By Kelsey Jones
DAYTON — In this one-light town of 2,500 people, churchgoers have their choice of more than a dozen houses of worship. But only Dayton First Congregational Church is run by the Rev. Marj Johnston, the town’s only lesbian pastor.
“It’s never just an easy thing, especially living here,” Johnston said this fall. “I live right next door to the people who disagree with me even being a human being, much less a pastor or any number of things. And still we find ways to make that happen and do it.”
Dayton looks like many of the small towns in rural agricultural areas across the country. It lies in the heart of conservative Washington, where Donald Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote. Nationally, Trump earned more than 80 percent of the votes cast by white, evangelical Christians. In the national divide over politics, Johnston and her congregation teeter in the middle.
Johnston said her congregation is split down the middle when it comes to politics, but they are able to have conversation and rally around a common desire to serve the community around them. They do not see themselves as evangelicals.
“Our church says, you are welcome here. Period. There’s no qualifiers,” said Johnston, who became pastor after attending seminary in Chicago. “And I think that is a significant piece about churches today. There are a lot of churches where as an out lesbian I could go to church but if I sat there with my wife or if I wanted to teach Sunday school, if I wanted to be a deacon or all these things, that is not allowed. You are welcome here, but…”
With open arms
Without the caveats, Johnston’s church has become the calm in the center of the storm for those in Dayton that defy the stereotypical portrait of a small farming town resident.
She said she has witnessed several transgender people who have moved to Dayton begin to attend the church because of its reputation for inclusivity.
“That might sound like the weirdest thing to experience in a small community in the middle of nowhere but it is one of the neatest gifts this community gives in not being antagonistic, in just welcoming people as they are, in learning to call them by their chosen names and in accepting them as who they are,” Johnston said.
That open acceptance is contrasted with the current political climate that has created an unseen tension, or perhaps exacerbated one that was already there. On the lone road leading into the town, the first house people see sports a “Make America Great Again” sign as big as the fence. Next to the Trump sign is a homemade cardboard sign reading, “It’s common sense, impeach Obama.”
In the popular A-frame diner towards the end of the cluster of businesses that make up Main Street, a group of people who appear to be in their 70s talk over steaming cups of thick, black coffee and pancakes. At first the conversation revolves around the high school football team’s performance the night before, but once that is exhausted, it quickly turns to their disbelief that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was not in jail already. One woman shook her head and muttered, “That woman is the antichrist,” as the others nodded and begin talking about their plans for the rest of the day.
But despite of their sometimes radically different views, the residents of Dayton, and the congregants of Johnston’s church manage to remain a community. She said they find a common thread in their love of their little town, where one street houses a movie theater, a historic train depot from Dayton’s heyday, several eclectic antique shops, a coffee shop and eateries lined by large oak trees protecting the sidewalk from the sun.
Johnston asks her congregation to remember that community. She models it by her service to the Dayton community. Johnston sits on the board for Project Timothy, a local organization that helps those in need in the community by providing goods and services. As she helps and leads, her own faith is tested and strengthened.
“The building relationships part has been so crucial,” she said. “What it’s done is turned my own faith on its ear because if I can build relationships with people it enhances the relationship I have with my sense of who God is and who I am in that bigger picture of how we can work and serve together.”
In a book club she had formed with several members of her congregation, they wrestled with how to continue to serve their community after the divisive election and impending presidency. All came to the conclusion that the answer was in what they had already been doing, providing a safe place of worship for all and service to the entire community.
A safe haven
The original church bell tolls each Sunday morning at 11 a.m., calling all to the service. Rodger Tumbocon and his husband Justin Jaech settle into their seats with their children sitting next to them.
The light filters in through the large pane of stained glass, dated from the late 1800s. Pews covered in red velvet are arranged in three neat sections. The distinct smell of old wood and books greets those who enter.
Rodger and Jaech met while Jaech was in the Navy in Long Beach, California 33 years ago. They moved to Dayton when Jaech retired after finding Dayton on the internet.
After opening and operating the Manila Bay Café, the couple gave their restaurant away in order to devote more time to their adopted kids, Justin, 12, and Isaac, 9.
Tumbocon and Jaech were kicked out of the Nazarene church in Dayton because they are gay. Not long after, Johnston and her wife Cindi went to eat at their restaurant one day.
“But when she said she was a pastor of the congregational church, and they are a lesbian couple, I said, ‘Oh my god! You’re the pastor I’ve been waiting for,’” Rodger said.
The couple has been coming with their children every Sunday since. After they adopted their first son, Justin, Johnston gave him a kite for his first birthday with Jaech and Tumbocon. He doesn’t know where the kite is, but he remembered the gift with a smile.
For Jaech, the new church invigorated his desire to go to church each week.
“He wouldn’t go to any kind of social gathering or any kind of group or any kind of organization. He can’t, can’t. But since we moved here and found this church and started coming, he is the first dressed. ‘Let’s go to church!” Tumbocon laughed.
Years later, they convinced a friend who made a point of going to a different church each Sunday to attend with them. She has been going to First Congregational ever since.
“When they say everybody is welcome here they aren’t kidding. I mean really and truly. This is not a very diverse town and yet within this church there is an enormous amount of diversity. Not racial diversity but politically, it is just, it’s a very interesting place,” Karen Goodell said. “It’s very comfortable, funny, it makes me think. Marj makes me laugh. It’s a really special place.”
Goodell has only lived in Dayton for 15 months, but had visited her childhood friend each summer, all the while vowing never to live in a small town.
Dayton defies attempts to categorize it as a small town in the stereotypical ways. It does not boast about its quiet acceptance. Support is found in small business owners. A trip to Rey’s Roast found a lesbian couple that Johnston had married. Tumbocon and Jaech were the first gay couple to be wed in Columbia County, and Johnston performed the ceremony on Christmas day. The relationships weave the fabric of the little town.
“If you want to have a relationship with God or a sense of the holy, you have to get out and have relationships with other people,” Johnston said. “That’s where the love is.”
As a tapestry hanging above the entrance states the little church is, “An anchor for the past and a beacon for the future.” A future where a political divide as wide as a canyon has been bridged by a little church in a little town led by a pastor who refuses to see anything less than a community.
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