Year in Review – 2019

Looking back on 2019 it was a year of many new beginnings, as I suppose almost every year is. Each day seemed to bring a new opportunity or turn a new page in a familiar book. It was anything but static – filled with new friends and encounters.

As the year began we were working to settle into Bellingham, Wash., as our new hometown. Still living in an apartment that we hoped would be a temporary housing solution, Lindsay’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood was the first order of business for 2019. She was ordained on January 5, 2019, and we had a fun time celebrating with those in her new community at St. Paul’s in Bellingham and the Diocese of Olympia, along with friends from Portland and the Diocese of Oregon who came to be part of her day.

Lindsay Ross-Hunt – the priestess

To celebrate Lindsay’s ordination, we took a trip to England and Iceland. January doesn’t seem like the ideal time to be tourists in these locations, but discount tickets and a brief break from my assignment list gave us just the opportunity for a quick getaway.

Our five days in England included London, Birling Gap – Sussex, Salisbury, Stonehenge – and on our final day the initial defeat of Brexit in the British Parliament.

It was then on to Iceland for a three-day “layover” thanks to Iceland Air. We spent our first day in Reykjavík then drove east into the frozen landscape and the glacier lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Really a magical place.

After our little holiday, it was time to get back to work for both of us. As executive director of the Associated Church Press, the group’s awards contest, convention and membership needs were the focus of my attention for most of January, February and March. The contest was a big success – growing 15% from the previous year to over 900 entries in religious journalism and media communications.

A quick trip to San Diego in early February had me on assignment with the Presbyterian Foundation documenting the work of Maggie Harmon, a Ministry Relations Officer, as she gave a legacy giving presentation at a San Diego church. I also spent a day working with the PC(USA) office of the General Assembly and their Office of Immigration Justice team to collect photos along with video interviews and b-roll in San Deigo and Tijuana for use in future projects.

It’s always fun to find stories in your backyard and one such story came along in Bellingham where the First Congregational Church of Bellingham (UCC) had partnered with a local youth organization to provide a day shelter for homeless youth. The space utilized for the day shelter was built as part of the church’s sanctuary expansion 15 years ago and was inaugurated for its new use in February. The story was written for Religion News Service and ended up in national syndication under the title “Houses of worship are not just for worship anymore.” After the story’s publication, I joined First Congregational Church of Bellingham as a member…

Members of First Congregational Church of Bellingham celebrate the grand opening of the Ground Floor with prayers and song during a worship service on Feb. 10, 2019. The day center for homeless youth sits directly below the church’s sanctuary. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

In March I covered the NEXTChurch Conference of the PC(USA) and also shot and produced a video for the Presbyterian Foundation on Union Church in Seattle. Here are some photos from the conference and the filming along with the finished video.

For those unfamiliar with Bellingham, it is an outdoor mecca. There is world-class mountain biking, skiing, mountaineering, hiking, trail running and sea kayaking – along with a myriad of other outdoor adventures – literally out our back door. I was able to work with a few talented mountain bike riders and companies as they discovered new locations and tested new products. Here are a few of those results – Matthew Kowitz and Blanton Unger in action on the trails of Mount Galbraith.

I also participated in the Chuckanut 50 – a 50 kilometer (32 miles) trail run at the end of March that starts and finishes in our town. My first official race over a half-marathon (13.1 miles) and I had a good time, though I don’t need to do it again any time soon.

The Associated Church Press convention – held the second week in April in cooperation with the Religion Communicators Council – was also a success and brought over 110 people to Chicago for our gathering. Many noted it was great to have the combined group together for networking and professional development opportunities. The day after the conference ended, Chicago was hit with an April blizzard and I was assigned to document the Palm Sunday services of Friendship Presbyterian Church. The church, led by pastor Shawna Bowman, met despite the weather and they even stood for a portrait outside in the snowstorm.

After a quick spring break with a visit from Gus and buying/moving into our new home in Bellingham, it was off to East Africa for a three-week assignment with the World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance – but first a quick 20-hour layover in Dubai and a little touristing / time zone adjusting.

The first part of my assignment in East Africa began with coverage of a meeting of EHAIA and WCC-Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) reference and strategy group for HIV/AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya. A new curriculum was released and I covered the event with the story “Manuals on HIV prevention and gender issues in faith communities launched by WCC” and accompanying photos.

It was then on to Arusha, Tanzania to produce videos and photos for the World Council of Churches on the local context of evangelism in Tanzania, one year after their world assembly on evangelism was held there.

It was a unique opportunity to interview and interact with local church leaders, congregations and the ministry projects they support. As a journalist, it was a bit of a whirlwind – the primary contact I was given was out of the country until the end of my visit, his assistant had retired and was unable to provide any help in contacting people.

As a last-ditch effort, I did find a contact for the local Lutheran bishop. We met at the end on my first full day in Arusha – a Friday – and his final day in town for two weeks. Bishop Massangwa put me in touch with a deacon who was visiting a Massai congregation on Sunday and I would be their guest. On Saturday I literally stumbled into an international evangelism event being held by the local Anglican diocese and was able to arrange to speak with some participants and the bishop later in the next week. After Sunday with the Massai congregation and in farming areas around the church, Monday was spent at the Usa River Rehabilitation Center – a vocational school for young people with physical and mental challenges. Tuesday and Wednesday were more interviews and work with local resources.

The contacts, hospitality and interview opportunities that came up over my week in Arusha were nothing less than miraculous. From hitting the ground with absolutely zero verified contacts to the outcomes that were achieved still seems like a blur – yet it came together wonderfully. Here are some photos and the video reports from this time in Tanzania.

Teacher Dora Msechu with Training Class 1 students at the Usa River Rehabilitation & Vocational Training Center near Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. The classes ready students with learning and physical disabilities to enter Tanzanian society. (Photo by Gregg Brekke/WCC)

From Tanzania it was back to Nairobi to catch a flight to Mozambique, to work with ACT Alliance and CEDES, covering the relief efforts following Cyclone Idai. The storm hit at the worst possible time in the spring, when most grain crops were nearly ready for harvest. Widespread loss of life, destruction from flooding and a looming food crisis were the primary concerns for relief agencies.

Most heartbreaking during my interviews was the story of Filipe Alberto Manuel who lost his five children in the flooding.

Filipe Alberto Manuel suffered the loss of his five children in Cyclone Idai. Hoping to avoid the rising waters, he took his children to the roof of the nearby primary school in Drudja, Mozambique. When the waters reached the peak of the roof, they relocated to a high tree in the nearby field. At 4:00 am on the following day, the rushing waters from the overflowing Buzi River had saturated the ground causing the tree Filipe and his children were in to topple in the dark of the night. All five children – ages 10, 7, 4, 2 and 5 months – were swept away and drowned. He and his wife are struggling with the loss while trying to rebuild their home and prepare for a new planting season. (Photo by Gregg Brekke for ACT Alliance)
Joana Antonia laughs with visitors on the site of her former home destroyed by Cyclone Idai. Her home is in the Josina Michelle neighborhood in Nhamatanda, Mozambique. She received an emergency distribution of food and sanitation items from ACT Alliance partner CEDES following the storm. (Photo by Gregg Brekke for ACT Alliance)

On my last day in Mozambique (Tuesday) the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries group contacted me to see if I could cover a mentoring project at a Lake Tahoe retreat center beginning on Sunday. Arrangements made, I returned to Nairobi to await my trip back to the US and spend a day on mini-safari with the friend-of-a-friend who is a mission nurse in Africa, Kitty Moyer. We spent the day in and around Nairobi National Park and saw all the big animals – lions, water buffalo, zebra, giraffe, hippos, elephants (and baby elephants!) and a rare sighting of a leopard lounging in a tree after dragging an ibex into the branches for a snack.

It was then home to Seattle for a fifth anniversary dinner with Lindsay before flying to Reno and Lake Tahoe for the Presbyterian event and interviews. A great program of mentoring, beautiful scenery and plans for future work with the group on a video for the 40th anniversary of an event for seminarians of color.

I celebrated my 50th birthday the day after returning from Lake Tahoe and spent most of June finishing photo and video projects from assignments earlier in the year.

A series of writing assignments and lots of planning time for the Associated Church Press kept me in Bellingham for most of June – a really nice break. I was able to participate in my first Ski-to-Sea – taking the running leg that descends 8 miles from the Mt. Baker ski area to the DoT station at the base of the mountain.

Little did I know I had giardia that I’d picked up in Mozambique. I started off strong in the run, but faded quickly. Even gravity couldn’t help my pace on this day, though I managed not to have any biological mishaps…

Thumbs up for Giardia!

In late June, Adrian Cronn and I did a one-day 14-hour car-to-car summit of Mt. Baker – for both of us the first time up the Coleman-Deming route. It was an epic and hard day as the first big climb of the year, but super rewarding even if we did get sunburned and a little dehydrated.

And a little time at the beginning of July for some hiking, (bad) skiing and camping on the Heliotrope Ridge section of Mt. Baker with Lindsay, Mike Dennis and Simone Savaiano.

More assignment work in late June and early July, then it was time for a fun adventure with Mike Cousino, a good friend from Cleveland, Ohio, who had invited me to bike part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with him.

We started in Banff, Alberta and made it to Helena, Montana before running out of time – 632 off-road miles, 42,250 ft climbing, 72 hours of pedaling. A great ride and I’m looking forward to possibly completing the entire length over upcoming summers.

This NDSU shirt has gotten a fair amount of use in my 2019 outdoors photos!

A few days of repacking and off to Baltimore to the PC(USA) Big Tent event, held on years between their General Assemblies. More video interviews with Seminarians of Color conference attendees and other photo assignments. It was the first time seeing many former PC(USA) colleagues and it was a good time catching up and thinking about future projects.

Directly following Big Tent, Lindsay picked me up in Seattle and we drove to Helena to pick up my bike and spend a few days camping in Grand Teton National park. I’d never spent any time there and it was really an amazing place that I’d love to go back and explore. Photo opportunities at every corner, helping me practice patience for outdoor photography, a real learning opportunity. Beautiful landscape and good camping.

On the way home we visited friends and family in Boise and Portland before returning to Bellingham for more project work and one big house project in August – painting the exterior. Here are a few before and after photos.

Lindsay’s monthlong summer sabbatical during August came to an end and we took to the seas for a two-night kayak camping trip on nearby Lummi Island. A peaceful spot with great views and wildlife sightings of sea otters, a sea lion, porpoise and eagles.

In September, I returned to Louisville to work with the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Mission Agency on various filming projects for a week. My next-to-last day happened to coincide with the annual employee fair and BBQ at the Presbyterian Center – which coincidentally fell on my last day of employment there the previous year.

The new soccer stadium in Louisville!

Returning to Bellingham for editing and writing, I was able to cover the student-led climate strike on September 20. Here’s one of the photos from the march – and I’m thankful for these students and the local schools who not only allowed, but encouraged, their students to participate.

My next whirlwind set of assignments and travel took me to London for the meeting of the Global Board of the World Association for Christian Communication, for which I’m the North American representative. (Stories on this meeting are here, here and here.) I was also able to see the Rosetta Stone at the nearby British Museum – pretty exciting for this history nerd.

After a quick four days in London, it was off to San Diego for the Stewardship Kaleidoscope conference and filming another church feature for the Presbyterian Foundation, along with other photography and interviews for the Theological Education Fund.

The last leg of this two-continent, three-city trip was a brief visit to Washington, D.C., for the annual board meeting and retreat of the Associated Church Press held at the offices of Sojourners magazine. It’s a real pleasure to work with such a talented group of people who care deeply about the future and quality of religious journalism, and the need for faith-based journalists to continue speaking truth and hope in a culture of fake news, fear baiting and manufactured facts.

The Associated Church Press Board of Directors. Missing is our President, Stephen Chavez. (Photo by Jim Rice)

In October, I broke down and bought a drone for some upcoming international aid assignments. Now certified by the FAA to fly in public spaces – watch out.

Aerial view of Bellingham Bay over St. James Presbyterian Church in Bellingham, Wash.

My home church of First Congregational Church of Bellingham (UCC) also debuted a series of videos I produced for its stewardship campaign called “Good News – Powered by Pledges.” Here’s one video from the series.

At the end of October I traveled to Knoxville, Tennesee, to film the final elements of the Racial Ethnic Seminarians conference anniversary video at the actual conference. The event is held at the Alex Haley Farm and there is so much amazing history there. It was a beautiful setting in which to finalize this project with great people, inviting spaces and good light for the entire week. Final approval is expected in early 2020, and I’ll post the output at that time.

Another project in Bellingham began in early November with a feature video on a women’s ministry called Collide that’s funded by the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Northwest Coast Presbytery. The full video is set to be released very soon, but here is the social media teaser I prepared for it.

At the end of November, I went to Tucson, Arizona, to cover the final days of the trial of Scott Warren, an aid worker on the border of the US and Mexico who had been charged with harboring undocumented migrants. He was acquitted of those charges and I was there to cover it for the PC(USA) Immigration Justice group along with one of their staff Amanda Craft. Having covered border issues for 15 years, it was interesting to see many of the same people continuing in this work in Tucson, though now with a much more racially diverse and interfaith movement. Articles on the trial and interfaith rally appeared on the PC(USA) site and in The Christian Century.

Less travel in November and December meant more work on the Associated Church Press annual membership drive and Best of the Church Press awards. A few more assignments, a bunch of editing and a little writing rounded out the year, including two visits to Bellevue, Washington, area Presbyterian churches in late November and on Christmas Eve for the Presbyterian Foundation where the following images were produced.

Overall it’s been a busy and productive year and 2020 is off to a good start with a list of upcoming assignments and some great things ahead for the Associated Church Press. Thanks for journeying with me this year and for all the ways you support or observe the work of religious communication.

There are a lot of good stories in our world, and a lot of good news to be seen in action. It’s my hope and privilege that I can play some small part in making these stories, the inspiring people behind them, and the faith that motivates them, come to life for those who read, see and hear what is produced.

Thanks and Peace! Gregg

Sunset over Squalicum Harbor on the shortest full day of the year – December 22, 2019.

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