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Phoenix loses pastor who made impact

Pastor Mike Foster, who was instrumental in setting up a community assistance program, will preach his last sermon at First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix Sunday. The congregation is no longer able to meet the financial obligations of a pastor’s salary.

Foster has been at the church for 12 years during which time the First Community Center evolved and became a tax-deductible charity organization operating out of the church at 121 Second St.

First Phoenix offers community dinners, runs a food pantry and clothes closet, is the center for Food and Friends distribution in town, and has hosted 12-step programs, Boy Scout meetings and Head Start.

“It’s a bit gut-wrenching, really, walking away from something that you helped to get going and needing to leave as it is getting going,” Foster said. “But I do trust that the good thing that has begun will continue.”

First Phoenix Community Center gained nonprofit status in March last year and has received grants, said Carolyna Marshall, chair of the organization’s board and a member of the congregation. Local businesses and the city have rallied to the support of the center’s work, she said.

“It’s been really hard. He keeps telling us he isn’t the church, you are the church,” said Marshall. “I’m devastated, of course, and struggling with how to have a little hope, with how to proceed.

“As a congregation, First Presbyterian Church is really struggling,” said Marshall. The church has about 22 members.

Community dinners first organized seven years ago by Foster, Mayor Carlos DeBritto, City Manager Jane Turner, Councilor Mike Stitt and others were the genesis of the organization. The dinners continue the second and fourth Thursdays, serving up to 250 people.

“We’ve got a board in place. Our hope is that they will be able to carry that on and keep it growing,” said Foster.

“He has been a great partner of the citizens of Phoenix," said former City Councilman Terry Helfrich. "He always is willing to help out any way that he can. (The center) has been a great anchor and resource for our community in the downtown area. They help many members of the community and outlying areas. It adds a healthy element to our community, no doubt.”

The city benefits from having a church for people in the downtown area, said Helfrich.

After Sunday, Foster will be on vacation and taking study time until July 31. Church regulations prevent him from doing church work during that period, he said.

Kathy Waugh, who is retired from First Presbyterian Church in Medford, is the parish’s associate pastor. She will assist the congregation during the coming months.

“Right now I’m really open to following where God is leading. As long as I’m following that guidance, it will be a ministry somehow, somewhere. It might be another parish,” said Foster. “I’m taking stock to see what my next step is. That I don’t know yet.”

Foster said he will talk about the foundations of faith in his final sermon, which will take place at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

— Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Pastor Mike Foster will preach his last sermon Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, which can no longer afford to pay his salary. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]