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Church building's new owners keep doors open for families

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Volunteer Don McClure of Parkrose Community United Church of Christ serves dinner and a friendly conversation to families at the church's homeless shelter.Apparently there can be life after death, for a church. Just ask any of the 25 or so members of Eastminster Presbyterian Church who have witnessed their own version of resurrection.

Eastminster is the plucky Northeast Portland church which saw its once-vital congregation dwindle to about 30 members three years ago. The congregation’s average age was 80. Church members, led by pastor Brian Heron, undertook a process of soul-searching and reality checks to determine what might be next.

Along the way, those congregants began to take a second look at what being a religious community truly meant to them. A merger with a younger, more vital congregation was suggested, but fell through. While trying to solve the problem of its future, two winters ago, Eastminster took on a second challenge. After virtually every other church, synagogue and mosque turned down a desperate plea from county officials, the congregants of Eastminster decided to turn their empty Sunday School classrooms into the only overnight shelter for homeless families on Portland’s east side.

Next came a community garden to feed the hungry, on the vacant acre of land next to the church, started last year.

But neither of these led to an influx of new members for Eastminster. So three and a half months ago, Eastminster died. The building and land were sold to Parkrose Community United Church of Christ, a congregation that had been functioning without a church of its own. But there was a condition that had to be met before the sale could go through — the homeless shelter and the community garden would have to continue.

“That was part of the deal. We had to make a pitch to them,” says Pastor Don Frueh of Parkrose Community.

Discernment, rediscovery

And in essence, that is where a second story begins. Because the shrinking and aging process that Eastminster went through is occurring at most of the mainline Christian churches in Portland. In fact, it is happening to Parkrose Community.

Parkrose Community will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Fifty years ago, it had as many as 400 congregants, but by the time Frueh arrived as minister in 2009, only 90 members remained, and their average age was 55.

The congregation “faced its own demise,” according to Frueh. It sold its building to a Hispanic church, rented space for its Sunday services, and started the process of figuring out the future.

“Our purpose was to spend time in discernment to rediscover where God was calling us,” Frueh says. “If you sit still and listen, these things come to you. That’s what our two years of renting was. It was listening.”

Frueh says that not having a building, with all the distractions and the financial drain that result, made the rediscovery possible.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - April, 10, talks with her grandmother on the free telephone in the church hallway before going to bed. Last week, April and her father were sleeping overnight in a park.A survey of congregants found that many maintained interests in cooking and gardening, and most wanted to find some way to become more engaged in the community by putting together something like a soup kitchen for the homeless.

In March 2011, Frueh met Heron and discussed what Frueh says appeared to be a perfect match. Eastminster congregants insisted their homeless shelter be continued; Parkrose Community’s congregants were looking for an opportunity. The shelter is run by nonprofit Human Solutions, but Parkrose Community members help provide evening meals for the sheltered families. And the community garden, maintained by nonprofit Grow Portland, also provides an opportunity for Parkrose Community congregants.

Letting go of a church

On Nov. 1, Portland’s eastside family shelter opened for its third year of operation, now a guest of Parkrose Community, which has grown to about 105 members, counting the 25 who have transitioned from Eastminster. On any given Sunday, 65 to 70 attend services.

The changeover hasn’t been completely seamless. With its elderly congregation, Eastminster had no problem giving over its Sunday School classrooms to homeless families each night. But Parkrose Community has about 15 children attending its Sunday School. In addition, three nights a week Girl Scouts use the classrooms. So the church has had to reconfigure some, serving dinner in the shelter area rather than in the separate fellowship room, and lowering the shelter capacity from 95 to 80.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Carla Evans and children Maia, 4, and Oscar, 2, find a moment of family fun at the family shelter that started at Eastminster Presbyterian Church and now hosted by Parkrose Community United Church of Christ. Frueh, who came to ministry late in life and expected he would serve as an assistant pastor at some quiet church when he was ordained in 2007 (at age 61), says the evolution of Parkrose Community “invigorates me.” But, he says, he knows well the story of Eastminster Presbyterian, and understands there is no certainty about the future of his church.

“What we’re trying to do is develop a sustainable ministry that doesn’t necessarily depend on a huge membership,” he says.

For two years, when Parkrose Community rented space, members held services in a fellowship hall, not a sanctuary. Now, many of the congregants, he says, “have been thrilled to have a real church.” That worries Frueh a little bit. There were lessons learned in the two years his congregants lived in exile that he would like them not to forget.

“The challenge for me has been to remind them that the church is not the building,” he says.

Brian Heron, pastor at the defunct Eastminster Presbyterian, has relocated to Yachats, where he is minister of another shrinking church going through its own process of mapping out a new future. In his mind, the story of the two churches on Northeast Halsey Street is very much a story of resurrection.

“This was a living (thing) out of that,” Heron says. “We had to let go. Eastminster as we knew it had to die, but there’s a whole new community there.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Pastor W.G. Hardy and Highland Christian Center in Northeast Portland decided to open church doors this winter. For the first time, day and night shelters are available for all homeless families in Portland.

Church's offering provides homeless families place to say during the day

Every winter, Human Solutions, the nonprofit responsible for overseeing Portland’s eastside shelters for families, runs a lottery system. Winners get shelter throughout the day, losers get a pat on the back and advice.

“We’ve always had to say, ‘Try the library, ride the bus, go to the public spaces,’ ” says Jean DeMaster, Human Solutions’ executive director.

Not this year. For the first time in many years, DeMaster says, this winter there should be enough overnight beds available for all the homeless families in Portland and indoor shelter for the daytime. And that good news was made possible because one homeless family approached Pastor W.G. Hardy of Highland Christian Center in Northeast Portland with nowhere to go.

Highland Christian has agreed that on nights when the overnight shelter at Parkrose Community United Church of Church has reached capacity, Highland Christian will house the overflow. In addition, Highland Christian will open its fellowship hall to serve as a day center for the homeless during the winter.

According to Hardy, last winter a family with four young children showed up at his church having found shelter for the night, hoping Highland Christian would provide them a place to stay during the day.

“They would do things like hang out at the library a little bit and then on a bus or a train, just to stay warm,” Hardy recalls.

Hardy says he took the matter up with his congregation, which led to discussions with Multnomah County officials, who told him there were about 70 families most days who weren’t getting any daytime help.

Starting somewhere around Jan. 1, Highland Christian, a church that serves a predominantly black community in Northeast Portland, will take in those families and provide space for them to stay inside during the day.

“I see it as a breakthrough,” Hardy says. “We need to have a paradigm shift in the Pacific Northwest and get past this chasm between church and state, where people think church is only about religion and faith.”

The good news extends beyond the fact that homeless families will have places to stay this winter. DeMaster says that an increase in county funding for rent assistance should help her organization and others find more permanent apartments for many of those homeless families.

The rent-subsidy money is there to help families who cannot pay their own rent, according to DeMaster, but the families have to begin the process by making appointments to check out available apartments and interview with landlords. That has been nearly impossible for families to do as long as they were homeless, DeMaster says.

With more of them inside and working with Human Solutions' housing specialist, their odds increase, she says.

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