When community leaders in Bonney Lake, Washington, have a pressing need, they know who to call: Thad E. Huff, pastor of Open Life Church, an Assemblies of God congregation.
The affable Huff and his wife of 25 years, Dana, started the church in 2009. Bonney Lake is a growing community of nearly 23,000 residents, up from just under 10,000 people at the turn of the century. The rural suburb is about 40 miles south of Seattle.
“Thad is the most visibly present faith community leader by a long shot, no matter what the needs are,” says Stacey Crnich, chief executive officer of the Bonney Lake Food Bank. “Thad knows the needs in the community of all families, not just those in his congregation. If he’s not leading a project to meet the needs, he’s supporting it.”
When she took over leading the food bank in February 2020 — days before the onslaught of COVID-19 — Crnich says Open Life became the first entity to offer a financial contribution. Assistance has continued unabated, both monetarily and in practical terms. Under Crnich’s tenure, the food bank has experienced a 1,400% rise in product distribution, now feeding 20,000 people a month. While government responded slowly to the crisis, Crnich says Huff trailblazed in making the food bank’s needs known via social media and in giving desperately needed donations.
“The ability for people to access food in rural areas was in peril because of a lack of transportation,” says Crnich, 45. “But Thad was the first faith leader to respond, not being hindered by policy and practice in helping human beings.”
Crnich also commends Open Life adherents for helping Bonney Lake Food Bank relocate to a cleaner, more expansive farm as its headquarters. She says Huff never has squawked at a request, always rising to the occasion, even making deliveries himself at times.
“We count on members of Open Life to be there for us in preparing and delivering groceries,” Crnich says.
For all of its existence, Open Life has rented meeting space for services from local schools, a part of Huff’s strategy to get to know locals better and to give back to the community. Even though Open Life now owns a restored older downtown building called the Gathering Place, which is used primarily for discipleship, for worship services the church continues to rent sprawling space at the Bonney Lake High School Performing Arts Center.
“The set up and tear down concept is laborious, but it also gives some people who would never serve in a traditional value to do so,” says Huff, 50.
The process used to be more of a chore, with church volunteers required to haul all equipment from another location to the school. Now it is stored on site.
COVID-19 reduced the attendance of Open Life by half when the church couldn’t find facilities to lease. By the time government-imposed pandemic restrictions ceased, many congregants had moved to different parts of the country. Nevertheless, those who remain — half of them new attendees since Easter 2021 — are raising more money than in the past. The congregation raised $100,000 in 45 days for the building purchase in July.
“It was a Gideon moment, being able to win a battle with so few people at the water,” Huff says. “If God gives you a vision, He’ll give you the resources for that vision.”
Open Life churchgoers have a reputation in the community as generous donors and hardworking volunteers. Sumner-Bonney Lake School District Superintendent Laurie D. Dent says the church is responsible for ensuring that parents receive school supplies for their children the past 11 years.
“Open Life recognizes the financial strain on families and wants to ease that burden,” says Dent, 50. Every year, the church rallies volunteers to fill new backpacks with school supplies for every child in the 10,000-student district.
“This church is the best community partner we could imagine,” says Dent, the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. “Open Life takes on the impossible . They bring the community together to serve the schools and make a tremendous community impact.”
No project is as ambitious as the Big Give, a massive one-day Thanksgiving meal outreach. Huff mobilizes 700 business owners and volunteers in gathering in a unified way the contents of a scrumptious meal, which is then assembled and delivered door-to-door to 1,500 needy households in the area.
“It really helps offset the food bank’s expenses,” Crnich says. “We don’t have the capacity to store a thousand turkeys.”
Although only around 100 people attend Open Life, Huff says the church is the healthiest financially it’s ever been. He hopes to turn the Gathering Place, purchased for $400,000 (down from its appraised value of $650,000), into a meeting house for outside organizations. A remodeling will add 2,100 square feet, including a kitchen.
“It will be a functional venue for any event in the community,” Huff says.
Huff never has forgotten the lessons learned from the relationships and friendships formed through the AG’s Church Multiplication Network, which provided critical Matching Funds through AGTrust to help launch Open Life. As a way of giving back, he sometimes volunteers as a table coach at Launch Training events, like one in Seattle in September.