INSIDE THE LARGE, MODERN CHAPEL of newly built and renamed Emmanuel Church near the intersection of N Alberta Street and I-5, everyone is singing. Not some solemn hymnal, but full-throated gospel. A five-piece band spins a swinging bluesy spell, a woman collapses in tears on the altar steps, and the others in the congregation, more than 150 people strong, holler and sing along.
The music slows as Bishop C. T. Wells, in a gray suit with cuff links, his shaved head reflecting the stage lighting, starts to speak from the edge of the altar. “I was driving out to East thinking, ‘What do we need to purge?’” he recounts, referring to a trip to Emmanuel’s small satellite church in Gresham. “I was looking at the pine trees, and a man was on a ladder chopping off the old growth—those things that worked but no longer work.” His voice begins to boom. “Hanging and brown, the old growth was obscuring the new.”
“Our mind and our heart are pretty well aligned as they relate to equity. Now it takes our action. I am a slave to hope that it will happen.”
—Pastor Matt Hennessee
In 2009, Wells surveyed the congregation and discovered only 5 percent remained within walking distance of the church’s location—a distant cry from the majority that long lived close to the church his father founded, originally on N Mississippi Avenue, in 1965. The ever-lengthening commutes, he says, wear heavily on church participation, meaning that many people only come in for service and stop attending other events or activities like choir rehearsal. But where the smaller houses of worship often ferry their flocks back in, Emmanuel Church is stretching its services eastward to a satellite it opened in 2009, little more than a storefront sandwiched between the Lucky Spot lotto and deli and a Supercuts in a half-empty strip mall at SE 148th Avenue and Stark Street. The energy is much more subdued: no band, no choir, only two dozen congregants. Even with the satellite, the church has had a difficult time reaching the dispersed black population.
Emmanuel Church isn’t the only church to take major steps to adapt to its changing community. Mt Olivet Baptist Church, one of Portland’s oldest and biggest black churches, now in Portsmouth, also holds a service at Southridge High School in Beaverton that’s packed with Nike and tech professionals. Other churches like Victory Outreach followed Highland Christian Center’s lead and simply moved east. The smaller churches, meantime, have expanded their van transportation services, set up regional Bible studies in people’s homes, and tried to provide many services that used to come from other institutions, like legal and financial classes.
For many of the remaining congregants, the church is their central, if not only, connection to the black community. “It’s the only thing that keeps me being able to endure that I’ve lost my car, I’ve lost my home, I’ve pretty much lost everything,” explains Highland van driver Roberta Tyler, who now lives in a ministry-run home in Vancouver and says weekly trips to Highland are her only interaction with the community she grew up in since the Vanport flood. “It’s my foundation.”
But for some churches, it’s a shaky foundation at best. “The churches are holding on to the edge of the cliff by their fingertips,” says Darrell Millner, a historian in PSU’s Black Studies Department, “better than any other black institution, but I think that’s only a reflection of how strong they used to be.”
This is not the first time Albina has witnessed a major shift in demographics. Before African Americans were funneled into the area by discriminatory real estate practices after World War II, it housed mostly northern Europeans. Many of the churches that are now predominantly African American were white Lutheran or Methodist then. Some have already converted back to predominantly white establishments, though hardly new churches. Emmanuel Church’s original storefront was most recently a bike shop, Emmanuel Church of God in Christ United’s first building has become N Mississippi Avenue’s German-themed beer bar Prost, and the Highland Christian Center’s Alberta Street building was razed, rebuilt, and currently houses the coffee boutique Barista and an Umpqua Bank branch.
Districts of cities like Washington, DC, and San Francisco are going through similar cycles, from white to black to white again. Beyond the difference of scale, however, Portland also seems to differ in how we choose to remember our history. Or don’t, to be more accurate. Neighborhoods like U Street in DC or Harlem in New York are hip and desirable because of their multicultural environments and black history. Real estate agents originally sold Alberta as Portland’s multicultural neighborhood, but N Williams Avenue, once the swinging jazz and commerce heart of black Portland—Jumptown it was called—exhibits total amnesia to its history.
“I don’t think people who are seeking the vaunted Portlandia lifestyle are always consciously excluding people of color from their vision of ‘the good life,’” says PSU’s Lisa Bates, associate professor of urban studies and planning, “but that vision certainly does not explicitly include people of color or racial diversity as a key feature.”
Not so for the churches that have remained in Albina, many of them showing a generosity and openness to newcomers, even when it hasn’t been returned. The pastors firmly state that their churches should be viewed as multicultural, not black, churches. “I don’t look to see if it’s dominant black or white—those are things that have blinded us,” says Emmanuel Church of God in Christ United’s Bishop Pollard. “We’re a community of a lot of different people with a lot of different beliefs, and my job is to affect my community for the Kingdom of God.”