Jump directly to the content
Where Portland Church Planters Fear to Tread

Where Portland Church Planters Fear to Tread

MaryLou and Rusty Bonham, founders of Springwater, commit to the forgotten Lents neighborhood.

Portland's #14 bus from downtown takes you through neighborhoods flooded with all the caricatures of my city that you've heard about: bicycle shops catering to car-free businessmen and soccer-moms, food cart lots brimming with PBR-guzzling hipsters, and finally the trendy Hawthorne arts district. This is the Portland lampooned on TV.

Hawthorne and other "corridors of cool" are also where you find most of the city's church-planters. In age and technological preferences, they're not too different from their non-Christian counterparts in Portland: mostly smartphone-savvy, denominationally financed white men in their 30s.

But if you stay on the #14, past the neighborhoods we love to show out-of-towners, you roll through less tweetable areas. The #14 lands in the dilapidated commercial core of Lents neighborhood, severed down its middle by a six-lane interstate. On the books, Lents' businesses are used RV lots, dive bars, and the odd taqueria. Off the books, it's prostitution and meth dealing. Lents has its bright spots, but in popular sentiment they tend to be eclipsed by its junkyards and junkies.

You don't find too many church planters out here. Better known as Felony Flats, Lents is as forgotten by City Hall as it has been by church-planting networks. Each, I suspect, is hungry to fund efforts in more marketable neighborhoods.

But at Lents' southern margins, some Christians have broken the mold. In 2007, MaryLou and Rusty Bonham, empty-nesters at 54 and 56, moved from Kansas into Lents to plant a church that would, in time, transform a neighborhood with the gospel. "Our hope was to settle in a neighborhood … where we could join with others to practice incarnational love, and discover how Jesus would use this place as our 'school of conversion' into faithful kingdom living,¨ says the silver-haired MaryLou, a full-time counselor. "That meant committing to this place and these people for the long haul."

But why Lents? "We wanted to go where the cops are afraid to go," said Rusty. It turned out there aren't many places like that in Portland, a city with gangs but few ghettos. "All the same," adds Rusty, "the Bible says we meet Jesus in the marginalized. And Lents is definitely marginalized! Hopefully we didn't have too much of a messiah complex in choosing this place."


Rethinking the $3,000 Missions Trip

Rethinking the $3,000 Missions Trip

When I learned that kids in my city couldn't swim, I started to rethink how much I'd invested in overseas missions.
Furniture Fit for the Kingdom

Furniture Fit for the Kingdom

For Harrison Higgins, building beautiful furniture is not simply a steady job but a sacrament unto God.
Faith in a Fallen Empire

Faith in a Fallen Empire

Detroit's list of maladies is long. But some Christians' commitment to its renewal is longer.
'Daddy, Why Do People Steal from Us?'

'Daddy, Why Do People Steal from Us?'

How I answered the question would prove crucial to addressing racial divides in our D.C. neighborhood.

Comments Are Closed

Displaying 1–5 of 15 comments

Cora Potter

March 06, 2012  7:49am

Brandon, you of all members of the Springwater Community are the last person I would expect to use the kind of sensational hyperbole that I see in this article. It gives me a lot of pause and makes me question the direction that Springwater Community is taking lately- and Second Stories too.

Nick Christensen

March 05, 2012  11:10pm

"Brandon - You describe a bombed out hulk of a neighborhood that nobody would ever dare visit after dark. That's funny, because the neighborhood I live in is vibrant, friendly, safe and overcoming long-held and untrue stereotypes. It's no paradise, but it sure as hell isn't what you described."


November 22, 2011  4:55pm

Charitas, read what they said about messianism in context. They're not talking about guarding against Jesus as messiah, they are guarding against the urge to go into a place with a lot of issues and see ourselves as miniature messiahs to everything that hurts the neighborhood. This community is doing a lot of cool stuff and harboring a lot of conversations. It's sad to see the amount of vitriol expressed towards it in these comments. As somebody involved in a faith community a couple miles down the road, I'm glad to know those mentioned in this article and to see the work they are doing.

Jeffrey Allen

November 15, 2011  12:56am

Thank you for this article. It is good to remember that the church not only has a function toward those outside the fold, but it is charged with ministering to those who are being perfected in Christ's image - that is to say, those of us who profess faith in Christ. Springwater, and similar groups who are faithfully attending to the King's business, have helped me to draw near to Christ, to live within his grace, and to encourage me to participate in kingdom activity. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to experience God's grace through your faithfulness.

Diane Fowler

November 14, 2011  8:24pm

I was so delighted to read this article about Rusty & Marylou, our friends from 1979 in Goshen, Indiana, where we attended the same church and helped facilitate their wedding. I'm not at all surprised by their ministry to "the least of these," after knowing them as sincere followers of Christ way back then.


Make a contribution to help support the This Is Our City project and the nonprofit ministry Christianity Today.Learn more ...


RT @MissionYear: A great collection of articles from @ct_city @CTmagazine http://t.co/OLmjHvUIfr

In honor of Kim Newlen, a friend of @ct_city who died Saturday, we share our story of her battle with cancer: http://t.co/S3FGKhVDuo

RT @CTmagazine: After three years, hundreds of stories, thousands of readers, our tribute to This Is Our City: http://t.co/Gz35NhAdqc @ct_c2026

The top 10 stories of @editor @KatelynBeaty picks her favorites and reflects on lessons learned in 3 years: http://t.co/BQxYdaoyD9

"As a community we have to do a better job of rescuing these young people." The newest (and last) City video: http://t.co/vZL0cRKO7H #RVA