Welcoming our Elders Home, at St. Philip the Deacon

Welcoming our Elders Home, at St. Philip the Deacon

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This blog was written and contributed by the Rev. Maria McDowell and the community at St. Philip the Deacon, Portland. Learn more about St. Philip the Deacon’s work Welcoming our Elders Home by visiting their website, https://www.stphilipthedeacon.org/serving/welcoming-our-elders-home/.


St. Philip the Deacon, in partnership with Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives (PCRI), Urban League of Portland, Northwest Pilot Project, and the Leaven Community Land and Housing Coalition, is welcoming our elders home. We are stewarding the resources God has given us to build affordable housing for Black seniors and to renovate our building to ensure that we can continue to live out the heart of this parish: to create and support a stable community for vulnerable neighbors.

Accounts of St. Philip the Deacon typically begin with its founding in 1911 by a group of African-American Episcopalians of Caribbean Anglican descent. Often unstated is the legacy of racism in Portland, in Oregon, and in the Episcopal Church itself, the context out of which that audacious undertaking arose. Buying land, erecting a building, and expressing its particular call to support the black community was both a challenge and a source of pride for those stalwarts—and a strong response to having been “invited” to leave the Cathedral where most of them were members, but where they would never be allowed to share in leadership.

A photo from those early days, once on display at the diocesan offices, bears the caption “Mission for Colored Work.”

St. Philip took this mission seriously, though its membership and the reach of its work were hardly limited to people of color. Its current Sanctuary and Parish Hall date from 1945. Its unassuming architecture, manicured lawn, and rose gardens have virtually camouflaged the ongoing community activities housed within it over the years: the founding of the Urban League and NAACP chapters in its parish hall, the Lee Owen Stone Preschool cooperative, church social clubs, seniors’ computer classes, after-school programs, music and dance lessons, shared sanctuary for Ethiopian, Latino, and Native American congregations, the Deacon’s Dining Hall Saturday lunch program, and most recently The People’s Pantry, operated by the Hand Up Project.

In the face of the deaths of so many black and brown people, and the white supremacist legacy of our beloved Episcopal Church, our presiding bishop the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry exhorts us to become the Beloved Community. For many congregations, this means starting by learning through the Sacred Ground curriculum, developed to help our predominately white congregations face systemic racism. 

For St. Philip, it is the exploding housing crisis that has driven its current call to action. Members of St. Philip lost their homes in the Vanport Flood, the building of the I-5 freeway and the Coliseum construction, and the proposed expansion of Emmanuel Hospital. Members of our congregation grew up in homes where the deed specified that only whites could own the property their parents bought through white friends. The long history of red-lining and displacement of homes and businesses in N/NE Portland has led to the reality that almost 40% of the unhoused population in Portland are persons of color even though African-Americans make up only 12% of the population.

Several times in the past, the parish felt called to build affordable housing, twice attempting to purchase nearby houses and develop the property, but these plans didn’t succeed. The parish conversation arose again in 2019, and we connected with others who share our commitment to providing stable housing for all Oregonians. The Trustees of the Diocese of Oregon provided a generous 5-year grant to allow for staff and clergy funding to help St. Philip engage the neighborhood and expand its relationships and partnerships.


A Tale of Two Conversations

Throughout the COVID onslaught last year and continuing into the foreseeable future we are moving through the  difficult and challenging process of property development, including:

  1. Discerning as a parish who in particular we are called to love and house (because we can’t do it all!);
  2. Partnering with professionals create a plan that is both practical and well-designed;
  3. Development relationships to ensure successful long-term property management and wrap-around services for our hoped-for new and vulnerable neighbors;
  4. Negotiating the labyrinthine world of affordable housing funding applications for a multi-million dollar project.  

At the same time, we are using the community-organizing skills and relationships we have gained by our participation in the Leaven Land and Housing Coalition to help us better engage our neighborhood, creating relationships around our common love for this small part of Portland, and meeting the needs of our vulnerable neighbors. Over the next year, we will be asking our neighbors, What do you cherish about this neighborhood? As we hear the hopes and longings of our neighborhood we can then discern how we can come alongside what God is already doing around us.

Far from daunting, these dual conversations on affordable housing and neighborhood engagement are energizing our small parish. Our vision for “The Alcena—An Affordable Living Community” is revealing the interconnectedness of the national church’s three-fold mission of racial reconciliation, creation care, and evangelism. Our project partnerships and engagement with neighbors old and new, black and white and brown, are taking us into exciting new territory.  

True to its African American roots and through the power of the Holy Spirit, St. Philip the Deacon is “making a way out of no way” to fulfill our mission, “to be a vital presence in the lives of individuals, families, and the community.”