January 24, 2023

What can you do with a church building? Support local religion journalism

By Tracy Simmons

Executive director, SpokaneFAVS.com

Community members gather at an open house at the FāVS Center in 2019. The multifaith gathering place was housed in a former church building.

Photos courtesy of Tracy Simmons

A congregation in Spokane, Washington, offered its building to a digital news startup, allowing it to grow into a million-dollar organization, writes the founder of the site.

In 2019, more than 4,000 churches closed in the U.S.

I was given one of the buildings.

Typically when churches shutter, the property ends up being sold to other congregations or ministries. But I’m not a pastor or a director of a homeless coalition or a community activist. I’m a religion journalist.

Ten years ago, I started an online publication covering faith news and commentary in the Spokane, Washington, area. It’s called SpokaneFāVS, which stands for Spokane Faith & Values, but we nicknamed it FāVS (as in favorite) because we want it to be everyone’s FāV religion news source. That website is why I was given a church. And that property is how my scrappy digital startup came to be a million-dollar news organization.

When I started the site in 2012, I wanted it to be different from Patheos or Beliefnet, which were websites popular with theology geeks like myself at the time. These sites were missing something: community.

Maybe I was being selfish. I wanted to be around the communities I was writing about so I could understand them better, and I hoped others wanted that too. I grew up in a strict religious home that was intolerant of all organized religions, even Christian churches. We isolated by worshipping in our living room and studying teachings about how dangerous all other beliefs were.

Thankfully, I got out of that living room and made my way to a newsroom. Meeting Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists saved me from intolerance, and I had a hunch that journalism could help break down walls for others too.

After I launched the site, it took only a few months to find columnists of all different faith backgrounds and to create a multifaith readership. But I wanted them to talk to each other. The comment section wasn’t good enough. Neither was social media.

I racked my brain. How could an online publication create community? I remember pacing my home office and sticking idea-filled pink and yellow Post-it notes to my wall.

I needed to find a way to bring everyone together offline. Book club? Knitting group? Run club? No, I decided. Coffee is what we needed. (It’s Washington state, after all.)

Then the Newtown shootings happened. A 20-year-old walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 20 kids and six staff members.

I reported on how Spokane-area congregations were responding. FāVS columnists wrote about how it affected their faith. Readers responded in the comment section expressing their sadness and confusion, but mostly their outrage.

This was the time to bring people together.

I quickly organized a community forum at a local coffee shop, dubbing the event “Coffee Talk” and titling the discussion “Angry at God.” Five columnists who had written about the shootings agreed to be panelists: a Christian Scientist, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Community of Christ pastor and a Presbyterian.

They sat awkwardly behind two tables I had pushed together in front of a SpokaneFāVS banner I’d taped to the wall. With 10 minutes until the event was set to begin, rows of empty chairs faced them. I thought my idea was a bust.

Anxious, I wandered to the coffee counter in the next room. The line was out the door, and there was a crowd of people waiting for their lattes and mochas and muffins. Christians, Muslims, atheists, seekers and even a few Jews (it was a Saturday morning) began to take their seats.

What followed was a discussion about gun culture, senseless violence, grief, fear, faith. The audience chimed in, sharing personal stories, crying together, comforting one another.

I knew I had to keep these conversations going.

We’ve been doing Coffee Talks since that first one in January 2013. We’ve had conversations about faith and technology, freedom of speech, religious misconceptions, ethical protest, and next we’ll have one on the evil in this world.

Through these monthly forums, I’ve seen ecumenical and interfaith friendships formed. I remember going to the 40th birthday party of one of my Jewish columnists and realizing that almost everyone seated around the table was connected to FāVS. I smiled, knowing that my little website had had a hand in bringing this group together.

Six years after that first Coffee Talk, we had outgrown every coffee shop in Spokane. Finding a venue became a challenge, forcing us to hold the events every other month rather than every month. Still, no matter when or where we held our forums, between 30 and 50 people continued to show up.

We had 40 columnists by now, and although I was working full time as a journalism professor, I was still doing all the reporting, editing and event organizing on my own. I was stretched thin and worried that it was reflected in the content on the website.

Members of Spokane’s Origin Church had watched FāVS grow over the years. The pastor was a columnist for FāVS, and I had done pulpit supply at the church on a few occasions. One day, I got a text from the pastor: “How would FāVS like a building?”

In later conversation, he explained that the Disciples of Christ congregation had decided to close, ending its 133-year history in Spokane. Four years prior, the church had bought a 3-acre wooded property and erected a modest-sized building with a community garden, hoping the new location would attract more members. But the church didn’t grow, and members agreed that they wanted to be good stewards of what they had left.

They believed in our website’s mission and wanted us to have a permanent home for our Coffee Talks. The church offered their property, as well as funding for three years.

I was floored. Sometimes, when web traffic was low or donations didn’t come in, I had felt like giving up. I wondered whether FāVS was making a difference or whether I was holding on too tightly to a dream. But Origin’s offer was a reminder that the safe space we were creating for conversations around faith and ethics mattered. Their belief in me, in SpokaneFāVS, was the fuel I needed to keep going.

I said yes; the FāVS board came up with the idea to use the building as a multifaith community space, which we dubbed the FāVS Center. We held an open house in June 2019, less than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between 2019 and 2022, we were able to provide a worship space for the Hindu community, a Ukrainian Christian congregation and a Bosnian Muslim group, as well as space for other groups who needed it for special events, such as holidays and birthdays.

FAVs Center
Origin Church’s building became the FāVS Center.

As you can imagine, it was a terrible time to open a community center. When the pandemic hit, we had to shut our doors and move events online. We kept the manager on staff and continued to pay for utilities and grounds maintenance. Our funds were quickly dwindling.

We realized that the pandemic had changed how people gather. The future was hybrid now. The interfaith center wasn’t going to succeed and was only taking away from our core mission: meaningful religion reporting. By trying to keep the space open, we weren’t being good stewards of the gift we had been given.

After much deliberation and some tears, we decided to sell the FāVS Center. We sought out owners who would value the space as much as we did, and as much as the people of Origin Church had. In the end, we sold the building to a dentist.

Dr. C Dental Partners had helped provide oral health care in Guatemala and hygiene bags to a region in Honduras. They aimed to change the oral health of the Spokane community, and to other communities throughout the nation and the world. The FāVS Center would become their headquarters.

The purchase price was about $900,000, and with the money we still had from Origin and from our recurring donors, FāVS became a million-dollar nonprofit religion news publication. The sale was in July 2022.

What does a niche site like FāVS do with that much money? To find out, I’m back to sticking Post-it notes to the wall, only this time with a consultant, a small staff and a dedicated board contributing ideas. I doubt that our brainstorming will land us a building this time, but my bet is that we’ll find new, creative and engaging ways to bring our readers together once again.

By Tracy Simmons

Executive director, SpokaneFAVS.com

Tracy Simmons is the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers in New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut and is a scholarly assistant professor at Washington State University.