Spokane’s East Central neighborhood in late July is deceptively quiet. A few people brave the 90-degree heat and scorched sidewalks, but most stay inside with their swamp coolers. At the corner of Greene and Fifth, however, there’s a party going on. The Rev. Percy Happy Watkins and the Tuesday night men’s group are getting their grill on, frying chicken and other barbeque goods in spite of the heat while they catch up on the week’s happenings.
The tiny church on Greene has been a gathering place for East Central since 1979, and Watkins is proud to say New Hope Baptist Church actually welcomes everyone through its doors. Many churches claim to do this, he says, but not many follow through.
“I like to say that our church is a safe church. Everyone is welcome here,” he said.
Watkins is well-known as a speaker in the Spokane area for his recitations of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as speaking appearances at Gonzaga and Whitworth Universities. He enjoys getting out into the community and getting to know others who do not attend his church. East Central is an extremely diverse neighborhood, and Watkins says people from several races and ethnicities frequent New Hope, which he feels is unfortunately rare.
“I call [New Hope] a United Nations community,” he said. “When I speak, people sometimes come up to me afterwards and ask me if they can come to my church. And I look at them and I say, ‘Why are you asking me that? You can come to my church.’ I think there’s still a fear about the racial divide and that’s unfortunate,” he said.
While the neighborhood surrounding New Hope is diverse, it is extremely poor. Data from the latest census places the local poverty level at about 28 percent, while Spokane’s is at around 18 percent. A recent life expectancy map from Spokane’s health district revealed lower life expectancies in poorer Spokane neighborhoods compared to that of their more affluent counterparts. Life expectancy in East Central is approximately 72 years, according to this map, while those living in nearby Comstock and Southgate neighborhoods can expect to live 10-12 years longer, on average. They have better access to health care and healthy foods that come with a higher income.
Watkins sees his church as a place where East Central residents can feel safe and receive whatever help he and the congregation can provide. His dream is to remodel New Hope within the next few years and increase the space the church has to serve the neighborhood. Plans for expansion include room for computer classes, after-school tutoring, and exercise classes in addition to space for church functions.
“We never worried much about our building or how it appeared on the outside, because we knew on the inside we were praising God and doing the work of the Lord,” Watkins stated in a quote from the church’s fundraising site.
Still, the 34-year-old building is cramped and in severe disrepair. The congregation hopes to the raise $150,000 needed for the remodel through grassroots efforts. Thus far, they have raised approximately $20,000, despite the poverty of the neighborhood, through community pledges, bake sales and by selling “soul burgers” at local fairs and festivals. The fundraising not only brings in much-needed money, Watkins said, it allows the 70 people in his congregation to get to know each other better. He believes this is what grows true community, and what is needed to ultimately overcome any remaining racial boundaries.
Elizabeth Backstrom majored in journalism at Western Washington University and currently works as remotely as a grant writer. Her background is in news writing and features, but if an overabundance of caffeine is consumed, she has been known to write a humor piece or two. Backstrom attended various Christian churches growing up in Washington State and in her free time enjoys reading about history, religion and politics.