Portland churches reach out in variety of ways to needy
11/24/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: Photos are available. For related coverage, see UMNS stories #568-570.
By Tim Tanton
PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS) - The Rev. Brenda Sene recalls the first time she and her daughter worked in the homeless shelter at First United Methodist Church.
Her daughter, 9 years old at the time, was surprised at the people she met. "Mom," she said, "those kids, they're just like me."
Sene, associate pastor at the church, emphasizes that anyone can become impoverished or even homeless. Fellow church members who seem affluent can be on the verge of destitution.
"We have people who are on the edge," Sene says. Many of them are former high-tech workers who have been jobless for more than a year. They still have homes but are struggling to get by.
As in most U.S. cities, the church community actively ministers to those in need as well as to the homeless. United Methodist churches host feeding programs, offer shelter, and provide other assistance.
The poor are quiet, says Tani Draper, lay leader at Vermont Hills United Methodist Church. "It's amazing that all of this (poverty) is right here in our community, and until you start to ask, you just really don't know what the needs are."
"They have no advocates other than us," adds the Rev. Chuck Cooper, Vermont Hills pastor. "They have no political clout whatsoever."
Vermont Hills members adopted a nearby elementary school with a high percentage of children living at or below the poverty line. The church also provided a helping hand to a family that had struggled with poverty and health problems. Church Youth Director Jenna McDorman led her young people in helping clean the family's home as a service project, and the mother expressed her thanks afterward.
But, says McDorman, "I don't think she felt nearly as good as the rest of us felt."
First Church, on the edge of downtown Portland, hosts an ecumenical shelter Nov. 1-May 1, where homeless families receive a meal each night. Volunteers give the parents a break by working with the children on homework, games, arts and crafts.
"We've been very careful not to tie coming to church with the shelter," Sene says. Some homeless people do attend services and even participate in Sunday school.
Young people from First Church have handed out sandwiches to homeless people downtown. For about 20 families in less-obvious need, the congregation has bought gift certificates to help with financial stresses around Thanksgiving. Counseling services also are provided through the church.
Across town, at Sunnyside United Methodist Church, 100 or more needy people gather each Wednesday for dinner, served by members from a variety of Christian traditions. Pat Schwiebert, with Metanoia Peace Community United Methodist Church, has coordinated the program for 22 years and offers haircuts after each meal.
"It's very important to the community that they have a place people can come to for a free meal," says Kevin Ervin, a guest at one of the recent dinners. Though he has a home, he says he knows what it's like to be homeless, and many of his buddies with roofs over their heads simply don't have enough money for food.
Some people, like Johanna Studer, are there as much for the company as the food. Studer, 92, is the only surviving member of her family. "You talk to people, and you don't get lonely," she explains.
Barry Sutton has been living in a shelter after being homeless for 20 years. He gets around town by bike, spends time at a Buddhist temple as well as a United Methodist church, and always carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Though he might appear to be on the margins of society, he is more plugged in to current events than many, and he has strong feelings about religion and justice.
"What is really important," he says, "is what religious faith can do for the society around us." # # # *Tanton is United Methodist News Service's managing editor.