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Originally published Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Washington Association of Churches leader leaves legacy of social concern

He is about to step down after 17 years at the helm of the Washington Association of Churches. And still, the Rev. John Boonstra can't stop...

Seattle Times staff reporter

He is about to step down after 17 years at the helm of the Washington Association of Churches.

And still, the Rev. John Boonstra can't stop talking about future plans for the group.

He talks of building a "movement of the faithful" to advocate for issues such as health care, living wages, hunger, housing and unfair taxation.

It's this passion for social-justice causes, and his deep belief that churches can make a difference on these issues, supporters say, that characterize his tenure as head of this 31-year-old ecumenical group. (The ecumenical movement works toward greater understanding and cooperation among Christian churches.) The Washington Association of Churches includes representatives from 10 mainline Protestant denominations and about 12 ecumenical organizations.

Celebration Dinner

The Washington Association of Churches holds its annual dinner honoring the faithful on Wednesday at Campion Hall at Seattle University. Keynote speaker is Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and author of "The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right." Registration begins at 5:30 p.m., dinner at 6:30 p.m., keynote speech at 8:15 p.m. Tickets are $75 per person. Reservations: 206-625-9790, Ext. 25, or e-mail Information:

"I wish him well in what he's doing," said Steve Lansing, a community organizer for a local food-workers union and an association board member. But "it's a loss for people on a personal level. ... The annual dinner coming up — that will be obvious in the response of the people there."

On Wednesday, the association is holding a fundraising dinner featuring keynote speaker Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine. The dinner is also an opportunity for supporters to bid farewell to Boonstra, whose last day on the job is Oct. 15.

Boonstra, 57 and a father of three, is accompanying his wife, Vicky Stifter, to her new position as pastor of Riverside Community Church in Hood River, Ore. He also just accepted the position of pastor at Bethel Congregational Church in White Salmon, Klickitat County.

It's a change from the ecumenical work that he loves and grew up with in Rochester, N.Y. His father, a pastor, was very involved in working with churches of various denominations on issues such as civil rights. He would take his young son along to meetings.

"It was very, very powerful," Boonstra remembers.

Boonstra came to Seattle in 1989 to head the Washington Association of Churches after a stint with the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

When he took over, the organization worked on social issues. But "too many discussions [were] about what denominational self-understandings and teachings were and whether they matched and didn't match," Boonstra said. "There was a lot of struggle around: 'Where are we on baptism, ecclesiology,' and not enough about social justice."

Boonstra set out to change that. Over the years, he has helped build partnerships with non-church organizations such as labor unions, environmental groups, and civil-rights groups.

"John has played an important role in forging deep and lasting relationships between the labor movement and the religious community," said Robby Stern, special assistant to the president of the Washington State Labor Council. "He's genuine. You have no question about John's sincerity and the depth of his beliefs. He's passionate, he's articulate and that comes across."

That sincerity is also leavened by a "nice sense of humor," said Magdaleno Rose-Avila, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "He can give out a joke and be the brunt of a joke. And he understands how humor helps."

Given that he has such strong beliefs, not everyone agrees with Boonstra.

He's willing to "invite people to the table of different viewpoints, but he's also got the discernment and the wisdom to say: 'We're not going to make any headway here,'" said the Rev. Paul Benz, director of the Lutheran Public Policy Office in Washington State. Benz acknowledges sometimes that means a "certain degree of preaching to the choir. But sometimes even ... the choir are on the sidelines and need direction and inspiration and guidance."

These days, what Boonstra is passionately championing is the association's push to build a "movement of the faithful." The effort involves educating people on issues, getting congregations to talk to each other about those issues and building up their numbers.

For years, the association has sponsored a day for church members to meet legislators in Olympia, and association leaders have lobbied in the capitol. But they realized their work "had to be rooted in congregations," Boonstra said. "It's one thing to have a clergyperson in Olympia to raise the moral bar. It's another thing to deliver the numbers. We're looking for a movement that can deliver the serious numbers.

"We believe there are at least 50,000 of the faithful who share our gospel commitments on economic justice, social justice. The job of the religious movement is to say: 'We're going to find those 50,000 people.' "

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

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