Brentnall on a fishing trip at Silver Lake, near Maple Falls, in 2004.
For a man who spent much of his life unsure of what he wanted to do when he grew up, Brent Brentnall has accomplished quite a bit.
Not only is Brentnall known around town as the Deacon of Christ Episcopal Church and the founder of the Community Assistance Program, which helps hundreds of Blaine and Birch Bay residents each year, he has a widely varied career history. For starters, he served as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, worked in communications and electronics for NASA during its Gemini program, helped former Secretary of State David Packard develop GPS technology and assisted the government of Sweden in building a satellite that would study the aurora borealis, or the Northern lights.
He retired earlier this year after serving the Blaine community for 10 years. At the age of 80, it will be his fourth “retirement” – this time because of cancer.
Brentnall said although the cancer was successfully removed and treated with chemotheraphy, he and his wife, Joan, will be moving to Seattle later this fall to be closer to medical facilities in case the cancer returns.
“It wasn’t by choice,” he said. “I didn’t want Joan to have to drive back and forth to Seattle if the cancer came back.”
Brentnall was born in 1930 in La Jolla, California. He earned two masters degrees from the University of Michigan – one in aeronautical engineering and one in instrumentation – and a Ph.D in astronautics from Stanford University in 1963. He is also a graduate of West Point military academy.
In 1979, while working for Boeing in Seattle, Brentnall was convinced he had too much time on his hands and decided to study theology.
“After all, theology is directly related to GPS and satellites,” Brentnall joked.
At the time, Brentnall had been attending an Episcopal church in Seattle and said he felt compelled to get involved with helping a wave of immigrants known as “boat people” assimilate into life in the United States.
It was then when a priest asked him if he’d ever considered becoming ordained. At first, Brentnall dismissed the idea but later decided it might put him in a better position to help people.
He graduated from a theology school in Seattle a few years later.
“I set a record,” he said. “It was a three year program but I completed it in five and a half years because I was constantly going back and forth to Sweden to help them build a satellite.”
In 1988, he retired a second time, moved to Semi Valley, California, and went to work for Rockwell International. At the time, the United States was in the middle of what Brentnall called “Reagan’s Star Wars program,” and he became involved in developing neutral particle beam guns, high energy lasers and other weapons.
In 1991, Brentnall attempted to become a deacon, the Episcopal equivalent of a pastor. The commission on ministry told him additional certification and training would be required by the diocese of Los Angeles, so Brentnall, in his self-proclaimed “stubbornness” returned to school once again.
During his interview, one of the women asked why he wanted to become ordained. When he answered that he wanted to help people, she suggested he take a year to help those in need.
As a result, Brentnall spent a year visiting people in nursing homes and helping the homeless and said he became “very empathetic” to people who were unable to care for themselves. It worked – in 1992, Brentnall was finally ordained and went to serve at St. Frances Church in Semi Valley.
The first thing he did as a deacon was create a day shelter for homeless people, he said. The city, however, had passed a law forbidding any shelter from hosting homeless for more than one night.
“The city council said there were no homeless people there, and they didn’t want any,” he said. “So we created a day shelter to feed them breakfast, give them clean clothes, a shower and a P.O. box. In the first year, we processed more than 8,000 sign-ins. Considering the claim that there were no homless people, that’s a lot.”
“The real job of a deacon is to go out in the community and help people,” he said. “It’s to make people in the church who are busy going to their potlucks aware that there are people out there who don’t have any food at all.”
In 1999, Brentnall retired a third time and moved to Semiahmoo after visiting the area and became a deacon at Christ Episcopal Church in Blaine.
He and other ministers in the Peace Arch Christian Ministerial Association soon formed the Community Assistance Program (CAP), which helps local residents with emergency needs ranging from food and clothing to gasoline and one-time utility bill payments.
From there, they created additional programs such as the St. Martin’s Clothing Bank, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard and the Thanksgiving Basket Program, which provides Thanksgiving food to the families of students who recieve reduced school lunches.
In 2009, the St. Martin’s Clothing bank served 2,419 people and the Thanksgiving basket program provided dinner swith all the trimmings – including homemade pies – to 189 families, feeding more than 880 children and adults.
The average retail cost for a Thanksgiving basket is about $80 and is paid for through donations almost exclusively from the local community. Each year, the program brings in an average of $7,000 almost exclusively from local donors. Brentnall said while other programs under CAP accept other funding, he wanted the Thanksgiving basket program to be a “true community program.”
“I wanted people to feel like they were helping a neighbor in need,” he said.
Those who worked closely with Brentnall, such as Ann Spooner, who heads the St. Martin’s Clothing bank, said they will miss his contributions and his humbleness as well as his sense of humor.
“It’s going to be a tough act to follow but we’re all trying,” Spooner said. “I’ve noticed that it takes six of us now to do what he was doing.”
Those wanting to contribute to CAP or any of its programs, can do so by mailing a check to P.O. Box 1067, Blaine, Washington, 98231.
Donations are tax deductible.