A Historic Church Reaffirms Its Commitment to Downtown Tacoma, Washington
There is a kind of perfection in the name “Urban Grace” for a church located in the concrete heart of a city. In Christian theology, the concept of grace has been the subject of debate, but the overarching idea is that of undeserved divine favor and love. More secular meanings include beauty, kindness, and, if used as a verb, the act of bringing honor and credit to a location.
I was standing on the corner of 9th and Market streets in downtown Tacoma after a Sunday morning service at Urban Grace, a massive Gothic Revival church that recently underwent a significant restoration, when I found myself thinking about these many meanings of the word “grace.” Before the service, volunteers from the nondenominational church had served a free breakfast on the corner to anyone who walked up—principally people experiencing homelessness. Later, I was given a tour of Urban Grace, which contains 40,000 square feet of space on four floors, by Rev. Ben Robinson and Jennifer Dean, director of operations. They took me past offices and rehearsal spaces used by the Tacoma Youth Symphony Association, the Tacoma Farmers Market, therapists, and music teachers, among others. Finally, I attended the worship service—informal and welcoming, notable for the beauty of its contemporary music and the diverse congregation that gathered in the soaring three-story sanctuary.
Living up to the manifold definitions of grace asks a lot of a church, or anyone, but Urban Grace has found a way to embrace the challenge while also helping preserve a landmark building in the center of Tacoma. “Almost 85 percent of the building is used by the community,” Robinson, the pastor, told me as we walked past the kitchen, where church members were wrapping up leftovers from the breakfast to be taken to a shelter. “The mission of this church is to be a community asset.”
Urban Grace proudly calls itself “The Downtown Church.” The struggles it has faced over the decades to pursue its mission in its longtime location are a lesson in preservation of both a physical and spiritual kind.
“And the answer was an ecumenical church, a progressive church, focused on arts and social services for people of every kind of belief and identity.”Ben Robinson
The history of the congregation that would become Urban Grace dates back 140 years. It traces its lineage to the First Baptist Church (1883), founded on Pacific Avenue in what was then known as New Tacoma in the Washington Territory. After building a structure at the current site in 1884, the church grew quickly, remodeling and expanding it in 1892. In the early 1920s members decided they needed an even larger building—one that projected the confidence they felt.
That confidence was tested from the beginning. For the first, but not the last, time, the congregation debated whether to move out of downtown and into the growing residential outskirts of the city. They decided to stay where they were and remain a part of central Tacoma. In 1925, the church moved into its new building on the corner of 9th and Market streets.
Designed by local architects Heath, Gove and Bell, the steel-reinforced, poured-concrete structure sits on a sloped site that lifts it high above Market Street and much of downtown. Sandstone clads its public-facing walls. The crenellated parapets and lancet arches in the tower distinguishing the church’s northeast corner lend it the air of a castle, an architectural expression of permanence. In its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, First Baptist had more than 2,000 members, a bustling community of faith that filled the sanctuary on Sundays and contributed to life at the center of its port city on Puget Sound.
From its inception, the new church was designed to take part in civic life. The neighborhood was (and still is, to a lesser extent) Tacoma’s theater district, and the sanctuary, with its theater-style seating in the place of church benches; large balcony; and high, chandeliered ceiling, feels more like a theater than it does a traditional nave. It was intended to serve not just the large congregation, but the entire community. This mission of outreach was also present in other ways: A brief history on the Urban Grace website notes that First Baptist lent “support to Japanese immigrants, service members during wartime, senior citizens, and the city’s homeless, to name just a few.”
Over time the church’s commitment to downtown was tested again; societal trends began conspiring against Urban Grace in the 1970s. “White flight hit Tacoma hard [then],” Robinson notes. “First Baptist’s membership was dropping precipitously.” The church again considered moving out to the suburbs, but in 1979, the congregation once more decided to stay downtown so it could continue to serve the city. “That was a very interesting and beautiful choice the church made to remain,” Robinson says.
It came at a cost. Parts of downtown Tacoma experienced an increase in crime and violence in the 1980s and ’90s. “The neighborhood struggled, and the church struggled alongside it,” Robinson says. First Baptist’s membership fell steadily, finally dropping to a low of just 20 members in the early 2000s.
One of those members was Willie C. Stewart, who had already been a part of the church for about 40 years when the congregation reached its moment of crisis.
On the morning I visited Urban Grace, Stewart was standing out front as the church prepared to serve breakfast for the first time since COVID-19 shut down the Sunday morning meal more than a year earlier. He has been the coordinator of the community breakfast since 1995, when Urban Grace was still First Baptist. A genial man with the relaxed thoughtfulness and determined good cheer of a veteran teacher and school administrator—which he was until retirement—Stewart first came to the Pacific Northwest in 1958 from rural Texas. “I grew up living in a segregated county. I felt it would be beneficial for me and my family to be part of America, and America was an integrated country,” he says.
Stewart helped make that vision a little truer when he joined First Baptist. His family, he remembers, was only the second Black family in the congregation. Later, he would become the first Black school principal in Tacoma, where he was noted for his work defusing racial tensions through dialogue.
For about a decade in the 1990s, Stewart served as president of the First Baptist Church Council. He remembers well the decline of the congregation, as worshipers who lived outside the city center found it easier to move to churches nearby. As its membership shrunk, the church also struggled with the financial obligation of maintaining a building far larger than its needs.
At the start of the new millennium, the situation had become untenable, but to abandon First Baptist Church would be to abandon both a downtown community that needed it more than ever and a historic structure that anchored and distinguished the neighborhood. In 2005, a group of religious and community leaders gathered at First Baptist’s invitation to discuss what Tacoma needed in a downtown church. “And the answer was an ecumenical church, a progressive church, focused on arts and social services for people of every kind of belief and identity,” says Robinson.
Urban Grace was born. An ecumenical church is nondenominational, open to people from all Christian traditions. Urban Grace takes its arms-wide-open approach even further. “Our top priority,” says Dean, director of operations, “is that we welcome anyone—no matter your background, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, or socioeconomic status.”
First Baptist had a progressive heritage, and Stewart says its remaining members supported the transition to Urban Grace. “There was no resistance because we knew we didn’t have much choice if we were going to survive,” he says. “We should have done it years ago.”
Reborn as Urban Grace, the church still faced the physical and financial challenge of maintaining its home.
As Urban Grace sought to find its footing as a congregation, it also had to deal with the consequences of “nearly 40 years of deferred maintenance,” says Robinson. In 2017, church leaders launched a fundraising campaign for restoration. Their goals were relatively modest: They hoped to raise at least $225,000, which would result in a grant of $112,500 from the National Fund for Sacred Places—a collaborative program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places.
Instead, the public stepped up to pledge more than $500,000. “The response,” says Dean, “was a complete surprise. We had a dozen very generous donors, but [also] a lot of people pledging $100 a month for three years.” The contributions allowed the church to receive the National Fund for Sacred Places’ maximum grant amount of $250,000. Other grants also came in, most significantly $325,000 from the Murdoch Charitable Trust. In all the church raised approximately $1.25 million, nearly triple its original goal.
“The capital campaign was significant in the life of the church. It was the first time we really told the story,” says Robinson. “I don’t think our congregation really understood the impact of our church on the community until we saw the result.”
The campaign’s success allowed Urban Grace to do significantly more work on the building than planned: restoring deteriorating sandstone on the buildings’ east and north facades, repairing the roof, remodeling bathrooms to meet accessibility standards, reupholstering seats in the sanctuary, and upgrading the kitchen with new appliances and a large walk-in freezer to store church foodstuffs and those from the Tacoma Farmers Market, one of Urban Grace’s tenants.
Those tenants, and a congregation that is again growing, represent a renewed connection to the church’s history and a glimpse of its future.
“They don’t rent their office space to just anybody. They’re encouraging the arts. They’re encouraging health and mental health practitioners.”John Hildreth
Urban Grace feels even larger inside than it looks from the street. The cavernous sanctuary fills the center of the structure, but the hallways on the upper floors wind past or open onto a bewildering array of offices, rehearsal spaces, dance studios, childcare rooms, and more. Renting many of those spaces to groups or individuals not directly attached to the church has provided needed financial support. But it’s also an expression of the church’s central mission.
In addition to the offices of therapists, music teachers, and even a writer, my tour with Robinson and Dean took me past others rented by the Tacoma Opera and nonprofits working to resettle refugees and provide aid to pregnant women in need. Over the years, the larger spaces have been used by a variety of theater and dance troupes, says Dean—everything from ballet to burlesque.
John Hildreth, who was leading the National Trust’s involvement in the National Fund for Sacred Places program when Urban Grace was selected for a grant in 2016, says the types of local groups Urban Grace houses and supports played an important role in its selection.
“What set Urban Grace apart was how they were using this building in an unusual way to impact the community as part of their mission work,” Hildreth says. “They don’t rent their office space to just anybody. They’re encouraging the arts. They’re encouraging health and mental health practitioners. That all goes very strongly to what they’re trying to do as they reach out in downtown Tacoma.”
The historic Rialto Theater across Market Street is one of a few reminders of the bustling theater district that once surrounded the church, and Urban Grace still serves as a center of the downtown arts scene. Robinson sees it as an important expression of the all-are-welcome approach to faith. “Art is one of the ways we can break down some of the barriers,” he says, “either between different religious practices or the constructed divide between the religious and the secular.”
The Tacoma Youth Symphony Association uses Urban Grace for both rehearsals and performances. “The community there is very open-hearted,” says Megan Berkinshaw, the symphony’s operations manager. “We have a lot of scheduled events and sometimes conflicting times when things are going on, and they’re always accommodating. The kids love being there. They feel like it’s their home away from home. It’s made a huge difference to our little symphony.”
Urban Grace also has a close working relationship with the Tacoma Farmers Market, which rents office space in the church and shares the walk-in cooler added to the kitchen. The nonprofit has operated a large outdoor market two blocks from Urban Grace for 31 years. During the pandemic, it shifted its operations to “mobile markets” offering fresh produce and other food items for free to people in various neighborhoods. In partnership with the Tacoma Housing Authority, the market also makes home deliveries to elderly and disabled residents.
“It’s really important to us that healthy, affordable food is accessible to everyone,” says Anika Moran, the market’s former executive director. Urban Grace, she adds, has been a partner in making that happen. “When COVID first hit, and the mobile market was just a possibility,” Moran says, “I discussed with them how we could possibly use the space [at the church] to support food access in this time of rising food insecurity, and they were incredibly supportive.”
The church helped find volunteers for home deliveries, offered use of its cold storage, and rented out its basement, where there was enough space to pack bags of food while practicing social distancing. The larger, walk-in cooler was subsequently built with the idea of sharing it with the market, Stewart says.
The church’s wide-ranging neighborhood involvement reflects its “historic commitment to people on the margins,” Robinson says. “Jesus talked about unconditional love … A lot of it is as simple as that.”
Rebuilding a congregation that had nearly disappeared has been a central part of Urban Grace’s revival. Attendance was steadily growing, Dean says, until COVID-19 shut down the country. For much of the pandemic, Urban Grace conducted its services on Zoom, like most houses of worship across the United States. But in the summer of 2021, it was able to reopen its doors to a public still wary of gathering. “People are slowly coming back,” says Dean. The Sunday service I attended attracted more than 100 worshipers, a racially and, from appearances, socially diverse group that included a surprising number of younger families and children for a church located in a nonresidential urban core.
At the conclusion of the service, I sought out Stewart to thank him for his time. We stood in the back of the sanctuary as he nodded and spoke briefly to people filing past, a welcoming, quietly content smile lighting his face. I thought of something he had said to me earlier that day, about the time when First Baptist was down to 20 members, and the satisfaction he felt in seeing today’s growing congregation.
“We’ve become,” he’d said, with the same smile, “a young church.”
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