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For the week of June 5 - 11, 2002


New faces and new places: factors in valley church life

Third in a series of three

Express Staff Writer

The Wood River Valley is a place often called faithless by those who imagine the area to consist solely of millionaires sipping champagne in their hot tubs surrounded by a bevy of beauties.

The Rev. Brian Baker of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ketchum disagrees.

Sun Valley Foursquare Pastor Ken Morrell says the Church of the Foursquare got its name by not "cutting corners, that’s where the term came from." Express photo by David N. Seelig

"The church is a significant player in society. And when I look at this valley I see a deep spirituality. People are asking the right questions."

Among the questions being asked: Where do I fit in?

Fitting in is not what it used to be when there were fewer choices and folks generally went the way of their families. Now, not only are there the requisite main stream houses of worship, like St. Thomas and its neighbor Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church, but there are many new places of worship cropping up around the valley.

But despite the vastness of the Idaho landscape, all houses of worship in the valley compete for space as well as for congregants. Building a new church is almost unheard of here, however. One exception is the Sun Valley Foursquare Church, which built its church in 1999 in the Woodside subdivision in Hailey.

Sun Valley Foursquare Pastor Ken Morrell said the Church of the Foursquare got its name by not "cutting corners, that’s where the term came from."

Rick Osenga is the Victory Bible Church’s founder and pastor. Express photo by David N. Seelig

It was founded in 1923 by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She preached "Jesus Christ, the Savior; Jesus Christ, the Healer; Jesus Christ the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and the Soon-Coming King." Today, there are 29,973 churches and meeting places in 123 countries

Morrell, who moved here with his family from Colorado in 1992, said the church sold its original home in West Hailey. The sale brought in enough money to build a 2,400-square foot church in Woodside, which opened just before Thanksgiving in 1999.

For others, enlarging their houses of worship is sometimes the only option. Refurbishing homes or offices spaces to suit church needs also has been done.

Some newly formed churches meet in secular spaces such as the Hailey Public Library, where the Lutheran Community of Faith meets; the Blaine County Senior Center in Hailey, where the Victory Bible Church meets; the Sawtooth Botanical Garden south of Ketchum, where Light on the Mountain meets, and the Masonic Temple in Hailey, where the Wood River Spiritual Center meets.

"It’s not the place, the people are the church," said Rick Osenga, pastor of Victory Bible Church, about these makeshift locales.

It’s apparent there is no shortage of places to worship or ways in which worship may be accomplished in the valley.

Some churches offer a worship style for various age groups, inclusive and community minded. Others might look for a church that caters to them as elitists, literalists or consumers.

Many consider services that reflect the church-goers’ needs and interests—rather than God’s—to be self-centered and wrong.

But, "People confuse spirituality with self-righteous morality," said Dr. Deepak Chopra last week during the 5th Annual Mountain Wellness Festival. Chopra, a renowned leader in Ayurvedic medicine and mind/body wellness, says that spiritual ecstasy is the key to the discovery of the higher self.

Standard Christian evangelical doctrine maintains that Jesus Christ is one’s personal Lord and Savior. Most churches are confessional, and insist that church members believe the doctrine if they want to be a part of that church.

In fact, the new Victory Bible Church was founded only a couple months ago due to such a spiritual struggle in the valley, said Rick Osenga, Jr. A doctrinal difference separated his family’s intentions for their worship from those they felt were just "playing at church."

Though his father has a degree in ministry from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., he said "For awhile, I decided that God didn’t want me to be in the ministry full time."

The elder Osenga moved his family around a lot due to his construction work, living in 17 states in 17 years. He and his wife, Tricia, home schooled their four children and involved the family in the lives of various churches along the way.

Eventually the family moved to Idaho where Osenga started his company, Two Sweeps Chimney Cleaners.

The extended Osenga family, which now includes spouses and grandchildren, belonged for a time to the Christian Community Church, which met at the Grange Hall in Hailey. But varying backgrounds of the members and an over riding feeling that fellow members were "not living the word of God," as intended in the Bible, led the elder Osenga to form Victory Bible Church.

"It just happened," he said about the new church. "I decided to accept it as God’s will."

The Bible, which is at the crux of why many such separations occur, has many interpretations, some literal, some metaphorical. Osenga said the "best commentary on the Bible is the Bible. Just keep reading."

Significantly, congregations have spilt over various hard line interpretations.

The Lutheran Church in the valley also experienced a schism, which is not unusual in actuality. The third largest grouping of Christians on the planet is Lutheran, and has 250 different autonomous Lutheran churches.

The Community of Faith Lutheran Church is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, a slightly more liberal facet of the Lutheran Church. It was created nationally in 1988 as the result of a three-way merger of the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Community of Faith meets at the Hailey Public Library for its Sunday services.

The Valley of Peace Lutheran Church, whose church is in Woodside in Hailey, is aligned with the Missouri Synod. It’s well known for its emphasis on Biblical doctrine and faithfulness to the historic Lutheran Confessions.

Though once one, these churches now co-exist in the valley, one liberal, one conservative. Leaders of neither church returned repeated calls from the Mountain Express to discuss their differences.

Another church that experienced a schism in the valley is Religious Science. Newly ordained Wendy Collins, formerly of Light on the Mountains, now leads Wood River Spiritual Center, an off shoot group in Hailey.

In turn, Light on the Mountains recently hired John Moreland as its first full-time pastor.

Moreland arrived in the valley just in time to attend to the church’s struggle to have its proposed house of worship approved for conditional use by the Blaine County Planning and Zoning. The residential house the church is in the process of buying has access from Highway 75, just north of Gimlet and south of Cold Springs. Moreland’s first full-time pastoral job is giving him something unexpected—an accelerated education in such civic matters as P&Z proposals, regulations and codes.

Growing up Catholic in Southern California, Moreland knew at the age of 6 he wanted to go into the ministry. The Catholic Church, however, eventually turned him off, and after years of floundering—he called himself a spiritual freelancer—he was introduced to the United Church of Religious Science. Urged by several friends to attend this church, he finally did, and "I almost immediately knew that’s where I belonged."

Moreland became a practitioner before spending four years in Seminary at the Holmes Institute in Los Angeles. His first assistant pastoral job was in San Jose, followed by a stint in Oklahoma City as a staff minister for a church of about 200 members. Though Light on the Mountains has only 50 or so members, he said what attracted him to the area was the "sophisticated small town feel with a western mentality."

"I don’t have a sense that this is a stopover," he said. "I get a sense that this is my home. This is where I’m going to be."

The Calvary Chapel also has seen its numbers grow since it brought in a full-time pastor.

It began here in 1999 as a group of three who gathered in the living room of a house in a Hailey subdivision to worship. After three months they moved to a chapel at the Valley Christian Academy.

"We grew too big for the living room and then too big for the chapel," said Pastor Steve Matheson.

For the next two years they held services in a space in the Croy Building in Hailey. This year, on their third anniversary, they moved into a leased space at 21 East Maple Street in Hailey, and now have—including children—150 members. Though they have a three-year lease, ultimately the plan is to build a church.

The Calvary Chapel, born out of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s in Costa Mesa, Calif., has at least 800 churches all over the world. Matheson, who has been known to wear Hawaiian shirts to services, said, "We teach the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and then start over again."

Matheson, an ordained pastor, began his career at Calvary Chapel in Las Vegas, and then moved to the church in Twin Falls. For eight months he and his wife drove up to the Wood River Valley to see if there was a future for the church before committing to a relocation.

"It really started to grow when we moved. Good things are happening."

Alternately, the Jewish community has had a presence in the valley since its pioneer days.

At the outset in the early 1900s, the Friedman family and the Goldbergs were the only Jews in the valley. In fact, the Friedman Memorial Airport is named for the family of S.M Friedman, who deeded the airport’s land to the City of Hailey. Friedman, owner of a large mercantile store, was also a multi-term Mayor of Hailey in the early boom days of the town.

Though a few Seders where held at the Sun Valley Lodge over the years, the families often went as far away as Salt Lake City, Boise and Seattle for High Holy Days. The first official Seder dinner in Ketchum wasn’t held until 1968 in a back room of the Alpine Restaurant and Saloon in Ketchum, now Whiskey Jacques’. Families in their fancy dress weaved through a crowded pool hall to reach their dinner.

Then, in 1983, four families started the current Wood River Jewish Community. It has grown to more than 140 members, and Seders have been held in various locales, including the Sun Valley and River Run lodges and at Elkhorn.

The WRJC held services for 10 years at the Presbyterian Church of the Bigwood with guest rabbis and lecturers. And then they moved to St. Thomas for services, when the Presbyterians began their church’s renovation last year. Father Brian Baker welcomed their inclusion into the St. Thomas community at large, where he maintains a strong commitment to inclusive worship, he said.

Coming from a synagogue of similar size near Houston and accompanied by his fiancé, Rabbi Martin Levy, will be the first full-time leader of the Wood River Jewish Community when he arrives next month. A competitive skater, Levy is a current and former pairs ice dancer and recently won a medal in senior competition.

The Jewish Community also is the proud owner of an historic Torah written in 1890, which is being housed at St. Thomas. The Torah, like the Bible for Christians, is a scroll considered to be the word of God written about 3,000 years old.

The Jewish Community’s Torah was recovered from Prague, where it had been stashed with other stolen artifacts during World War II. That cache was restored by a group in England, who then donated it to the WRJC on permanent loan. The arc to hold it was built by Ketchum artist, David Hurd, and commissioned by the Koffler family in honor of their son Zachary’s Bar Mitzvah in 1997. Adam Koffler is the president of the WRJC.

As for the future, WRJC Administrator Julie Roos said, "We’re going to be offering more with Rabbi Levy here," including adult and children education, Hebrew lessons, and a full range of weekly programs.

Finding a new place to worship ¾ whether one is not happy with current circumstances or has just moved here ¾ may be luck of the draw, adherence to the traditional, or an endless search for a perfect fit.

"So many people want spirituality but feel burned by their upbringing or whatever. But the presence of God lives within us," Moreland said.

That ultimately is where to find the perfect fit. Otherwise it’s all coffee hour.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.