OCEAN PARK - It is no surprise that the first place we stop in her yard when I arrive - and the last place we stand before I leave - is what Samantha Weir calls her "tree of life."
It is indeed just that - in more ways than one. This leviathan of the forest is home and feeding ground for dozens of squirrels, those frisky, furry, sometimes brazen denizens of the tree, which, ironically, become prey - breakfast/lunch/dinner - for the resident feline predators, equally frisky and furry, though sometimes stealthier.
Samantha takes seeds from her cache by the front porch, and walks casually over to the base of the tree. The squirrels know she's coming, and their squeaks and chatter rise in volume as she moves around the roots of the big evergreen, dusting away a layer of shells and beginning to toss today's dinner around the base of the tree. She tells me there's "gotta be five or six inches" of seed husks built up around that tree.
"In the spring," she says, "when everybody has had lots of kids, we have anywhere from fifteen to seventy [critters]. They all bring their little ones out. I call this my tree of life because they've all had to learn to eat out of here - birds and squirrels. I got tired of going all over the place, so I make 'em all eat at the same time ... when I come out to feed them in the afternoon."
As she goes through the day's ritual of preparing this forest communion table and spreading the seeds, her family of fur and feathers watch and chatter, like children waiting for Christmas dinner, as if speculating about the hoped for usual favorites or the dreaded items that are supposed to be good for you. One squirrel in particular keeps up a non-stop, chattery monologue, perhaps a well-practiced speech he feels it is his duty to repeat day after day. Or maybe it's a blessing that he hurries to finish before the rude others plunge in gracelessly.
All major religions carry within their teachings something that symbolizes the tenets of their faiths. In the Christian faith those symbols are recognized as the seven sacraments. In the Jewish faith, with its history in the Old Testament, also a major scripture for Christianity, the symbolic structure is the tree of life, one not unlike Samantha's tree of life for feeding the critters. On its branches, corresponding to the seven sacraments of Christianity, hang divine inspiration, understanding and wisdom, judgment and mercy, love and compassion, integrity and commitment, and vitality and creativity - all strengths and virtues in Samantha's repertoire.
The loose driveway gravel and empty shells crunch under Samantha's feet as she walks back and forth from the front porch to the base of the tree with fresh seeds to coax the critters down to be seen by the visitor. "Come on down," she coaxes with a voice of soft authority. However, the visitor is a stranger, and the multiple pairs of eyes just watch as Samantha recalls a recent example of life and death in and around her Tree of life. "Most recently," she begins, straightening up from scattering the seeds and filling the feed cups, "we ended up with two babies. They were only this big." She uses a thumb and forefinger to measure a miniscule baby squirrel. "Just itty bitty. Just barely got their eyes open. My husband went out to feed them one afternoon, and the critter - the baby squirrel, a feisty little guy - jumped right up his pant leg. Made us kinda nervous. It went back to the tree, and we kept thinking it would find its mother, but it never did. It ended up sleeping in one of those little cups." She indicates one of the many little tin cans placed strategically around the roots as feeding dishes, and then she delivers the denouement of her squirrel drama. "The next morning it was gone, and we haven't seen it since. You know, they're natural prey to cats and eagles and raccoons - even the stellar jays will go for the little things. Well, come on down," she says turning again to the congregation she knows is always listening.
We watch the squirrels and muse about the balance of predator and prey, which, she says, she witnesses every day in her front yard. "It is interesting here," she says, warming to her subject as she does on any given Sunday morning. "I see a lot of [predator and prey]. Interesting. For example, the cat: she was here somewhere a moment ago. You know, I love to feed the birds, but it's just like giving [the cat] dinner. So, what I've gone to doing is getting the hose out, and she knows when she hears it turn on - if she's inside that tree - then she better get out because I'm coming with the hose." Apparently, the cat has learned to stay away, at least when Samantha is around.
Samantha talks about her baby squirrels the way most of us talk about our grandchildren, only the appropriate vernacular is used to fit the subject. Squirrels or humans, we nest and give birth and worry about our young and share stories of amazement about their accomplishments. "They breed at least two or three times a year," Samantha tells me. "In the winter they kinda keep their babies with them, and in the spring they all come out. The babies are about this big." Another finger measurement. "They can eat and all, and even that little guy - the claws on that little thing were amazing. It was like, 'Whoa!' That little one - even though it could hardly see - was getting up and down the tree. It took him forever, and once he got down here he was just pooped. That's why he ended up in the cup. When he got to the cup he thought, 'Well, this would be a good place to sleep.' And he did. He just curled up there. I tried to get him to go back up the tree, but he really gave me heck, so I said, 'Okay.' Anyway, this is my fun space, and I enjoy watching the birds and the critters from this little table."
We go into the house where Samantha has been reading the week's edition of the Observer. The paper is spread out on the dining room table, and she is going through each story with a fine tooth comb. Likely, sermons are born out of such careful readings. She is as conscientious to provide for my needs during my brief visit as she is to provide for her outdoor critters, and she brings me the glass of ice water I ask for on this warm day. We discuss some of the headlines, and then she starts asking the questions. Why would I want to write an article about her?
It seems a fair question, and I give her a rambling, three-part answer: I know some of her congregation, I've seen her at work in the community, and I've been to her church, Ocean Park United Methodist. I have taken my visiting daughter and son-in-law and son and daughter-in-law to Christmas Eve services there - and then I laugh. I remember what has intrigued me most about her - no, astonished is a more apt word.
I went to Samantha's church for the first time after learning that a childhood friend back in Kentucky had died in a bizarre accident. I just wanted to hear people singing familiar hymns and be in the company of a small congregation like the one I grew up attending. It was late fall, and Samantha was looking ahead to the coming Christmas season. After joyous singing and invitations for prayers and general announcements, Samantha moved us into her seasonal project. The congregation was going to do its weekly rehearsal of "O, Holy Night." I didn't believe what I was hearing. "O, Holy Night"?! This is a song that only the brave of heart and strong of voice attempt. Its range covers several octaves. It is performed by choirs with trained professional voices and years of experience. It is a beautiful, but daunting challenge. Didn't stop Samantha. She had the whole congregation on its feet, young and old, new and seasoned, on key or not. We sang, and, if my memory serves me correctly, we sang it more than once. We were, after all, practicing for the Christmas Eve service which was at most a month or so away. She congratulated us on our effort, and went into her sermon as if that feat were just one more of the many miracles that sort of just happen in her congregation on a regular basis. As I tell her this story, she smiles and says things like, "Isn't that a fun church?" Or ""That's a beautiful song." Or "I love Christmas Eve." I do not impress her with my amazement, and I begin to understand why Samantha would assume her congregation could tackle just about anything.
She praises the pianist they had at that time. "She wrote out the music the way it was to be sung, and so she put in the inflections and the whole thing. Her name was Elsa Baker, and she wrote a book called, 'Sit Down and Play.' She was a marvelous woman. No longer living now. Piano player from the thirties, forties, fifties, and the band circuit, so you never knew what she was going to play. I've always felt that's our one biggest blessing: the piano players we've had at that church," and she lists off the names of women who have stepped up to offer their talents. The list is formidable. "We've been blessed," she says again. "Music is the soul of who we are. When we sit down and do planning things, we say, 'Okay, what direction do we want and what is it?' It's always music. That's our being. Some of the most wonderful people volunteer their talents, and I love it. The choir loves it. We just sit in awe. Now have a grand piano. That was one of my first big prayer requests I asked the church to be praying for. Years ago when I first got there, I said, 'Oh, we need a piano. A grand piano would be wonderful.'" She pauses, and then she smiles. "Lo, and behold, we have one, and it came from someone who is fairly new at our church, and it was like wow! What a gift! And it was a gift - a beautiful gift."
A Vancouver, native, Samantha - Pastor Sam, as many of her congregation call her - has not always lived on the Peninsula, and being a pastor has not always been her vocation; an avocation certainly, but not her job, as it is now. She is what is called a local pastor, which is not the same as an ordained minister, rather designed for second and third career people, but with the same responsibilities as an ordained minister. Over two hundred years ago, she says, all Methodist ministers were local pastors, all circuit riders, in fact. "Even John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was a circuit rider," she explains. "That was his design. He didn't intend his work - Methodism - to be a church. But it ended up being that because his call to ministry was to the people outside the church, to the hospitals, to the places where people were not being ministered to. So he would go out to them. He had a group of people he met with every week - he called them class meetings - but he held them accountable to one another. Each person was to pray ... to be in service to someone else, to be reading, and to be helping others. Then they would come back every week and tell each other what they did. It was wonderful."
I want to know how she decided to be a pastor, and she explains how becoming a pastor was her third career change - from bookkeeping, doing accounts receivable and accounts payable work, to being a credit manager, "which was interesting," she says, "but the whole time I was volunteering at our church. I took a few positions with the church and loved doing that, and then I took a lot of Bible studies, some very intense Bible studies, long term memorization, three hour classes, two year classes, excellent teachers. In the meantime, I had a group of women who met every week - an ecumenical group - and we were always reading and praying and doing things together. I was busy working. My son was in the service. I was living in Battleground."
She pauses and looks out the window toward the Tree of life where her critters are dining sumptuously, and then she looks back again and smiles. "You know, I knew the call was there, but I was reluctant to answer that call. I was working as a parish assistant and doing everything the pastor didn't have time for basically. Then one day we lost our pastor, and about that time the district superintendent called and asked me if I was interested in being a local pastor." She pauses and smiles an almost impish smile. The only sound is the steady chatter of the critters. Then she says very slowly, "And I said, "I - don't - know."
Then she steps up the beat. "So I made a deal with the Lord. I said, 'I will answer this call, this tug in my heart, if You confirm to me this weekend' - because I was preaching - 'by five people' - and that's a pretty big number - 'that that's what I should be doing.'" Even the critters are quiet now. "And it happened," she says smiling. "As people were leaving, you know you always visit with people on their way out, one person said, 'You know you really ought to be looking at a local pastorship,' and one of them said, 'You really should be preaching.' The two of them were retired clergy from Oregon, and then three people from the church. I said, 'Okay. Have it your way, Lord,'" and that deal led her down a rich five year path of study and training.
When Pastor Sam was sent to the Peninsula - in the Methodist Church pastors are not called; they are sent - she was told that the church was not doing well, and she would probably just be closing it in a matter of months. "But I guess I don't have it in me. That really is the reality. There was a great deal of spirit here [when I arrived], but somehow it was ... well, submerged. They had pastor after pastor for quite a few changes, and then the Peninsula started growing again, sort of at the edge of that time."
That was ten years ago. The congregation has flourished from 20 or 30 to over two hundred. They perform 'O, Holy Night' on Christmas Eve. They have a new grand piano. And they are planning to build a new church. Everything they do now and everything they acquire has to be considered with the new church in mind. Will this fit there? Will this not fit there? "This little Methodist church - Ocean Park United Methodist Church - has been in this community for around a hundred and thirty-four years," Samantha tells me. "Originally it was on the bay. Then a big wind storm blew it all down. They saved the bell. Then the church was built in Ocean Park, a smaller church, but then they moved it in 1914 to the property where the current church is now. The parsonage was added in 1924. The Chinook United Methodist Church was where the Sanctuary Restaurant is now, and they co-existed so that the pastor could take care of both places. Then the camp started [Ocean Park Retreat Center]. They actually had camp meetings, and people erected their tents, and pretty soon little shacks were erected, and one thing led to another, and pretty soon they a whole community. That's how it all came to be. So, there's a lot of history here. What else do you want to know?" she adds without pause.
I ask her to say more about "the call" and another phrase she has used earlier, "gifts and graces." She laughs and says, "oh, yeah, the call," and then what she says next surprises me almost as much as her making a deal with the God. "I was an introvert when I was young," she says. Come on! "Don't ask me how I changed. I just did. I worked in a store when I was a junior in high school. Import Plaza in downtown Portland. I think that's where I changed from being an introvert to an extrovert. I also took some classes, some speech classes, and different things. But I learned to be with people. You know you have to talk if you're the person at the cash register. I think that's what did it - and just being in the world working. You know, coming alive to your own self, so to speak. So the call was really ? well, it's a tug, and I had it for about five years. In-between all of that tug, I had the death of my mother, and four years later the death of my father. So there were reasons. We took care of my father, who was ten years older then my mother. We did not expect my mother to die first. So we took care of dad, and in-between that I'm trying to ignore this push, this calling. Finally, it is a relenting. When the door opens - and this is what I know about the call - when the door opens, it opens so wide you can't ignore it. If you're a fish swimming upstream and you're uncomfortable swimming up stream, then you know maybe it's not right. But when the gate opens and you just flow through, then you know something is bigger than you and I are. And it was beautiful ... albeit they were a little nervous here. I remember going to my first meeting with the congregation, and actually I thought I would be meeting with about ten people. Turns out it was everybody, and they all were over at someone's house. We all met there, and here was this huge spread with all these fish products. [There was this] huge tray of smoked oysters, and I just thought, 'Lord, do you know what you're doing? I hate oysters.' And they had clams, too. So my very first sermon, I did a 'getting to know you' sermon, and I had to confess I didn't like those two things."
"That was the beginning. I have been their hands and feet when the congregation was smaller. Then when an eighty year old told me that for the first time in a long time his spirit was really moving and going ... feeling his spirit, then I thought, 'Okay, things are good.' It's the people there. They're just wonderfully unique people, and I think once they knew someone was going to stay - three years had gone by - then it was like 'okay, we can start planning for the future.' But you know it takes a certain amount of getting to know each other and trusting each other. When that happened, we started looking at what should we be doing. Pretty soon the congregation was growing and new people were coming in. Now we're able to dream together."
We walk outside to the backyard where Samantha and her husband are creating a backyard garden with lights along the pathways among dozens of shrubs and flowers. "This is my sanctuary," she says, drawing a wide arc with her arms to encompass all of outdoors. "My place of quiet where I can go if I want to. You can find a lot to preach about in nature." We take a look at the little pond that is in need of rain, and I hear about the heron, which comes regularly to eat the frogs - and the fish, if they ever show themselves. She talks about her love of camping, which she doesn't manage to do much any more. But her husband has built an outdoor fire pit where they can act like they're camping some of the time.
Then she surprises me again. "The other hobby I have is sitting in our garage. My husband belongs to the Beach Barons. My favorite color is purple, so we have a wonderful purple truck." She takes me into the garage and introduces me to the most beautiful purple truck I've ever seen - or am likely to again - a purple 1953 Ford truck. Taking me all around the restored vehicle so that I can get a look at it from every angle, she says simply, "It's fun," and she smiles broadly.
As we walk out to the driveway, I ask Samantha about her health, and she launches very matter-of-factly into her own personal history of breast cancer. She considers herself blessed in many ways, and early detection of her two bouts with cancer is just one of those blessings. Her family has a history of cancer. Her mother died of cancer at sixty-five. Her grandmother died of cancer at sixty-six. Her uncle - her mother's brother - died at forty-four of lymphoma. Two out of three of his sons died of cancer before they were fifty. "No one in the family had the same type of cancer. That's the unusual thing," she says. "And I'm the only one of four sisters where it's shown up, thank goodness. The congregation has seen me through a lot. It's a wonderful relationship we have. We take care of each other."
She tells another story and again uses the phrase, "gifts and graces," and I ask her to go back to that phrase. It seems to carry significance worth exploring with her. At first, she generalizes. "I'm a good shepherd" she says. "I know where my sheep are. That sounds not very humble, and I don't mean it to. I mean if someone's in the hospital, I know they're there." Then she enumerates two or three skills she brought with her from her years in the business world. 'Gifts and graces," it seems, are an alliterative phrasing to describe one's natural talents or abilities or, as Samantha phrases it, those skills one doesn't accumulate or refine until they've lived a while. In other words, she says, "Natural abilities that have been enhanced by God's grace." She considers patience and hospitality among her greatest gifts and graces, and she laughs as she repeats the old saw that says if you ask for patience, you'll get children.
Then her expression becomes thoughtful. "I love the Peninsula for a lot of reasons, but most of all its for the people. The people here march to their own drum. There are marvelous, wonderful individuals that I have met on this Peninsula who are unique unto themselves. And, you know? That's okay, and it's wonderful. I'm totally fascinated with the people who come here. One of the congregation told me to tell our conference that we are not a rural church. We live in a rural area with urban transplants. When you think about it, that's true. People are coming here from all over to this itty bitty little place, but they do not come with a rural attitude."
We talk about prayer and faith in these trying times. "Well," Samantha tells me, "we're going to build a new church. We don't have a lot of money, but we have a lot of faith. It's going to be built on faith. And we're going to have people help us from all over the country. We're going to bring in the nomads and the groups that come in and help build, and we're going to do it. You know they used to raise barns all the time. We're going to raise a church."
We have come full circle now and are standing at the foot of the tree of life to say our goodbyes. As Samantha waves me down the road, I drive away wondering about faith and how much it takes to make things happen. After all, amazing things have happened with faith the size of a mustard seed, and a mustard seed is not very big. The faith of the people at the Ocean Park United Methodist Church is considerably bigger. I drive on up Sandridge humming some old hymn out of my past. Then I realize. I'm nodding my head, and I am muttering under my breath, "Uh-huh. They're gonna do it. They're gonna raise that church."