The role of the neighborhood church is drastically changing. Rather than just holding weekly services for parishioners, a seasonal family potluck event and hosting weddings and baptisms, churches now connect diverse elements and organizations in our communities, transform the notion of social justice and create new outlets for improved communications and outreach services. Such change is driven by a commitment to respond to community needs, especially in neighborhoods that are typically underserved or underrepresented.
Church leaders and their parishioners wish to help others, establish strong community ties and set positive examples for others. As Pastor Charles Lienert at St Andrew Church in Northeast Portland says: “We have an obligation to the wider community that we live in as part of our Christian life.” Rather than being driven by economics, church communities wish to connect in a valuable way with the community at large and foster the spirit of sharing. Learn about some thriving church-inspired neighborhood projects and connections—you might be pleasantly surprised at what’s going on!
Creating Gardens, Creating Community
Church properties are typically underutilized assets in our neighborhoods and can be pivotal to accomplishing critical work and projects. With land at a premium and community garden wait lists often years long, many churches (and schools, too) offer their outdoor space, usually through free and open programs geared to benefit and beautify the surrounding community.
For example, Portland Parks & Recreation turned to churches for use of their outdoor space for its popular community garden program. St Andrew Church runs a Common Bond Garden for parish gardeners to plant and maintain their own individual vegetable plots. Born in the vacant lot behind parish-owned low income houses, the St Andrew community now raises food and shares with neighbors in need. The Peace Church of the Brethren created a Peace Community Garden on its property to inspire its members and promote opportunities for peace and sharing with the assistance of the Friends of Portland Community Gardens. Pastor Kerby Lauderdale reports that the strip of grass behind the church’s parking lot was always a source of worry (mowing, dandelion control). “It struck us that a garden available to the community would be an important thing to do.” After working closely with the City over a few years, the garden was established last spring, is well tended and already has a waiting list.
Sharing Space to Serve Neighborhood Needs
Supporting home gardening and improvement activities is the Northeast Portland Tool Library, housed at and sponsored by the Redeemer Lutheran Church on NE Killingsworth. NEPTL co-founder Tom Thompson notes that the opportunity to set up shop on the church’s property magically appeared at a Vernon Neighborhood Association meeting over two years ago when a church member offered the budding organization some space. Redeemer has a history of neighborhood reach extending beyond the Sunday service: church property has also been home to the Fruit Tree Project, SolTrekker and multiple Friends of Trees events. The church originally rented out a small shed space to NEPTL but the popularity of its services (loaning tools to nearby residents for free) and inventory grew so rapidly, that the church offered its much larger basement space to the endeavor. A connected Seed Library offers free seed exchange and other community gardening related events that bring neighbors together to learn new skills and interact, while NEPTL offers DIY workshops for neighbors, participates in community events like Art Hop and Earth Day and assists others with similar start-ups, including the Southeast Portland Tool Library scheduled to open on May 1. “Because the Redeemer Church has been committed for decades to doing good by being a contributing member of the community at large, we are able to thrive and help others, too. It’s a great partnership,” beams Thompson.
St Andrew has a deep “commitment to community” and with its new expansion, buildings and services will grow to serve community members. For instance, its new community center (currently under construction) will house outreach services like emergency assistance, programs to encourage healthy living and environmental stewardship, new meeting spaces for childcare, as well as space available to other nonprofits and neighborhood groups who “do good works—it’s our donation to them as we support good groups who need a meeting space.”
Peace Church Pastor Lauderdale believes that it’s important to “be good neighbors and facilitate the spirit of community…we consistently work at ways to be open to the community with more than a conversion in mind.” The Peace Church has been in Portland for 100 years, and at its current location for 50. Its dedicated shelter program (housed on the ground floor of the church and modeled after Daybreak) has been serving homeless families for over 12 years. But the Peace Church also shares its facility with other groups who need space. For example, a Hispanic group uses the sanctuary three times a week, another group uses space one Saturday a month for meetings, and a videographer uses studio space to produce shows focusing on the church’s programs and outreach for the community access channel. “We have a fabulous connection with the community at large,” reports Lauderdale.
Not just all services, weddings and special events, the Red Sea Church in St Johns provides its large basement space to two groups that contribute greatly to the spirit and needs of the St Johns community—Swap N Play Community Sharing and North Portland Preserve & Serve Library. (Read our previous coverage of related Northeast Family Cooperative, also housed in a formerly church-owned space, too.)
Forging Connections Through Deliberate, Unexpected Dialog
Some churches stretch beyond the basics to transform neighborhoods. While churches haven’t typically been involved in open conversation about the environment, climate change, art, they are finding reason and meaning to engage parishioners and neighbors in deeper conversations. People want to address serious issues that concern their lives and churches now find that they can offer forums for important dialog. This past January, The Old Church (1883—that’s old!) hosted an arts and music related event with Intown Church, Oregon Food Bank and Portland City Art. For years, the First Baptist and First Congregational Churches (also downtown) have hosted the Illahee lecture series that focuses on sustainable practices and making sense of environmental challenges we face in our stressed world.
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon serves as a statewide association of Christian denominations “to improve the lives of Oregonians through community ministry programs, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, environmental ministry and public policy advocacy.” The group creates partnerships locally for community gardens and kitchens, leadership opportunities, dance/theatre performances and more—like this fall’s Climate Change Awareness Day in conjunction with the City and the international organization 350.org.
Both St Andrew and Redeemer Lutheran Church invite parishioners and neighbors alike to participate in various work groups, listening sessions and rallies of support related to Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good, a coalition of 20+ additional congregations, labor unions, educational institutions and nonprofit agencies. “The alliance works to create a strong, nonpartisan civil sector voice to address economic, social, and environmental issues affecting the community” with key objectives like “access to quality, affordable health care, affordable housing, living wage jobs that sustain the environment and an adequate and equitable state tax system.”
Church and community merge to not only provide opportunity for those in need but allow us to talk, share and reflect on our community and world issues.
Breaking the Mold
Perhaps one of the most compelling models of the merging of community involvement with church spirit is Second Stories, a nonprofit organization initiated by and in partnership with Imago Dei Community Church.
The group’s mission is to “equip churches to engage in community partnerships that transform neighborhoods”—exactly what they are doing with bold and innovative programs and partnerships. The goal is to cultivate a movement where churches are trained and unleashed to collaborate with schools, service agencies, neighborhood associations, individuals and other churches for neighborhood enrichment and transformation in Portland and beyond.
Alyssa Agee, Program Director, explains that one of Second Stories’ pivotal programs is based on a community breakfast model that began in Southeast Portland. The group is currently committed to addressing needs in four key neighborhoods—Lents, Foster-Powell, Brentwood-Darlington, Mt Scott-Arleta—and does so via community breakfasts modeled after those of Tremont Evangelical Church in Woodstock. Now partnering with St Peter’s Catholic Church, Second Stories brings community breakfast events each Saturday to its target geographic area. “We are committed to consistency in servicing the same area and the same neighbors, as well as partnering with other churches and agencies,” said Agee. But the breakfast events are not just for those in serious need—they also serve as a venue for neighbors to connect with one another, and have conversations about life, skills, services and other ways to help out. “It’s amazing work and the breakfasts have become anchors that are building community not just for those in serious need, but for all neighbors to connect.”
Second Stories outreach includes delivering preventative care in liaison with Compassion Connect and Compassion Southeast via free clinics each June. Agee would like to see this roving clinic occur more than once a year and hopes that more community members with talents to contribute will step up. Future plans include encouraging congregations to adopt listening projects in their neighborhoods to learn about and address the specific needs of the community, or perhaps partner with other congregations to encourage them to use their church space for community center activities (like cafes) during the week.
“We are focused on building partnerships and building community so that everyone in a community can benefit,” says Agee. As churches continue to reach beyond their parishes and Sunday services, connecting with neighbors, organizations and real community needs to truly serve as positive change agents, our sense of community will certainly strengthen.