By Midge Pierce
Churches in SE Portland are developing creative ways to keep their congregations thriving. Those that work have strong community ties that encourage diversity of thought and belief and welcome everyone regardless of religious affiliation.
Reverend Sara Fischer of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church at 2800 SE Harrison has seen her parish grow from a handful of practitioners to more than 100. She increased attendance by removing what she calls the “iron curtain” of traditional churches.
“We are very porous in our philosophy,” she says. “It’s one of social justice, music and prayer for all seekers and sojourners.”
Despite a tight financial situation, Fischer says her church practices abundance. “We are not about helping the church. We are about the church helping the community.”
A music studio, a variety of choirs, teachers and practice spaces bring neighbors to the handsome building. Fischer is particularly excited about a summer gardening and cooking camp modeled after a popular class at Abernethy Elementary. Children will learn about nutrition and sustainability.
”The class is intended to pay for itself, not bring in extra money. Activities do not necessarily keep the lights on.”
They do help fill pews. “This is a fabulous environment to provide meaning and connections.”
Tim Winslea agrees that Portland is a spiritual if not religious center. He and his wife Elizabeth are co-pastors of two churches – quaint Lincoln Street United Methodist and the larger Montavilla United Methodist on SE 80th which posts a welcome for all regardless of ethnicity, income, gender identity, Christian belief – or not.
Winslea claims parishioners appreciate the disappearance of doctrine and reappearance of the openness he believes churches were meant to embody.
“We follow a model of democratization that is spirit-driven. We have had Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and atheists here. Being in church helps them clarify what they believe and experience – and we learn as much from them as they learn from us. “
Healthy communities have churches that embrace concepts known as “third spaces,” according to Lauren Moomaw, director of TaborSpace on SE Belmont. “People need beautiful places beyond work and home to come together to interact.”
Moomaw saw possibility in the large and small rooms of Mt. Tabor Presbyterian that could be used for art, music, dancing and concerts. She found a kindred spirit in Pastor Carley Friesen as they transformed empty spaces into gathering areas and a storage closet into a popular coffeeshop.
Now on the eve of its fifth birthday, Moomaw says TaborSpace has increased activity at the church a hundred fold since 2009.
Another model for sharing spaces is practiced by the Seventh-Day Adventists on SE 60th. The church, originally built to serve the doctors and nurses at nearby Adventist hospital before it moved across I-205, now serves congregants throughout the Metro area.
Since Adventists celebrate their Sabbath on Saturday, their facility sat idle on Sundays until they opted to rent to St. Matthews Anglican Church.
“The arrangement works well for both of us,” says Anglican Rector David Humphrey. “We meet when the Church would otherwise be empty.“
On a recent Sunday, dozens of children ran through a gym-sized room as parents and parishioners served up potluck. Humphrey says the roomy, child-friendly environment helps his congregation grow. “The Adventists have been incredibly gracious. The church has wonderful spaces.”
Over the hill at Ascension Catholic Church on SE 76th, the parking lot is full and it’s standing room only on Sunday. Out of five weekend services, two are held in Spanish. The decision to serve non-English speakers was made nine years ago and growth has been steady ever since.
“We are a large parish and we serve an underserved population,” says Father Ben, a Franciscan friar who is leaving after many years along with the Franciscan order with a dwindling population that can no longer serve the church it ran for a century.
The Archdiocese of Portland has appointed Father Angelo Te from Ashland to continue the community-oriented mission of the church.
Successful churches share a commonality – open doors. Just ask computer codewriter Ernie, a fixture almost daily near the broad entrance and activity-filled bulletin board at TaborSpace. He likes the light, the ambience and the neighborhood’s frequent comings and goings.
Young mother and architect Erin Telford, who frequents the coffeehouse, says it fills a void. “Where else can you chat with friends, drink coffee and play with your baby in such a beautiful space?”