Five years ago, members of neighboring congregations in Portland, OR – St. Johns Community Church (Disciples of Christ) and University Park United Methodist Church – began looking for ways to better serve people in their community without affordable housing.
They knew many people had been displaced from the neighborhood as rent prices skyrocketed. They knew this problem was expanding across Portland – the mayor declared a city housing emergency in 2015.
Amid leading this work, the two congregations “realized they had a lot in common,” remembers Co-Pastor Rev. Andy Goebel, including “a real love and passion for houseless neighbors. So, the congregations decided to merge into Portsmouth Union Church two years ago.
The two congregations had compatible identities, suggests Co-Pastor Rev. Julia Nielsen. “St. Johns had a great spirit of mercy work, developing relationships with houseless people. University Park had a background of advocacy work. The conversations around this project helped everyone grow in different ways, but together it’s been beautiful to see these things become one and see how mercy and justice can’t be separated.”
Members of the newly-formed congregation knew a long process to create affordable housing continued. They also knew they held a valuable piece of the solution: land. Over the last two years, the congregation has torn down one-third of their building, clearing a lot for eventually building a new structure to house 20 apartments.
As they waded through the bureaucratic side of the process – meeting with city officials and banks to work through construction permits, zoning laws, and funding options – the co-pastors knew they needed to enlist more help.
So, they shared their frustrations with Leaven Community Land and Housing Coalition, a local ecumenical group of faith leaders, and their colleagues responded with passionate offers of support. Since then, 11 faith communities have joined their work to share their properties with unhoused neighbors.
Ground hasn’t been broken yet, but this work continues. “It’s courageous, it’s tricky, but it is possible,” says Rev. Nielsen.
As Nielsen and Goebel navigate the complicated landscape of housing policies and building development, they’ve developed a process guide and technical manual, and offer it publicly as a resource for other faith communities in discernment about pursuing similar projects.
Together with their interfaith allies, Portsmouth Union continues to work with the city government, grant funders, and support service partners. As the work continues, Nielsen and Goebel give thanks for their determined congregation, and look forward to their shared future.
“This congregation has a real DNA set around risk taking,” Nielsen suggests. “This group has formed as one willing to take risks, and that feels permanent now. So, we’ll be more willing to experiment in future, to risk on behalf of our neighbors.”
Goebel agrees: “We’ve had people sign on to join this congregation knowing that this project was a part of our identity. They see a church doing this real work and say, ‘This is the kind of community I want to be a part of.’”