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Big crowd fondly remembers Portland founder of Old Town cafe that serves the poor.

COURTESY PHOTO: METROEAST COMMUNITY MEDIA/EMILY VIDAL  - Delayed since 2020 by the pandemic, friends held a memorial service for Portland homeless advocate and Sisters of the Road Cafe co-founder Genny Nelson at Temple Beth Israel on July 27.

If they could give her six stars, they would. Friends of Genevieve "Genny" Nelson, co-founder of the famous cafe in Old Town, Sisters of the Road, gave her an emotional send-off on Wednesday, July 27, two years after her death.

Over 100 people gathered in an annex of Temple Beth Israel in Northwest Portland to tell stories and remember a woman known for her compassion toward the homeless. Nelson founded the cafe as a safe space where anyone could get a meal for $1.25, or work an hour to pay for four meals.

But as her friends attested, Nelson was the embodiment of high principles in action, combining, love with a can-do attitude. Sisters of the Road is not merely a café, it is ground zero in Portland for a movement.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALIVAN - Delayed since 2020 by the pandemic, friends held a memorial service for Portland homeless advocate and Sisters of the Road Cafe co-founder Genny Nelson at Temple Beth Israel on July 27.

Nelson's daughter, Joanna Trotter, said Nelson engaged in five habits: anti-oppression, dining with dignity, gentle personalism, nonviolence and systemic change. Nelson dealt with a street bully the same way she dealt with the most withdrawn homeless person, by listening to them and showing respect. She was endlessly compassionate: "My mother died of heart failure, but her heart never failed," said Trotter, her voice catching.

Not only did her mom start a nonprofit in her 20s, she also adopted two kids as a single woman at the same time. Joanna's brother, Dorian Barnhart, also came up to pay tribute to his mother, saying, "My mom taught me to love, and to lead by example, and with patience and grace."

COURTESY PHOTO: GENNY NELSON/SISTERS OF THE ROAD CAFE - Portland homeless advocate and Sisters of the Road Cafe co-founder Genny Nelson

Songs played on the sound system included "Shelter from the Storm" and "Forever Young" by Bob Dylan, as well as local folk singer Casey Neill's song "Sisters of the Road," which is set in a down-at-the heels Old Town that has barely changed in decades.

Maggie Mackenzie, a yoga teacher who studied Engaged Buddhism with Thich Nhat Hahn (one of Nelson's influences) said she only met Nelson in 2020 when Nelson took up yoga, despite using a cane. "I taught her to inhale love and exhale love into the world. That was her language," Mackenzie said.

Even when yoga devolved to online classes because of the pandemic, the two kept talking, especially about "how to move this country toward justice."

COURTESY PHOTO: SISTERS OF THE ROAD CAFE - Friends of Genevieve Genny Nelson, co-founder of Sisters of the Road, the famed cafe in Old Town, gave her an emotional send-off on Wednesday, July 27.

Chiquita Rollins joined a breakfast club for women who ran nonprofits, to give each other support, in 1992, and invited Nelson. It felt like a social club, with hiking trips at Black Butte and the coast, and over 30 years they shared their life experiences.

"She was all about integrity, humility and accountability," Rollins said. "Part of accountability for Genny was that if you are in conflict with someone, you talk to them in person."

Jill Fuglister, for two and a half years a staff member of Sisters of the Road, said "I immediately felt the welcoming vibe in the cafe. If love could be in the form of a place it would be the Sisters of the Road cafe."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALIVAN - The room was still filling at the memorial service for Portland homeless advocate and Sisters of the Road Cafe co-founder Genny Nelson. Her five principles were: anti-oppression, dining with dignity, gentle personalism, nonviolence and systemic change.

Living her values

Nelson was known for using phrases such as "far out" and "can I put a bug in your ear," but her best-known slogan to live by was "Nobody has a monopoly on the truth."

"She taught me what social justice values aligned with leadership is, and the power of community organizing, where the people closest to the problem are also closest to the solution," Fuglister said. Nelson was a follower of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, in which Christians were asked to live their values.

Nelson's friend Bob Durston read out the words of the absent Alberta "Bert" Seierstad, a longtime sisters volunteer, board member and friend of Nelson. Seierstad talked of giving Nelson rides, because she didn't have a car, and then talking in the driveway until the windows fogged up. "Nothing was going on but good old authentic relation-making," Seierstad said. Nelson's legacy would be her approach to everyone, including the less fortunate: "She wanted to feel what they felt."

No gathering of nonprofit folks can end without a request, and this one was no exception. Durston announced they were accepting donations for a new scholarship in Nelson's name in the School of Social Work at Portland State University.

Afterward attendees were served Sisters of the Road Cafe's classic meal — beans, rice and cornbread.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran was at the memorial. She did not know Nelson but knew of her work and influence.

"She was a caring, compassionate soul who had a vision for how people could be supported in our community, and she turned that vision into reality," Meieran told Pamplin Media Group.

"For so many in our community who have not felt they have a place to belong, it provided belonging and opportunity to be served. That legacy is just beautiful, so I'm here today to honor her," she said.

Asked if the metro region could use more nonprofit cafes to feed the poor and unhoused, Meieran said yes.

"I feel that that concept truly could be expanded upon because there's so much potential and we lose sight of how foundational community is for developing a sense of self and belonging," she said. Local government could help. "The drive has to come from community. Local government, our role, is to facilitate and support and help cut through the red tape to turn these visions into reality."


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