Churches are rediscovering their neighborhoods as fertile mission fields, and they're forging dynamic connections with community leaders and organizations. An example is happening in Lents, an under-served neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.
Neighbors in the numbers
If Portland conjures up images of vegan food carts, fixed gear bikes, and activist hipsters, pause for a moment. Lents is in the rough part of the city's Eastside, described by Willamette Week as "a landscape of chain link and surface parking … so devoid of landmarks, public spaces and commercial centers that some residents simply call it The Numbers."
The once independent community was absorbed by the expanding city, and eventually halved by an unpopular interstate freeway, and is now a high density multiethnic neighborhood (45 languages are spoken in a local elementary school). Infrastructure is poor, crime is high, and nobody seemed to care. At least nobody used to.
Now community partnerships are springing up between Lents's churches and the neighborhood. Facilitating these connections is Second Stories, a ministry based in Lents and dedicated to "transforming neighborhoods by equipping churches to create community partnerships."
Clark Blakeman, founder of Second Stories, is a veteran pastor with a passion for neighborhood outreach. Blakeman trains local Christians in both theology and savvy community development theory. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is an established model that Blakeman's team presents as a practical, gospel-oriented model for local action. He encourages individuals and churches to partner with their neighbors to do two things: (1) identify the positive aspects of their neighborhood (their assets), and (2) create partnerships in the community to capitalize on those assets.
So far, people from more than 30 churches have participated in the training.
Blakeman sees the interest as a return to the days when community networking was the primary form of social service. "Neighbors used to turn to neighbors for help," he says. "Today, they turn increasingly to professionals who, though useful in acute cases of need, are rarely able to offer long-term solutions."
In Lents, the list of community assets seemed rather short at the beginning. Strong points included multi-use trails, Kelly Elementary School, the Lents Neighborhood Association, and Operation Nightwatch (a homeless ministry). But the biggest assets of Lents are the churches committed to caring for their neighbors.
With a robust volunteer base and shared mission, Lents's churches are well positioned to reach beyond their walls.
A key moment in the process was a one-day event. Eight churches and 30 social service agencies partnered to put on Compassion SE. The event offered a range of services, from emergency dental procedures and medical exams to pet vaccines.
The energy and connections fostered that day brought local churches together for ongoing partnership. According to Blakeman, it's essential to create relationships and to begin changing the mindset of local services from that of "service provider" to that of a partner with the wider community.
"Rather than being simply need-meeters, which tends to disempower people," Blakeman says, "we need to be facilitators of engagement." This philosophy, paired with grounded theology, is transforming Lents and the people who call it home.
Operation Nightwatch is crucial to the mission of relationship-building. In a charity culture that frequently sees the homeless as so many meals, beds, or even liabilities, believers in Lents are learning to see them as people.