Women Who Serve: Pastor Gretchen and the ‘No-Cost’ Thanksgiving Meal

This week, we are featuring a new series to honor “Women Who Serve.” As we join in on the celebrations and traditions this Thanksgiving, our Women’s Voices writers will share daily stories of the women in their communities who have exemplified a beautiful spirit of service to others. Today, Toni Myers talks about hosting a table with people she doesn’t know—and what a blessing that is. —Ed.


orlc-home-hero-3Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA. (Image courtesy of the church)

Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church sits on the corner of NW 85th and 24th Ave NW in Ballard, the Seattle neighborhood where I live.  It’s a lovely brick Gothic building and reeks classic church. Our Redeemer’s has been there since the mid 1940s. At the onset, its congregation was mostly Scandinavian immigrants. 

As a traditional church, Our Redeemer’s faced a crisis in 2001 when the they were between pastors and attendance was declining.  It had always been a service-oriented place, co-founding what became the Ballard Food Bank, an important and dependable service in our area. Yet, transformation was on the church members’ minds. They called Pastor Katherine Hawks to be their first female pastor. Evolution continued with last year’s strategic plan of which one goal was ministry-focused outreach.  The new plan emphasized that the church is  “a radically inclusive community. . . [one] that embraces all people on the journey of life. . . regardless of race, ethnic background, social status, physical condition, sexual orientation and gender identity. . .”

Enter Gretchen Mertes, the new associate pastor at Our Redeemer’s. We have an appointment at 9 a.m. in the church after she has dropped her children off at school. I’ve not been a church member for years and am happily surprised by Gretchen. She’s uber friendly, casual and down to earth, sporting flowery tattoos on each arm. Not the least bit intimidating. 

Pastor Gretchen head shotGretchen Mertes, associate pastor at Our Redeemer’s (Photo: Toni Myers)

The Church literature stresses they are a “perfectly imperfect community,” open to everyone, including people who might not “be sure about anything churchy.” Gretchen embodies this statement.  She was born into the Lutheran tradition in the Midwest, and comes from the liberal wing and largest Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Its presiding Bishop is also woman, Elizabeth Eaton.

Gretchen comes to her current position at Our Redeemer’s with thirteen years of experience as a pastor. Sometime after seminary, Gretchen ended up in Renton, WA (close to Seattle), where she worked with the St. Matthews Church and then with Luther’s Table, a ministry of St. Matthew’s.  At Luther’s Table, Gretchen hosted conversations about faith and life, where she found that much of the fellowship came out of alternative settings like a café and bar!  Gretchen also developed Roots of the Table, a congregation inside Luther’s Table, which became a new church in the ELCA!  Gretchen co-hosted Christmas Day dinners for 140 people and shared many meals in the space, in a continuous state of figuring out how to best serve the community. “We try really hard to have a sense of humor about life, about the Church, and about ourselves,” says Gretchen.

At Our Redeemer’s, Gretchen’s social ministries have included a “reverse protest” of a proposed new site for the homeless. City officials are pushing and the Ballard community members are pushing back. With a group, Gretchen showed support for our potential new neighbors. “It’s so difficult to hate someone once you’ve met and talked,” she points out, bent on changing the system from the inside.

She’s in charge of the informal service every Sunday, while pastor Katherine Hawks presides at the traditional services.  Gretchen is also responsible, along with many helpers, for the “Thanks Giving Dinner,” a church tradition. Over 60 volunteers pitch in to offer this feast for 200 people. Anybody and everybody are welcome, from people without permanent homes to those who have no family to celebrate with.  There are no buffet lines, all are seated at tables in order to create a family atmosphere.

Gretchen’s new idea for this holiday meal is the volunteer position: Table Hosts. The Hosts are there to get to know their table mates, ensure that everyone’s needs are met, hand out sleeping bag coupons, and chat with the guests.

I’ve delivered turkeys, donated to food banks, but have never shared my Thanks Giving Day with people I don’t know.  This year, I am thrilled to be allowed to host a table. Thanksgiving Day will be extra special this year with new friends: the good people of Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church and the people from our community who come to share the meal. It might be a life-changing experience.

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  • toni myers November 24, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    It’s a year later and I am about to return to Our Redeemers for the Thanks Giving meal, again as a table host. I feel more the mooch than the helper. My friend Nate, who commented above, is now doing well and who is also volunteering this year, will join me. I feel blessed.

    • Nathan November 24, 2016 at 4:19 pm

      Had a blast cooking for this years celebration. Felt good to give back to a place that helped me in a time of need last year. Plan to make it an annual thing. Thanks Toni for your continued friendship. Our Redeemers made it possible.

  • Toni Myers November 29, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    I am blissed out by Nathan’s comment. Yes, our Thanksgiving meal was an extraordinary experience. I liked everyone at our table, loved that Pastor Gretchen gave us attention in addition to visiting 19 other tables, and bonded with Nathan over literature and art, I think. Maybe we will both volunteer at Our Redeemer’s next Thanksgiving. Thanks to WVFC for getting me there!

  • Nathan November 29, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    I was lucky enough to find my way to Toni’s table that day. It was a wonderful time. I just moved to Seattle 2 weeks ago and am grateful and happy to call Toni my first Seattle friend. Pastor Gretchen was wonderful. It turns out we grew up not terribly far from each other. She directed me to some services I was really in need of and was ignorant about. I hope very much to be a volunteer at next years thanksgiving. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my first thanksgiving here.

  • Carola November 29, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    What an excellent idea on Thanksgiving Day! Very creative of Pastor Gretchen – a personal outreach.

  • Scotrichins November 25, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Toni is truly one of the most generous people I know!
    Keep up the good work Inot?