OCEAN PARK — For Dawna Svaren, compassion is an active verb.
As she prepares to retire as pastor of Ocean Park Lutheran Church Sunday, July 12, colleagues and others are lining up to applaud her ministry.
Dave Hansen, president of the church council, said Svaren has contributed significantly to community life. “She is so quiet, and so compassionate, but it is compassion with action,” he said. “She shows that hands-on, by doing something.”
A farewell “drive-by” will allow parishioners and others to stay safe amid coronavirus restrictions while having an opportunity to wish her well in her retirement.
People can drive up to the church at 24002 U St. in Ocean Park between 11 a.m to 1 p.m., Sunday, July 12.
Those attending are asked not to park or get out of their cars, but they can wave, chat and drop off cards. Some are planning to decorate their cars to give the bittersweet event a festive tone.
Svaren, 66, was a “military brat” who moved around in her youth, earning a master’s in speech pathology and audiology for her first career. Her husband, Paul, worked in international programs at Washington State University. After serving as a lay minister at a Pullman church, she enrolled in an intense “alternative route to ordination” course for second-career pastors through Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Her calling took her to nearby Moscow, Idaho, where she spent 12 years as a youth and family minister.
The family then traveled to China where Paul had secured a job as an academic counselor. One planned year morphed into four and Svaren served an ecumenical “passport church” of non-Chinese congregants. “Preaching in China was not on my bucket list,” she laughed. “It was an amazing experience. The congregation was people from around the world.”
Missing their two children and two grandchildren, they returned to the U.S. in 2015 and a year later she took over the Ocean Park ministry from Adrienne Strehlow, who had moved to Vancouver.
Strehlow was in her early 30s, in her first assignment. “She was a pack of energy,” Hansen recalled. “Dawna, who is twice her age, has all the energy that Adrienne had, but it was way more refined. She was exactly what we needed in Ocean Park because of the age of our congregation.”
He noted her thoughtful approach was characterized by offering sermons that had been re-written multiple times. She followed Strehlow’s example in providing leadership for the Peninsula Poverty Response group and the Overnight Winter Lodging (OWL) program.
Those who have worked with her highlight the way her background — having a Filipino father and a mother with Mexican and Native America heritage — connect her to minority community members.
“She has such insights,” Hansen said. “The feelings that she can put out there for dealing with ICE (immigration issues), breaking up families and such. She just seemed to understand exactly what was going on in their lives. This has made her so versatile in her ministry.”
Svaren said her emphasis on social justice isn’t unusual. “It’s a key focus for a lot of Lutherans,” she said. “Martin Luther was very aware. We are called to ‘do,’ and not just be intellectual about our faith, but put hands on, in the community.”
For the past two years, she has been president of the Peninsula Poverty Response, a nonprofit with a broad mission of advocacy and practical help. “We are working with the most vulnerable and we need to understand their struggles,” she said.
Cecelia Haack, coordinator at Peninsula Poverty Response, called Svaren “a fine leader” who is “compassionate and effective.” “She has diligently worked to relieve poverty in South Pacific County,” Haack added.
At the church, administrative assistant Carole Scheer has appreciated Svaren’s team approach. “She never acted like ‘the boss,’ although she was willing to lead when she needed to,” she said.
“She is a very warm person, whether it was with my three kids or a 95-year-old member of the church. She really felt that was her calling in showing God’s love through her actions. She was passionate about justice and worked for anyone who was disenfranchised.”
Nikki Fortuna, president of Peace of Mind Pacific County, appreciated Svaren hosting a winter solstice service for people troubled during the holidays. She was recruited to the mental health advocacy group’s board. “She gave us a remarkable ability to focus,” Fortuna said. “I love all my board members, but sometimes it can be a bit like ‘wrangling cats.’ Dawna always seemed to be able to ‘herd’ them back in and focus on what is important.”
Svaren has been a fixture at the annual Community Connect gathering to provide haircuts and other grooming help, plus access to services, for the homeless and others. “Watching her at that event, and watching people seek her out to thank her, is so touching,” said Fortuna. “Everywhere Dawna went, people were genuinely happy to see her. She is a person so overwhelmingly full of love for others.”
Lutheran Bishop Richard Jaech, of Tacoma, echoed that thought. “She has been a very good presence at her churches, a very caring spirit,” he said. “She is very humble and very kind to people.”
Hansen and fellow church leaders are hoping to have an interim pastor begin work in August while a “call committee” will be formed to search for a longer-term replacement.
A friend, Robert Scherrer, said Svaren will be missed when she returns to Pullman. “She is truly a gem,” he said. “Her impact on the Peninsula has been remarkable. She is very loved at the church and in the community.”