Common Ground Reckoning with Land-Race History

By Kate Belt

Common Ground Presbyterian Church, 2828 SE Stephens St., was originally incorporated in 1961 as Colonial Heights, a name based on the real estate designation at the time. It has researched a legal name change, but will more likely use Common Ground as a “doing business as” name.

For over five years, Presbyterians have opened meetings by recognizing land occupants who were unjustly moved off their properties, speaking the names they have called themselves. 

What we now call Portland and Multnomah County were traditional lands of many Native American tribes that include those who made their homes along the Columbia River. 

Today their descendants are members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Chinook Nation in Washington State.

As part of a 10-month cohort with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon on structural racism, Rev. Linda Stewart-Kalen, pastor of CHPC since 2005, took up researching the history of Common Ground’s property ownership. 

The earliest records show that neighborhood land became property under two grants from the Donation Land Claim Act that took effect September 27, 1850, giving land to white males only. If married before December 1, 1851, these men could claim an additional 320 acres in their wife’s name. 

James E. Stephens and a family named Dobbins made initial claims to land in SE Portland. Gideon and Mary Tibbetts later took over the Dobbins’ claim. These are familiar street names to those in the neighborhood.

Common Ground was formed by merging three churches from three different cultural communities: Scottish, Chinese (mostly Cantonese speaking people from Southern China, Guangdong province) and the third, itself a merger of three churches; one started by Italian immigrants.

Common Ground’s chartering documents and history note the crossing of racial boundaries. A 1964 article in The Oregonian on the dedication of the building reported that “the congregation has been interracial from the beginning. Chinese, Greek, Italian, Sicilian, Japanese and other nationalities worship together.” 

One might wonder that these immigrants were not noted as Americans.

The church has shared its building and grounds with other congregations, youth organizations, support groups, art groups and performing artists. 

Long time building partners include the Veterans’ Acupuncture Project, Hawthorne Family Playschool, and since 2019, Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). 

The spacious grounds, rain gardens, poetry boxes, meditation stations and Audubon Gold Certified, Metro Pollinator Habitat offer a welcoming neighborhood green space in an area lacking nearby parks.

Declining church membership due to deaths and demographics along with COVID-19 have all taken a toll on Common Ground’s ability to sustain building maintenance and staffing. 

Rev. Stewart-Kalen is part-time, as is the music director and a childcare helper. The church continues to seek building partners who can share the expenses. 

What happens next to the land when upkeep becomes unsustainable? Is it time for hospice or is transformation possible? 

Real estate is held by the presbytery (a regional, governing body), so it would be up to them to decide about future use or sale of the building. In the meantime, church leadership continues to seek discernment about its future and addressing questions related to the relationship between land ownership and power. 

Neighbors who have ideas to share are welcome to come by for an outdoor ice cream social Tuesday, August 28, 4-6 pm, that will be co-hosted with MCC.

Rev. Stewart-Kalen can be available to offer 30-minute building tours at 11:45 am (following the 10:30 am worship service) on Sunday, August 1 and Sunday, August 8. 

More information about Common Ground at chpcpdx.org.

Photo of Common Ground Presbyterian Church by Kris McDowell

Common Ground Reckoning with Land-Race History

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