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in Building on Faith, Volunteer

Rev. Dr. Gary Petersen has deep roots in the history of Tacoma Habitat. He was approached to serve on the board in the 90s and has seen the organization through a number of changes—from the shift to concrete slab foundations, building up a Global Village program for international builds, navigating new technologies, like instant-on hot water heaters, and hiring our current CEO Maureen Fife.

But it all started because Tacoma Habitat leaders knew of Gary’s commitment to connecting people with developing nations. He first encountered Habitat for Humanity while serving as a missionary in Peru. Once back in Pierce County, Gary began the tradition of taking his church’s youth group to build homes in Tijuana.

Tacoma Habitat’s Board of Directors charged Gary with managing the organization’s tithe in support of international builds at its sister affiliate in Guatemala—the second international affiliate established by Habitat founders Millard and Linda Fuller. At the time, Tacoma Habitat was giving 10% of the cost of each house built in Tacoma to Guatemala.

Gary says, “When they asked me to be the tithe person, they didn’t realize that was real important to me. My parents were 10% tithers. The idea that Habitat would tithe meant a lot to me. We always said for every home we built here, we could probably build two in Guatemala.”

Following the board’s first build in Guatemala, they agreed to extend their support, pledging $25,000 a year for five years to Guatemala. The tie between Tacoma and Guatemala remains strong; Tacoma Habitat has contributed more than $1.5M to affordable housing solutions in the country.

Gary was also part of the first Building on Faith effort in Tacoma, a Blitz Build of five homes in just one week. He says of their planning, “We knew we’d have to bring the Catholics and the Lutherans in, and then see about the Methodists.” In the end, they brought many more, including Episcopalians, the local Ukrainian congregation, as well as other non-aligned, independent churches.

Speaking about visiting congregations and sharing the Habitat vision, Gary says, “We went around trying to drum up interest and we found it. Habitat provided the opportunity for different types of Christians to come together. It was a great time, and made me feel as if this was our community. We are Building on Faith.”

He goes on to say, “Many churches see Building on Faith as part of their outreach. Of course, it’s not meant to be proselytizing, so you honor people where they’re at. That’s the way it has to be. And that, to me, is real love.”

Now retired, Gary’s Habitat engagement looks a bit different. Before COVID, he and his wife Linda were Global Village trip leaders, committed to leading one international build each year and participating in another. Gary says, “You have a sense that the Christian faith is not an American faith; it belongs to the world and comes in a variety. I had been going to just one place because I’m comfortable with the Spanish, but I realized I need to go to some different places. Habitat put that model up for me.”

The Petersens have been to Guatemala eight times, and have also built in Vietnam, Romania, El Salvador, Thailand, Nicaragua, and Poland.

While Gary isn’t swinging a hammer as often these days, he and Linda remain monthly donors to Tacoma Habitat, and have been powerful hosts for the annual Changing Lives Luncheon. They are both involved in the Frank Lewis Legacy House and participated in the wall raising earlier this month.

“We see time with Habitat as a gift to the community,” says Gary. “It’s fun to share and encourage other people. We’re building community in Tacoma or however far it stretches—making a safer, caring community.”


Posted in: Building on Faith, Volunteer