The Church in This Place

Mark McConnell

New Horizons: December 2022

The Church in This Place

Also in this issue

Rebuilding in Appalachia

An Unusual Reflection on Christmas

Lessons Learned from Nursing Home Ministry

When the New Testament mentions churches, it names them by their location. Christians make up a church in this place or that: the church in Rome, the church in Ephesus. What we know about those places informs what we know about the task that God, who was present in those places, was equipping his people to undertake there. The Spirit of God moves the people of God to act according to the Word of God in the place to which he calls them. For example, the Spirit tells Christians not to stop gathering in person. We cannot log in for communion. When we obey, our acts display to those outside the church that Christ is present, that he is in this place. In a faithful church, Christ is a neighbor—even when that church’s locale is one of misery and crime.

A Changing Neighborhood

Members of First Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon, know the story of their earliest presence in the neighborhood. The history page on their website reads, “With early help from Rev. George Marston, Pastor Eyres tirelessly knocked on hundreds of neighborhood doors and did much of the groundwork in getting everything underway.” The denomination’s mission committee chose a place where young families poured into a working-class neighborhood to support the war effort, quickly filling the gap between the city and the rural community with new homes. Most of the church’s charter members came to worship from a few blocks away. Even before breaking ground for the first building, the surrounding community knew the church by reputation for its connection to their neighbors and its service to other churches in the city. First Church was originally a neighborhood church.

But even at the beginning, the congregation struggled to remain in the neighborhood. When they began looking for a site for the first building, the Portland Ecumenical Council advised the city to refuse permission to establish another Presbyterian church, since two mainline congregations were already meeting nearby. So, the core group at First OPC looked for a location outside the city’s jurisdiction, a couple of blocks away. This is the reason First Church is on the east side of Oregon Route 213, now with the used car lots, shady bars, sex shops, and cheap motels that line the highway better known now as 82nd Avenue, which was the city limit in the years of the church’s founding.

Long after the city expanded its lines eastward, 82nd Avenue continues to have a seedy character. Some of the worst things city life offers surround the church because of the four-lane thoroughfare nearby.

Cities are always changing, and Portland is typical. The wartime attachment to the neighborhood became a memory. Many of the original members moved farther away. Most new members drove many miles instead of a few blocks to attend services. It became awkward for most of the members to identify with the neighborhood, even while the church sought ways to maintain connection through organized outreach. On some Saturday mornings, members greeted their neighbors from the sidewalk in front of the church, inviting them to a pancake breakfast.

There was outreach through Evangelism Explosion, vacation Bible school, and Christianity Explored, as well as visits to a neighborhood nursing home. Some neighbors can remember meeting at the church to make protest signs to seek attention for the harm being done to the neighborhood by a sex shop called The Flick. Yet the sense of alienation from the neighborhood kept increasing.

By the time of Rev. Jack Smith’s pastorate from 1994–2018, there were five different sex shops within a block’s distance, a methadone clinic across the street, a marijuana dispensary next door (eventually replaced by a food pantry), feces and garbage left on the church porch, prostitution in the church parking lot, constant harassment by vagrants, and a growing drug market at the Madison Suites motel, which is behind the church on Milton Street. The office became a threatening place to work, and the building seemed a risky place to meet during the week. Church officers improved the outside lighting, posted “No Trespassing” signs in the windows, and considered installing a more secure fence and a gated entrance to the parking lot. More than a few members talked about moving the church to the suburbs, where most members lived by then. Others moved farther away or left the area altogether just to get away from the city.

The Pandemic

The first year of Rev. Andrew Farr’s pastorate coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020. Month after month, the governor urged quarantines and mask-wearing and urged against physical meetings, against public prayers and singing together, against holy communion. At the same time that many members felt forbidden to meet, the city and county declared a moratorium on “sweeps” of homeless camps, so that the drug market camp behind the church overwhelmed the Madison Suites motel and the church’s sidewalk next to the parking lot. Deacons hired a security company to patrol the lot to keep out squatters.

Broken down RVs and cars deteriorated in the street and scores of tents blocked the sidewalks, which drug customers and prostitutes used day and night for sleeping. Discarded furniture and thrown-away people spilled into the street, fires broke out, and holes appeared in the church’s fence, which vagrants used as a shortcut through the church parking lot to Fremont Street. For nearly two years, the street behind the church became an increasingly dangerous place: a no-go zone of roaming prostitutes, overdosing addicts, tents swollen with rotting garbage, and people with sores swollen by disease. Competing gangs killed four people in the space of several months, injuring two neighbors by gunfire as they were leaving for work.

Amid all this, the church meets for worship.

The church meets for worship in a city that members sense is cold and hostile toward Christianity and in a neighborhood where unrestrained public vice and dark human misery threaten to overwhelm any sense of belonging. It’s a place where most of the members are only present on Sundays, a place which evokes almost no sense of being a home except in nostalgia for earlier times. For some, concerns of COVID continue to prevent their presence on Sunday. How is it possible to be a church now, or to be a neighbor anymore in such times, and in such a place?

To Know Them by Name

In February 2022, the police swept the camp. It seems to be an opportunity to do something that would explain why the church should remain where it has been called. One member asks what we should do. Be present! another answers. If the church is called to a neighborhood, at the very least it is then called to assert Christ’s presence by acting like a neighbor who cares about the other neighbors. With no clear idea of what else to do, members knock on doors of nearby residents to ask how the violence near the church has affected them. They bring information on how to report illegal encampments and crime, and they seek to learn.

The church members also inform the neighbors that a small group of volunteers would be regularly cleaning up around the drug camp as an excuse to introduce themselves to the people there. “We want to know them by name, to pray for them, to seek their good although we see them as our enemy,” they explain. “That’s all we know how to do, but we’ve been afraid for our safety and reluctant even to do that. Maybe if we act differently, we can assert a different influence, in contrast to the open drug use, the despair, and the violence. We know that our neighbors have been working on these problems for a long time. We want to learn how to help you.”

“We’ve worried about you,” some neighbors answer. “Would you like to attend our safety meeting?”

Encouraged by the neighborhood’s support, a few members meet in the parking lot the next week to sing Psalm 69. “For the zeal for your house has eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached you fell on me.” They pick up needles and say hello to Larry, who spent most of the last three years apparently dealing heroin from a broken-down pickup truck. A prostitute named “Cynda” wants to pray with two of the women. As they pray, Cynda suddenly confesses, “Wait! I lied to you. My name is Cassie.” She had watched her boyfriend accidentally shoot himself to death in a methamphetamine delirium. She wants no obstacles against speaking to God.

The following week, they choose Psalm 22, which no Christian can sing without remembering that Christ spoke these words when he was dying on the cross—when, although innocent, he united himself with human sorrow and separation from God. “My God, my God, O why have you forsaken me? O why are you so far from saving me, and from my groaning cry?” They introduce themselves to prostitutes and try to wake an overdosed man in a tent, eventually calling for help from a medical emergency team. It’s easy to understand how alien and frightening it all is to the church members, but it staggers the imagination to try to describe how casually the people they are meeting accept this misery.

Deej, a runaway nicknamed “Mary Poppins,” accepts an offer of prayer. She looks like a child. An oozing staph infection swells Lucas’s hand, which hangs heavily at his side. He allows the members to clean and dress the wound, and he is grateful that they ask how he’s doing in the days that follow, but it seems likely he’ll lose his arm or die before he’s willing to go to the hospital. The members know Robbie because he created a raging fire under the eaves of the church’s front porch using his mobile firepit. Justin plays with heroin needles that he found in the gutter, jabbers nonsense to himself, and licks the pavement. Neil claims he earned six figures before COVID ruined his business and put him out on the street; moments later, he stumbles from a motel room numbed to the world by opiates. Cat coordinates her pink shoes and shirt that she got from the pantry next door and feigns interest in going to a shelter. Yvonne has a big smile on her face when she’s greeted and extends her hand from a car filled with garbage. Joe helps to clean the sidewalk. He knows his name is biblical. A nameless transgender prostitute threatens to burn down the church if the members touch his possessions.

Ben, Allan, Mindy, Amanda, Gaura, Kelly, and others who live nearby long for a clean and safe place to live, where they can watch their children play. They hear gunshots and cars racing down the street late at night. From over her fence, Mindy can hear a local business owner telling drug dealers to be more careful because the police are watching. Allan coordinates meetings with city officials and works to influence the press. Kelly and Ben tend the community garden, donate to the food pantry, and paint murals on the street. All of them think of the neighborhood—except for 82nd Avenue—as wonderful and prosperous. They love their home and don’t want to leave.

In Such a Place

A place like the corner of NE 82nd and Fremont in Portland is more than a piece of geography. It is a place defined by the people present. A building is the same way; it is only worth noticing when it affects people. A church that does not affect the people in its place is no better to its neighbors than an empty lot.

For seventy-eight years, First OPC has existed near the corner of 82nd and Fremont. As the neighborhood seemed to become more and more distant over the decades, members prayed and often asked each other “How can we show our neighbors that Jesus is alive here and now?” Would it happen by reviving the VBS or by waving down passersby like they used to, inviting them to Saturday morning pancake breakfast?

Instead, it has happened in a way that nobody would ever want, let alone expect; it happened because murder, hazardous waste, and gruesome misery have afflicted this place. The church members don’t know what to do about these things that seem as far away from their worship services as heaven is from the bottom of a pit. They only know that a faithful church follows Jesus Christ and prays for its neighbors, serving them in his name. Christ is a neighbor in such a place.  

The author is an elder at First Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. New Horizons, December 2022.

New Horizons: December 2022

The Church in This Place

Also in this issue

Rebuilding in Appalachia

An Unusual Reflection on Christmas

Lessons Learned from Nursing Home Ministry

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