure blends in with its neighbors, and only a small sign hanging over the front porch indicates that it is more than an ordinary home.

The four occupants provide ministries to the community and share their belongings in a way that evokes the communal spirit of the first Christians.

"As I reread the New Testament through new eyes, I have a sense that this is what church meant" for the early believers, John says.

It isn't a typical church. It has a short membership roll - 14 members and 25 "sojourners," or associate members - and nary a steeple in sight. Yet it provides ministries that John estimates have touched thousands. Its local and national programs include grief counseling, a publishing enterprise and a feeding outreach. The building, also known as the 18th Avenue Peace House, is a meeting place for support groups, including parents of murdered children, survivors of infant loss, friends and family of suicide victims, people contending with AIDS.

At Metanoia (meaning "turn around, repent, have a change of heart"), morning worship provides a daily anchor.

"Church is every day here," John says. "It's not one part of our lives that we attend to one or two days a week. It's our life. Our work and our ministry all run together."

The Schwieberts started the church 18 years ago as a ministry for Christians in the peace movement. The couple had been activists themselves and knew many people in the movement felt alienated from church. With the bishop's approval, John moved from leading a traditional congregation to serving in a new setting.

Technically retired after 37 years in pastoral ministry, John is still an appointed pastor but doesn't receive income from the church other than his pension. Pat receives a stipend from the publishing enterprise.

Many churches focus on putting more people in the pews, but John explains that Metanoia emphasizes the quality of its discipleship instead.

"I love what I'm doing," Pat says. "I think that if you just wake up and be ready, then I certainly have plenty of time in that 24 hours to be filled up myself. I'm not doing all the giving. I'm certainly receiving a lot."

Members are committed to attending church every Sunday, and about 20 people - members and others - meet for the daily services. The members participate in a covenant discipleship group, and they are expected to tithe, or give 10 percent of their earnings to the church. "That's your earnest money on a life that's committed to Christ," John says.

The church has paid or exceeded its apportionments every year, he says. It charges no fees for weddings, funerals or counseling, nor does it charge rent for additional occupants who stay in the house from time to time. "We operate this house as a gift, and living here is a gift," John says. "People contribute what they can."

Through a ministry called Grief Watch, Pat and a staff of seven provide resources nationwide to people dealing with the loss of loved ones. Pat has written or co-written materials to help people cope with the death of an infant, such as We Were Going to Have a Baby, But We Had An Angel Instead. Other items include newsletters and announcement cards for parents whose babies have died.

The publishing business, located in the basement, is separate from the church but pays part of the property taxes, phone costs, and, if necessary, some upkeep, Pat says. A ceramic shop, also in the basement, makes a pendant called "The Remembering Heart." Conceived by Pat, it is a heart within a heart; the inner piece is buried or cremated with a loved one, and the survivor keeps the outer piece.

"It's just a reminder that a piece of our heart goes with them and that we always have an ongoing connection with the people we love," Pat says.

Metanoia also provides hospice, a ministry to which Pat feels called as a registered nurse.

"We've had 31 people who have died here at the Peace House with us that we've offered hospice to," she says. "We have a large house, and because we live in community, there are other people who can support each other as we do hospice. We didn't plan to do hospice. It just turned out that somebody needed it, and we said yes."

Another key ministry for Metanoia is its feeding program. As a registered agency with the Oregon Food Bank, the church stores food and serves a Wednesday night supper for the needy at nearby Sunnyside United Methodist Church.

The Schwieberts' lifestyle reflects the ethic of giving without counting the cost.

"There is something counter-cultural about what we do," John says. "We don't aspire to be an institution." The idea of an endowment to keep the church going after he is gone is foreign to him, he says.

"We're here to minister while we live."
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*Tanton is managing editor for United Methodist News Service.

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