OREGONIAN (September 11, 2010) – Rivergate Community Church seemed to be losing its way.
As many Baptist founders who cleared the poison oak and built the church after World War II passed on, membership dwindled to a couple dozen in the early 2000s. The church, which owned most of a city block, was as quiet a place as one could find along North Portland’s Lombard Street.
When the Rev. Carren Woods arrived in 2001, the church played scant role in the community around it. Members came, worshipped behind closed doors and returned home.
Today, the block is anything but quiet. Hammers slam galvanized nails. Whining circular blades spray sawdust. Muscles strain against lumber as walls rise into right angles.
In the small church’s backyard, once a wooded lot used for church parking and as an unofficial park, six homes have been rising from the ground since July and should be move-in ready in the spring. Six more will be built by the end of next year.
The homes making up Habitat for Humanity’s Rivergate Commons project are fulfilling the dreams of the dozen low-income families who will buy them.
Along the way, those homes might also have saved Rivergate Community Church.
For years, founders believed the back lot would be their salvation by giving them room for expansion to serve a growing church. Instead, the congregation shrank, and blueprints of grandeur gathered dust.
To make matters worse, the original church building was a problem. People who couldn’t walk well needed help up six steps into the sanctuary and down 16 steps to the only restrooms and to Bennett Hall, which contains the main kitchen and seating for gatherings.
Such barriers further isolated the church. Woods felt the congregation needed a lift — figuratively, but also literally. An electric lift would give visitors with disabilities full access to the building, allowing it to become a community gathering spot in North Portland.
Without the money for a lift, the pastor looked behind the church to the one thing of real value they had: land. Church leaders at first were reluctant, but everyone got behind an eventual plan to sell part of their block to Habitat for Humanity for $375,000 — nearly a quarter million less than its market value at the time, Woods said.
“We’re excited that our small little church will help make affordable homes for 12 families,” she said. “For us, it’s all about serving the community.”
The deal also worked well for the nondenominational Christian home-building organization.
“We aren’t able to touch much property in North and Northeast Portland” because of rising property values in those areas, said Steve Messinetti, executive director of the Portland/Metro East chapter of Habitat for Humanity. “It was a great opportunity in that sense.”
The discounted price and long repayment plan from the church, plus a big grant from the city, allowed the purchase. Volunteers do much of the labor.
Plenty of working families long to own a home in North Portland but can’t afford it without help, Messinetti said. “The impact for these families is not just an affordable home but the stability that brings.”
The Bongas are one such family.
“Beautiful,” said a beaming Mekuria “Mike” Bonga on a recent afternoon, outside the foundation of the home he will share with his wife and two young sons. “(I have) no words to tell how we are happy.”
The Ethiopian immigrant had just put in a few of the 500 “sweat equity” hours his family will contribute to secure a zero-interest loan to buy a home in one of Rivergate Commons’ four triplex buildings.
Inside Rivergate Community Church on the same day, Terry Fero, a church member for 19 years, takes a break from making potato salad and other dishes to offer a spin on the year-old lift.
“We’ve been saving and scrimping for a number of years to get it, and then along came Habitat for Humanity,” said Fero, who is among Rivergate members who prepares food in Bennett Hall for special building days and celebrations as the Habitat homes rise behind the church. “It brings a sense of optimism.”
Besides the lift, the church spent some of the first payment, which it received in April 2009, on building upgrades and a community garden. Already, two other small churches use the building and it has hosted various functions.
Woods, the lead pastor, said the church will use the remainder of the sale money to secure its own future while better serving the community in ways they haven’t yet decided.
Church membership has rebounded to 62 active people, although most of that growth occurred before the lift was installed. But this project was never about increasing the size of the congregation. Instead, it was about finding ways for a small church to make a bigger difference.
“We’re not going to go back to being a church with our doors closed,” Woods said. “I think we’re just beginning to see how this is all going to unfold.”
— Eric Apalategui, Special to The Oregonian