As Director of Ministries, Sonny Westbrook oversees all of UGM’s programs serving the poor and homeless. But you could also just call him our pastor. Staff, volunteers, and residents alike, we are all blessed by Sonny’s example, his caring heart and his gentle manner of shepherding people toward Christ-likeness.
Because of his deep roots in the Inland Northwest, there are few places around here where folks don’t know Sonny – but maybe you haven’t heard his story. In this Q+A, he tells about his personal history, what makes his heart happy, and how God led him into ministry among the poor.
Where did you grow up? What was your life like as a child?
I was born in Butte, Montana. My father then moved us to Thompson Falls, Montana, where he worked for the forestry service. He was injured in a logging accident and we came to Spokane when I was just starting the 2nd grade. I went through the whole school system here in Spokane, attended grade school at Bancroft Elementary School, junior high at Glover and graduated from Shadle Park High School in 1965.
I was very involved in school life growing up and participated in softball, basketball, and tennis. I was involved in student government in each of the schools I attended.
I was privileged to have four sisters, two older than I and two younger. I used to say, “That’s why I turned out so sweet.”
For the first 10 years of my life, my father struggled with alcoholism and this brought a lot of instability to our family. But my mother, Lydia, was a deeply devoted Christian, and she did all she could to bring us up as Christians.
How did you come to know Jesus?
From a very early age I was exposed to the gospel of our Lord Jesus. My mother was a powerful influence in my life for the Lord. She sowed a lot of seeds and watered them for years with her prayers. Sadly, however, by junior high school, I became very enamored with friends, school, cars, sports and girls, and all my interest in spiritual things waned into the background of my life.
Then the Lord brought along a youth pastor by the name of Art Branson. He pursued me for the Lord. Too long a story to tell, but I ended up in a home Bible study with Art during my senior year. During that year, the Lord was speaking to me and calling me to Himself.
I held out until the middle of my freshman year at Whitman College. It was then that I put my trust in the Lord Jesus as my Savior and made the commitment to follow Him as my Lord. That was in December 1965. I’ve never looked back since. It has been a wonderful journey, experiencing His presence, His guidance and His provision all through these years.
Briefly describe your career background and the path you took to working at UGM.
After graduating from Whitman College in 1969, I attended seminary for two years, one year at Talbot Theological Seminary and one year at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
I then received an invitation from Superintendent Earl Mortlock to join his staff at Northwest Christian Schools here in Spokane. I made a two-year commitment, as it was my intention to return to finish a seminary degree. I completed two years but was asked to be the interim superintendent for one year while Rev. Mortlock and some other pastors launched the Inland Empire School of the Bible. My tenure as superintendent extended to 7 years.
During those years, I completed a master’s degree at Whitworth University in Educational Administration and never returned to seminary.
From there, I was invited to become the director of the Capernwray Bible School at His Hill in Comfort, Texas, a position I held for six years. In addition to the Bible school there, we ran a robust program of weekend retreats and summer youth camps. We would always offer two weeks of “scholarship camp weeks” for underprivileged kids. Now at UGM, we offer nine weeks of free camp to under-resourced, at-risk youth. This warms my heart.
What followed His Hill was 3 years serving as an associate pastor in San Antonio, Texas, and 18 years as the senior pastor back here in Spokane at South Hill Bible Church.
One of the most meaningful ministries we fulfilled at South Hill Bible was a commitment of our Senior Adult ministry to give to and pray for and to get involved with the ministries at Anna Ogden Hall. Our people decorated and outfitted a couple of rooms, held teas and barbecues for the residents, held drives to acquire needed items for the women and children. During the years as pastor, I also was asked a few times to speak at the Mission and at staff conferences.
I also had a very personal connection with the Altmeyer family. My wife Judy’s parents were close friends with Harry and Earline Altmeyer. The Altmeyer boys actually helped get the farm place of Judy’s parents ready for our wedding, and Phil and Steve assisted Harry in getting all the cars parked in the hay field.
I was very surprised, however, when Phil invited me to lunch one day and told me that he had made the decision to bring on some leadership help for this expanding ministry. He said: “Every time I pray about this, Sonny, you come to mind.” Though it took a little time to work out the transition, I was honored by the invitation and joined the staff as the Director of Ministries in August 2007.
So, I am now in my 11th year of ministry here at the Mission. What a joy and privilege it has been. I can see how everything I did in ministry before has been put to use here.
What are the most rewarding things about working to “reach the poor with the love and power of the Gospel”?
The most rewarding thing is to see lives transformed right before your eyes, to see our wonderful Lord doing what He alone can do! And to work together alongside the great leadership of Phil and all the other devoted leadership team members and staff is a regular joy. To see how faithfully the Lord provides for the people we seek to serve and to experience the great support of this Inland Northwest community is really something. It is all very rewarding.
What is the most challenging part of working with the poor and homeless? What are similarities and differences it has with other kinds of pastoral work you’ve done?
The most challenging part of working with those we serve is to deal with the power and strongholds the various addictions hold over the lives of those we seek to lead to Christ’s freedom. Some begin so well and then relapse into old destructive patterns that have plagued them for years. It is challenging to fend off discouragement in the midst of sadness and disappointments over those who relapse.
The similarity between this and other types of pastoral work I have done is this: People are people, and the Gospel of Christ meets the needs of all kinds of people.
We all need God’s forgiveness, for example. Every one alive has this need. Our Lord offers it freely to all. We all need His regenerative work in our lives, the miracle of the second birth. We all must be “born again” to see and to enter the Kingdom of God. We all need love and acceptance, and God gives it freely to all.
The major difference is the prevalence of substance abuse and substance addictions amongst those we serve here at the Mission. We receive and offer a lot of trainings here that are specific to the problems of addiction and relapse prevention.
Can you share one or two stories about how you saw the Gospel changing hearts and lives at UGM?
Every week one of the privileges I have is to teach the basic LIFE Recovery Bible Study at Anna Ogden Hall or at the Center for Women and Children in Coeur d’Alene. Recently I had an interaction with one of the women who had been in my class two trimesters ago. I remembered how sad she was when she came into the program. Life in a fallen world had been very hard on her. You could hardly get a smile from her and she would hardly say a word to you. When I saw her last week, she exuded a radiance of joy and security. She was warm and open to conversation. She is truly a changed person. I could share many more examples of this.
I’ve seen a sticky note inside your office door that just says “Pray.” What role does prayer play in your job?
I keep the sticky note on my door window as a reminder every time I go out that we are depending on God for all that it takes to fulfill the purpose and the goals of this ministry. Prayer is the avenue through which we express that dependence. It is also the avenue through which we express our thanksgivings to Him. He is so good and He is so faithful in providing all our needs and so we need to cultivate the heart of continuous thankfulness to Him. Prayer is communion and fellowship with Him and this strengthens us to keep on keeping on in the work He has placed before us. Prayer is the vital link for me to Him Who is our wonderful God and Savior. The sticky note reminds me of all this.
How has God surprised you recently with what He’s doing at UGM and/or in your life?
A big surprise in the past couple of years was His provision of the facility on Illinois for our relatively new Crisis Shelter for Women and Children. We had been focused on another vacant property for several years, and trying to work out all the obstacles; and then it happened that He so definitely said, “No, I’ve already got a ready-made facility in mind,” and then, just at the right time, He dropped it out of heaven for us. Very remarkable! I marvel each time I go there to see what He has provided.
What have you been reading recently that encouraged and/or challenged you?
Recently a fellow staff member gave me a copy of the book The Pleasure of His Company, by Dutch Sheets. It quickly was placed on the list of my favorite books. It explains the wonderful reality that the Lord gives Himself to us in the most intimate way possible. He comes to indwell us. And we have the privilege of a growing, intimate walk with Him. The book also challenges our busyness and tendency to neglect the growth in intimacy with Christ even while endeavoring to serve Him. I’m thankful for the encouragement and the challenge it has brought to me.
Tell us about your family.
Judy and I will celebrate our 49th anniversary this August. God has blessed us with four children, all married, and with 14 grandchildren. We have two sons and two daughters and all seek to walk with the Lord Jesus. Our two daughters with their husbands and 8 of the 14 grandchildren live here in Spokane; and we are kept delightfully busy attending their events and creating times together with them.
What is your favorite way to rest and re-energize away from work?
I really enjoy fly fishing on a beautiful stream or river with a reasonable chance of catching some nice trout or steelhead or salmon or bass!
Like Sonny says, we all need Jesus: Rich and poor, young and old, from all backgrounds. So why is UGM so focused on extending God's love and grace to the poor? This free ebook is an honest exploration of the special attention the Bible seems to give to the poor and what that means to those of us who don't consider ourselves "poor."