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Originally published May 19, 2013 at 8:46 PM | Page modified May 20, 2013 at 5:45 PM

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Community Dinners church nourishes bodies, souls

The North Seattle congregation has had several names in its 90 years of existence, which it celebrated Sunday. But now it has taken a name that leaves out “church,” doesn’t meet in such a building and devotes itself to feeding others.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The North Seattle congregation now meets at Bitter Lake Community Center rather than a church building.

It no longer has a name that identifies itself as a church.

But what is now Community Dinners — Seattle on Sunday celebrated the 90th anniversary of one of Seattle’s first Pentecostal churches.

Formerly known as Westminster Community Church and before that, Fremont Tabernacle and Stoneway Tabernacle, the Assembly of God-affiliated church had its start among Ballard Norwegians in 1923.

Today, it is attracting young families and spreading the gospel by serving free dinners four nights a week in four different neighborhoods, trying to create a new model for urban churches and to minister to the homeless and other community members.

The church’s goal, said Pastor Verlon Fosner, is to start 27 dinner churches in each of Seattle’s urban villages, neighborhoods with the highest density of residents but relatively few churches.

Monday, they will add Pike Place Market to their four current neighborhood dinner services in Ballard, Fremont, Greenwood and Bitter Lake.

Fosner, who took over in 1999, said they are copying the earliest models of Christianity by bringing people together over meals to talk about Jesus’ life.

“We could have stayed in our own building. Instead, we are going out into the neighborhood. The building is not the church. The church is the expression of Christ’s spirit that we carry to others,” Fosner said.

For their example of growing a church in an urban setting, Community Dinners will receive a national award in August at the biannual Assemblies of God convention in Orlando, Fla.

On Sunday, longtime members talked about their memories of the church and its many iterations. The older generation of men were dressed in shirts and ties and carried well-thumbed Bibles, while the younger wore jeans and read verses of scripture off their smartphones.

Richard McDonald joined the church in 1960, when it was the Fremont Tabernacle. He said the congregation was 99 percent Norwegians, but all of them were open to the holy spirit.

“When you’ve got all those Norwegians in the same spirit, you’re really doing something,” he said. And he explained that all those name changes and new church buildings reflected the church’s vitality. “We kept moving because we kept getting bigger,” McDonald said.

Robert McConnell joined in 1973 when it was the Westminster Community Church. At the time, he said, he was going through a divorce and said the church “was a refuge for me.” He met his wife, Betty, several years later and the two have been married 34 years. “It’s been a blessing,” he said.

Laureen Fagerland grew up in the church and now works as its administrator. She remembered missionaries coming from around the world to share their stories of outreach and her own mission to Barcelona, Spain, when she was part of the church’s youth group.

She said the congregation fell from about 400 people at its peak to about 150 in 2004 as fewer young families lived in the city or attended church. The church began to rethink its mission and in 2009 began its dinner services.

Dan Alspaugh joined the church just a few months ago after attending one of the church’s Ballard dinners. He was new to Seattle, homeless and said he had never imagined a time when he wouldn’t be able to find a job.

Now he helps prepare the Ballard dinners. “His preaching speaks to me,” he said of Fosner. “I’ve hardly missed a service since.”

Fosner said the church’s long-term vision is to buy an apartment building in each of the neighborhoods it serves to provide low-income housing to the needy. Rents will help pay for the weekly dinners and the church will work to connect residents to jobs and services.

For the 90th anniversary celebration, one of the Bible passages chosen was that of 90-year-old Sarah becoming pregnant and bearing a son, Issac, for her husband Abraham, who was 100.

Fosner told the congregation that Issac means “laughter” in Hebrew, the only appropriate response for a 90-year-old woman learning that she would bear a child.

Fosner drew the comparison between Sarah and the congregation’s multiplying dinner services and its new generation of worshippers.

“We are a 90-year-old church and we are having babies,” he said.

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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