BY BRIAN LIBBY
As I arrived at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church on a recent weekday morning, the neighborhood seemed full of energy as well as change.
I'd been a few minutes early for a tour of the church, so I popped into get coffee at the busy New Seasons Market two blocks north of the church, on Fremont Street, which is surrounded by new development such as the One North and Radiator office buildings. To the southwest I could see the newish Randall Children's Hospital. Just across Fargo Street, smoke was already wafting from barbecue outpost The People's Pig, also fairly new to that location. The sound of construction hammers and saws could also be heard from a nearby apartment building project.
If this Albina area of North and Northeast Portland has transformed over the past decade, that's all the more reason to double down on preserving its traditional landmarks and their occupants. Which is why one couldn't help but greet with pleasure the listing of the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church on the National Register of Historic Places.
After all, not only was this church once the largest African-American congregation in the Pacific Northwest, and not only has it long been a cornerstone of Portland's African American community, but it is also the place where one of the 20th century's greatest and most important leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., spoke on his lone trip to Portland.
The congregation calling Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church home began in humbler confines. Thousands of African Americans had come to the Pacific Northwest during World War II to work in the Kaiser shipyards, and the congregation first met and formed in a shipyard worker’s housing project in Vancouver, Washington called Burton Homes.
But when the war ended in 1945, the housing complex was shut down and the congregation moved to a nearby community center called Bagley Downs. Within a year it closed too, and the congregation occupied a Masonic temple at North Russell Street and Rodney Avenue. But the number of worshippers kept swelling, causing the church in 1947 to take possession of a condemned apartment building at Vancouver Avenue and Hancock Street, with parishioners volunteering to rebuild the structure over three months.
Soon the congregation had its hands full in another way: in 1948, the Vanport flood displaced about 18,000 residents, many of them African-American, including many Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church members. With little assistance from local, state or federal government, congregation members helped each other, and received assistance from two national Baptist organizations.
And the congregation, particularly after a lot of its members moved south from Vanport, continued to grow, which in 1951 prompted one last move: to its current home at 3138 Vancouver Avenue.
The building was first constructed in 1909 from a design by Richard H. Martin, an English-born longtime Portland architect whose firm designed local landmarks like the First Regiment Armory Annex (now the Gerding Theater) in 1891, the Dekum Building in 1892, and the Scottish Rite Temple in 1902. This church was originally the Central Methodist Episcopal Church, serving a congregation of many Scandinavian immigrants who called Albina home in the early part of the century. The church building was put up for sale in 1951 after the CMEC decided to merge with another congregation, perhaps in part responding to the neighborhood's demographic change.
With its twin spires and an interior featuring hand-carved wooden pews and stained glass from the legendary Povey Brothers Studio, this gothic revival style church was a more majestic home than Vancouver Avenue First Baptist's congregation had ever known. And with room for 600 parishioners, it would serve its ever-growing congregation.
Over the ensuing years this neighborhood would continue to change drastically. Massive projects like Emmanuel Hospital, Memorial Coliseum and Interstate 5 cut significantly into the mostly African American neighborhoods near the church, especially to the west and south. Institutional racism also kept much of the neighborhood from regenerating. But the VAFBC kept on growing, with an additional expansion begun in 1955 and completed in 1958. These expansions are still visible inside the church.
As the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s blossomed, naturally the congregation was involved, with the church strengthening its ties with organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban league. A highlight was the visit to Portland by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961. After attending an Equal Opportunity Day celebration at Portland State University, he delivered a sermon at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church . In the ensuing years, the church became active in voter-registration drives, which substantially increased the number of local African Americans registered to vote. The church also became a center of protest, such as a 1963 demonstration outside its confines after the assassination of Medgar Evers. In 1962, the church led a successful boycott of Fred Meyer stores to protest its refusal to hire black clerks. Another demonstration in 1963 was held outside the church after four young African-American girls were murdered in Birmingham. When King was assassinated in 1968, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist hosted a memorial service that included remarks from then-mayor Terry Shrunk and Oregon governor Tom McCall. In subsequent years, the church has hosted prominent leaders like California governor Jerry Brown in 1976 (while he was running for president), Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1983, and civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy in 1987.
Although many years ago I worked within a couple blocks of the church, last week was my fist glimpse inside, with a tour led by Raymond Burell, the church's historian and author of Vancouver Avenue: Yesterday, Today and Forever (Arnica Publishing), a history of the church.
I arrived a little early, taking time to walk around the building and take in the view from across Vancouver. Looking at the wood-framed structure with corrugated metal siding and brick veneer from outside, it seemed pretty clear that the church has been added onto and altered numerous times, with its exterior stairway clogging the front of the building.
Yet particularly in light of all the shiny condo and apartment buildings nearby these days, I came to think of this altered look to the building as a kind of badge of honor: proof that the church, from its beginnings as the Scandinavian immigrants' Methodist church and continuing from its rebirth as the VAFBC and subsequent expansions, as host and witness to the tumultuous times of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era, continuing through the decades with the transformation of nearly everything around it.
The way that this building has been altered numerous times has, at least in my mind, become its aesthetic more than any of the historical cues or the materials add up to. Sometimes the miles you see on a person, or a building, can be more beautiful than a perfect or expensively put together pretty face. The physical structure at Vancouver and Fargo isn't a conventionally beautiful building, and yet I sincerely see beauty there.
Moving inside, I was struck by a kind of dichotomy to the interiors. On one hand, it had the elegant old pews and the gorgeous Povey Brothers stained glass. (The Poveys were known as the "Tiffany of the Northwest" and their work can be seen at the Pittock Mansion and several other local landmarks.) On the other hand, it had fluorescent lights on the ceiling (although admittedly there were also the original light fixtures for the church, suspended pendant lights of warm colored glass and brass). What I enjoyed about the visit to Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, though, was the sense that I was visiting a place that had really mattered to people for generations, and had provided a kind of spiritual foundation to its parishioners as well as a community anchor.
Much has been made of the fact that this area of close-in North and Northeast Portland is not, or not as predominantly, an African American enclave as it once was. Williams Avenue, which is named for longtime Vancouver Avenue First Baptist pastor O.B. Williams, is known more for its stream of bike commuters and its wave of new development these days, a veritable poster child for gentrification and high-density development. Many or perhaps a majority of its new residents over the past decade have been Caucasians. There have even been efforts in the neighborhood, amidst this change, to create what's called a Soul District stretching from Interstate Avenue past Martin Luther King Boulevard in North and Northeast (including the land that VAFBC belongs to) that would combine public and private resources to encourage a diversity of businesses and business owners.
I can't tell you if neighborhoods that have historically been home to one culture should remain that way, or if demographics are always inevitably fluid. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between, where amid that inevitable fluidity we come to look upon a select few institutions and places in the built environment to both tell the story of what came before and keep that history alive and relevant in perpetuity (or as close as we can get). Albina may not be home to a lot of Scandinavian immigrants, for example, but there ought to be some evidence and narrative of that history.
That notion is perhaps even more important when it comes to the city's African American history and North/Northeast Portland's collection of churches. Sadly, Portland and Oregon are not as diverse as many (or most) other parts of the country, which means we have all the more collective responsibility to nurture and listen to the minority voices this place does have. Whether it's through a Soul District that encourages and empowers people today, or by protecting our historic building fabric with measures such as National Register listings for VAFBC and perhaps some of the other churches dotting North and Northeast (be they continuing as ecclesiastical or preserved for other uses), we can't stop change, but we can work to assure that change isn't necessarily an outright flip from past to present so much as a continuing narrative thread.
I also found a degree of solace visiting this traditionally African American church amidst a time of national crisis. In July a Pew Research Center poll found that about 78 percent of white evangelical voters favor Donald Trump and his fascist presidential campaign, perhaps the most un-Christian of any major-party candidacy in American history. My visit to Vancouver Avenue First Baptist had nothing to do with politics or liberalism versus conservatism. In a way, it didn't even have much to do with religion at all. It was just a desire to take a peak inside this local institution that had been named to the National Register. Even so, what I had appreciated visiting was the chance to learn about the people who founded, built, expanded and maintained this church (both physically and socially) over the generations, much of it despite an onslaught of societal and institutional bigotry; by necessity, most African American churches are part of their communities' campaigns for social justice. If there is a dark cloud forming over the United States, maybe there is something to learn in such perseverance, even for those of us who don't attend church.