A small room in the basement of Longview Community Church is lined with black-and-white photographs, including one long horizontal image that presents a bit of a mystery to Harlan and Shirley Gilliland.

Shot in the late 1920s, it shows dozens of men posed in front of the original Kessler Elementary School, where Sunday school was held. They look prosperous enough, but nobody is smiling. Why?

Many of them may have worked for the Long-Bell Lumber Co., which founded Longview, and “we heard that they were required to come to church,” Shirley says.

True or not, the story captures the close ties between Longview’s history and that of Longview Community Church, the Gothic sanctuary at Kessler Boulevard and Washington Way. Harlan Gilliland was senior pastor there for 16 years, and Shirley was the chief driving force behind the formation of the church’s museum.

R.A. Long, who contributed $25,000 towards its construction, saw Community Church as a way to unite all Christian congregations. When the sanctuary opened in April 1927 it was, briefly, the only church in Longview. It’s first pastor, Ed Gebert, served 35 years and became one of the community’s prominent leaders.

However, when the Gillilands arrived here in 1987, the church was in turmoil. Most of the staff and many of the members had created a new congregation. Tensions were high, emotional wounds were deep. It took repeated visits from the search committee to convince Gilliland to leave a Presbyterian church in Spokane, where he’d been 16 years, and take over at Longview Community. He finally recognized that he had a calling to serve churches in distress, as he had done so on three previous pastorships.

“I have never been called to leave. I have only been called to a church that needed help and healing. My ministry is very simple. ... I have the gift of helping to heal, and not in a miraculous way. I have patience and tolerance and a willingness to get the parties together,” Gilliland said.

Eventually, most of the defecting members returned, Gilliland said. “It took a lot of skill and a lot of loving” to heal the church.

Through his leadership of Community Church, he and Shirley learned to appreciate how tied the church was to the community’s history. His early life in a poor migrant farming family — like the one depicted in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” he said — made it impossible to put down roots until his family settled in Seattle. In Longview Community Church, he served many pioneering families and their descendants, some who even had links to northeast Kansas, where he was born.

Through church contacts, Gilliland ended up serving on many community boards and service groups, including Longview Noon Rotary and the Pathways 2020 board. “I feel honored to have been pastor to some of Longview’s oldest families and do special things because I was pastor of Longview Community Church,” he said.

The Gillilands, Shirley especially, were instrumental in establishing the church’s museum, which is open to anyone. Nestled in a small basement room, it contains photos of previous pastors and board members, a picture of the first wedding to take place there (Joe and Mabel White married on June 11, 1927), files of sermons delivered over decades, weird office gadgets and many more memorabilia.

“All the stuff you see was hidden somewhere,” said Shirley, who was honored by the Cowlitz Historical Museum for creating the museum. “There was so much history scattered in difference places.”

The Gillilands said they retired in Longview because the church and town have been good to them, remembering especially that the congregation was supportive in raising their two granddaughters after their eldest daughter died in 1992.

But the town has changed, not always for the better, in their view: They miss smaller shops and availability of more upscale dining. The town is losing its connection to its a unique history, they say, and they’ve been unsuccessful recruiting younger people to take over the church museum. And the church itself is changing: It’s becoming more evangelical in its approach, they note.

But, overall, Harlan Gilliland notes, “we cannot think of a better place to live.”

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