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Church finds home, takes in homeless


Seeking a permanent home since 2010 when they sold their church building and land, the Parkrose Community United Church of Christ congregation recently purchased the failing Eastminster Presbyterian Church and land in the Russell neighborhood. PCUCC parish continues many Eastminster ministries, including housing a Winter Family Shelter nightly, from November through April.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
The Winter Family Shelter opened to new faces and services in November. Shelter clients Tiffany Wright and her two-week old daughter Niyelli were at the opening along with city Commissioner Nick Fish and Highland Christian Center Reverend W.G. Hardy.
Pastor Don Frueh has been leading the Parkrose Community United Church of Christ since 2009.
Change is constant, often difficult. To cope, people seek comfort in family, friends and faith; they visit familiar places and stay occupied with hobbies.

When support structures themselves change, what do you do? What soothes? What helps when you must leave the home, the garden, and the church that embodied your way of life, and turn toward an uncertain future?

Two east Portland congregations, Eastminster Presbyterian Church and Parkrose Community United Church of Christ each faced and dealt with radical change recently.

After 90 years in Parkrose on Northeast Wygant Street at 106th Avenue, PCUCC's membership was shrinking. Non-native English speaking families had moved into the neighborhood, bringing their churches with them. In addition, after longtime pastor Charlie Ross' retirement, PCUCC had been worshiping under an interim pastor for three years while they contemplated how to restore the old church in the new environment.

The congregation knew they needed to change to remain viable, and ultimately decided that they needed a new home. Built in 1917, the church no longer served their purpose.

“The building became the focus for everything,” said church Moderator Jesse Goodling. “It was not ADA accessible: there were no elevators and lots of stairs and people are getting older; to redo a lot of things would require a lot of money and time. We didn't want the building to be the focus we wanted the programs to be the focus.” In the United Church of Christ, the Moderator is the lay leader of the congregation, or president of the church.

In January of 2009, PCUCC resolved to sell their property, hire a permanent pastor, and search for an interim worship location. Action followed swiftly. That September, the church hired Pastor Don Frueh. Three months later, they received an offer on the property, and then in April 2010, the congregation moved to Miller Hall on the Parkrose United Methodist Church campus in Parkrose Heights, where they held services for just over two years.

Frueh had firsthand experience in coping with late life changes. Though raised in the church as the son of a choir director who followed his mother's footsteps to become an organist and choir director himself, Frueh only stepped up to the pulpit after many years in other careers, eventually graduating seminary school in 2006 at the age of 60. After he served two years as an associate pastor in Salem, members of the PCUCC search committee urged him to apply.

“When Don's name came up and we met him we really connected. Everyone felt it right away,” said Moderator Goodling.

During its time at Miller Hall, PCUCC “spent two years looking at who we were and how we can approach being a church differently. It was an opportunity to catch our breath and listen to what God was calling us to do and how to discern how we are called into the community,” said Frueh.

Longtime PCUCC member Barbara Simpson, who served on the search and revitalization committees said, “Parkrose is almost 100 years old and for that entire century we have . . . served this area. It is in our blood, and we felt that in order to [serve the community] effectively we . . . needed to make some big changes.”

That day came on July 1, when the sign outside the church, which had long displayed the name Eastminster Presbyterian, changed to Parkrose Community United Church of Christ.

“Brian [Heron, Eastminster pastor] and I had lunch one day a year ago in March [2011],” said Frueh, “They were in the process of dying and they wanted to leave a legacy in the community and the more we talked the more I said 'we are the ones that can do that for you.' Some of us met for awhile, at first just every couple weeks or once a month, just to get acquainted, and eventually we started doing some adult study together and then we worshipped together once a month and then every other week and then it all just came together.”

Today the large parking lot on Halsey Street has a lot more cars on Sundays, and not all new ones.

Church withers away
Meanwhile, Eastminster Presbyterian Church, in the Russell neighborhood at Northeast 125th Avenue and Halsey Street also struggled with the challenges of a dwindling, aging congregation. However, with only about half the congregation of PCUCC and an average age of 80, Eastminster Presbyterian's situation had become dire.

The same year PCUCC passed their three-step plan, the EPC Session (church elders) conceded that their revitalization efforts fell short, and approached the congregation with the prospect that the church had little time left. They met resistance. The congregation did not want to close, and rejected the option of vacating their property in order to merge with another church.

“We tried to grow and made attempts at a number of things,” said EPC member Florence Lersch. “We realized this is not working and that was when we changed our minds and redirected our energy to seeing what we can leave the community, just like a husband and wife leaving their legacy to their children . . .”

While PCUCC organized revitalization and search committees, the Eastminster Session focused on what their Reverend Brian Heron described as “establishing a legacy on the site so that our commitment to service, compassion, and open religious dialogue would remain.”

With five classrooms used only two days a week, and two acres of empty land, Eastminster members maximized their resources. In 2010, they offered three spare classrooms to the poverty relief nonprofit Human Solutions for the establishment of a seasonal shelter where homeless families can warm themselves on winter nights. Last year, when shelter seekers exceeded capacity, the Eastminster opened the doors to their Fellowship Hall, welcoming 102 people out of the cold.

The church also collaborated with nonprofit Grow Portland to create a 100-plot community garden on their unused land. Portland Rescue Mission, which operates the nearby women's shelter Shepherd's Door at 13207 N.E. Halsey St., has two double plots of 15 by 30 feet each in the Eastminster garden, where hundreds of pounds of vegetables have been harvested and served to the hungry at the mission's multiple locations. Parishioners have also donated the abundance from the community garden to East County's community charity SnowCap and to Human Solutions.

Heron, who is experienced in hospice care and taught grief theory to foster parents, applied his expertise to Eastminster. He wrote in an opinion piece published in The Portland Tribune on Sept. 19, “I have been privileged in the past six years to have served a church that acknowledged that its aging and dwindling membership meant that it had limited time. This church gave up praying for a miracle and spent its final years putting in place a legacy of its Christian ministry.”

“It used to be that our churches talked about how to revitalize themselves like jump-starting a car that had a dead battery,” he continued. “Many of us believe that the narrative of our time is not revitalization, but the time-honored story of death and resurrection.”

Eastminster Presbyterian Church did finally close on June 30. However, it did not shut anyone out, and instead, gave new life to PCUCC.

Eastminster dies, congregation stays
“A majority of the (EPC) people have stayed at the church,” said Lersch. “They are familiar with the building, used to driving there every Sunday. Because at their age change is hard, they are very happy sitting in the same pew. The other church has been very welcoming to us. The pastor has been conscious of people who have been having a harder time than others.”

“We have not denied them the feeling that it is really difficult, it is different, but neither did we try to change our concept of what it means to be a church just to accommodate,” said Frueh. “For someone in their 80s to have to endure that change is very difficult but I think that we have really tried to be welcoming and affirming of their grief and at the same time encouraging participation.”

He also reiterated that, while the former Eastminster congregants attend PCUCC services and are voting members of the congregation, the two churches did not merge, nor have the Eastminster members indicated that they wish to join the United Church of Christ. “It really isn't a merger because Eastminster closed and passed the torch of their legacy on to us and they figured that we would be the best ones to carry that legacy forward,” he said.

On presenting their offer to buy the property, PCUCC drafted a covenant for the Presbytery of the Cascades, the regional head of the Presbyterian Church and owner of the building, stating how much they could afford to spend on purchasing the property and remain stable as a church. This covenant also included a commitment to continue the church's existing programs of service to the community in order to preserve the Eastminster legacy that both congregations agreed has lasting value.

Frueh concurred with Heron's assessment that the church itself needed to change to remain pertinent. “So we are finding new ways to be a church that is not the same old Sunday worship thing,” he said. “It is about having a shelter or sponsoring a community garden, having those kinds of ministries that reach out beyond it. A project that we are seriously looking at is having a community kitchen. So it is not about closing us in and being a tight knit community, it is about sharing what we've got.”

PCUCC picks up Eastminster ministries
“From the very beginning, the people at the Parkrose Community United Church of Christ embraced the Winter Family Shelter just as the people from Eastminster Presbyterian had,” said Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions. “We were very relieved.”

Though PCUCC needed to repurpose one of the winter shelter spaces back to a Sunday school youth room, the church opened up Fellowship Hall to shelter seekers on a nightly basis, and have added a weekly soup Tuesday meal to their support services in addition to the large monthly dinner they provided last year.

“With the use of the Fellowship Hall, there will be more room at the Winter Family Shelter for children's activities and some of the United Church of Christ Church members are interested in volunteering for that,” said DeMaster. “Human Solutions greatly enjoyed working with the Eastminster Presbyterian Church over the last two years. And we are looking forward to working with the members of the Parkrose Community United Church of Christ just as much.”

“I think the place is going to grow once these kinds of things get out in the community,” said Frueh. “We really want to be a community center, but we want to make sure that we can get through this transition period so that we can provide services in the community and partner with other agencies.”

Jean Zondervan, community gardens director for Grow Portland commented, “The church transition has not made any notable changes within the garden. Clay Osburn, an Eastminster gardener and a key member of the Parkrose Community United Church of Christ's Farm to Table group, has brought great energy to the garden and raised an astonishing variety of tomatoes, 32 to be exact. We look forward to seeing how Parkrose Community United Church of Christ will develop the church building and land surrounding the garden.”

Other community programs sponsored by the church include the Movies in Meaning group started by Heron in which attendees go to a film together and discuss the meaning afterwards during dinner, and PCUCC's 'Making a Village' peace day camp, where community children learn conflict resolutions skills in a fun summer camp format. Both are open to anyone who wishes to attend. The congregation also welcomes the community to use the basketball hoop on the property for cross-generational entertainment.

The continuity and potential for new developments would make any parent proud. “It has been very exciting for us to watch the . . . legacy continue and grow,” said Lersch.

“I think it's been one of the healthiest things we have ever done,” said Simpson, “People feel unburdened a little bit.”

Parkrose Community
United Church of Christ
Where: 12505 N.E. Halsey St.
Worship: 10 a.m. Sundays
Mail: P.O. Box 30063
Port., OR 97294
Information: 503-253-5457
Heron, who moved on to the Yachats Community Presbyterian Church commented, “I am both highly pleased and sad all at the same time. I fell in love with the people of Eastminster and leaving in order for them to continue in a new form was personally difficult for me. Yet, at the same time, I am so proud of them and the work I did there. Rather than just a sad story of a church closing, the ministry has remained and the members are at the same building together in a new community. I don't think it could have turned out much better given the circumstances.”

Being inclusive is important to Frueh, “We are open and affirming and that is really important to us,” he said. “It is not just about gay and lesbian folks, it is about everybody being welcome in the church. The UCC has a saying that we say every Sunday: 'no matter who you are or where you are in life's journey you are welcome here.' This group really means that.”

Next year marks PCUCC's 100th anniversary, and although most of those years took place on Wygant Street, the new location will not diminish its significance. In an age where church attendance expects a steady decline, the church on Halsey Street enters its next century with optimism.
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