By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer
Across Northeast Portland, community churches are undergoing dramatic transformations. A combination of economic displacement along with the growing age of the average church-goer has led to the pews in many churches getting emptier by the week, while other churches have simply shut their doors for good.
In response, the churches that still remain are being forced to rethink their role in the community, and redefine themselves for the future. In a break from the past, some of them are finding success with opening their doors ever-wider, getting rid of the hierarchical structures that bind them, and asking themselves a simple question: what can we do for the community that’s here today?
“People come here because they want to be in a diverse congregation. But living it out is harder than they expect.”
For some, this kind of work is nothing new. In the heart of the Concordia neighborhood on NE 30th and Ainsworth, an elegant brick building houses Ainsworth United Church of Christ (AUCC). Built by German immigrants in the early part of last century, AUCC as it is today came into being when two different churches in the neighborhood – one majority white and the other majority black – merged with one another in the 1980’s. Soon after, Pastor Lynne Smouse Lopez arrived in Portland in the mid-90’s, fresh off an eight-year stint in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. And she came with a charge to push the church in a new direction.
Pastor Lynne and her new congregation wasted no time pushing AUCC ahead of the curve in Portland. Soon after arriving, they opened an HIV day clinic in the church’s basement at a time when the fear of AIDS and HIV were at a peak. They also became one of the first churches in Portland to openly welcome the LGBTQ+ community when anti-homosexuality in Oregon and the nation at large was still considered mainstream. Since then, AUCC has been an outspoken advocate for a variety of causes focused on social justice: immigrant rights, housing and economic discrimination, racial injustice, indigenous rights and gun violence, among others.
Pastor Lynne is careful to point out that her advocacy is not because of a personal agenda. Rather, she merely sits in the driver’s seat of a church that makes all its major decisions democratically, guided equally by their faith and the concerns of its community.
It’s not always easy. “People come here because they want to be in a diverse congregation,” she says, pointing out that they are a multi-racial and multi-generational congregation with a wide variety of income levels represented. “But living it out,” she adds, “is harder than they expect.”.
Pastor Lynne doesn’t take credit for any of this. If anything, it’s the other way around: her congregants, she says, are very active and they volunteer countless hours serving the community. AUCC is simply a catalyst. “One of our biggest roles is to nurture that fire, nurture the people, help feed them so that they can go out and do the work they’re doing to serve the community.”
A short mile or so away on Northeast Killingsworth, across from Vernon Elementary, a small, modest building is evidence of another solution to a changing community. This is the home of Leaven Community, a nonprofit incubated by the Salt and Light Lutheran Church, previously Redeemer Lutheran, which has been in the Northeast community for decades.
“It’s about practices, not an expectation to subscribe to any set of beliefs.”
Starting in 2010, the church began to rethink everything. Seeing the neighborhood change rapidly around them, and the feelings about church and religion changing with it, they decided that the answer was to lean into the change wholeheartedly and embrace it. To do that, they hired a community organizer and spent three years soul-searching and simply listening to their neighbors: they knocked on doors, held public meetings and heard about what holes in the community they could fill. They had decided that the key to moving forward wasn’t to serve the community in a one-way relationship. Rather, it was to build a platform that could become whatever it was the community decided it should be.
The result was Leaven Community, an organic and constantly evolving project that, among other things, hosts a variety of grassroots community organizations, as well as the Salt and Light Church of Christ. The change has been an undertaking that’s much bigger than a single church. In fact, most of the groups are not faith-based at all. “It’s a practice-based community,” says Mira Ayala, a Leaven Community member and organizer with Oregon Synod, the regional arm of the Lutheran church. “It’s about practices, not an expectation to subscribe to any set of beliefs.”
The groups on-site are diverse, and decidedly agnostic: there’s the Portland Tool Library, for example, which loans out tools to neighbors; there’s a Buddhist meditation group; a feminist women’s group; a food collective; and an innovative Salt and Light program called Intercambio, an intercultural language exchange that hosts dinners for people who speak different languages to come together and learn from one another.
It’s all part of a broader philosophy that defines the role of their church as providing the journey, but not necessarily the destination. In the words of LaVeta Gilmore-Jones, Co-Executive Director of Leaven Community, “We create spaces for people to be who they are through the exploration of their spiritual journeys and to act together out of our stories and the love we have for one another to do systemic and structural change so that we have more thriving neighborhoods.”
Change isn’t easy, but change is exactly what Reverend Randy West signed up for at Berean Baptist Church on North Vancouver Avenue when he started ministering there two years ago. Berean has been around for generations, but in recent years it has seen a steep decline in enrollment. With a background in both business and theology, Reverend West arrived to shake things up and turn around the struggling church.
It’s a generation, he says, “that may have given up on church, but they haven’t given up on God.”
The main problem they face, he says, is a conflict between old and new. “This church,” he says, “is caught in a crossfire between maintaining tradition and gentrification.” Current congregants want the church they’ve always had while newer residents and younger people in general are looking for something different, less institutional, more welcoming. What he knows for sure is that he didn’t move all the way from Houston just to maintain the status quo.
“You look at our church just from the outside right now and it doesn’t even look welcoming,” he says, walking around the half-acre or so that the church sits on, including a two story house next to it. The paint on both buildings is old and peeling; the last update might have been decades ago. But the Reverend sees it all as an opportunity. When he looks at his building, he sees a space that would fit an indoor gym and childcare center; when he surveys the empty land behind it, he imagines building affordable homes on it, with barbecues and sports games on the weekends where there is now just an empty field.
But the real change is about a lot more than just the paint color. He’s preparing to retire the old church as it is and launch an entirely new one on the same site, with a new name, for a new generation. It’s a generation, he says, “that may have given up on church, but they haven’t given up on God.”
Reverend West envisions a new establishment that will be all-inclusive and affirming and that serves the community seven days a week, far beyond a weekly sermon. Reverend West knows it’s a big job, but he’s filled with excitement to build something new for the next generation. He’ll need to be because, as those at Ainsworth United and Leaven Community can attest, that is where the work truly begins.