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The learning goal for my recent pastoral sabbatical was “neighborhood engagement.” There’s an irony in trying to learn about neighborhood engagement by leaving your neighborhood, but we also knew that some distance and boundaries would be helpful for a successful, restful sabbatical experience. So, my family and I left our home in Grand Rapids, Michigan and spent two months last summer in Portland, Oregon.
I chose Portland in part because it is secular; the percentage of those who say they are religiously unaffiliated is among the highest of any U.S. city. In that context, I knew that Portland churches would have to get creative about how they engaged their neighborhoods. I wanted to visit these Portland churches, meet people involved with them, and learn from them. Of course, the beautiful Pacific Northwest was not a bad place for our family to play outside for a couple months, too.
The sabbatical time in Portland was a success when it came to the learning goals I had in mind. We were able to worship with some wonderful Portland churches, many of them returning to in-person worship for the first time after a year of pandemic. And I learned a lot from my conversations with generous and wise Portland church leaders.
But there was another part of my experience in Portland that turned out to be a success, even though I never planned it. Because I was thinking so much about the church’s neighborhood engagement, I was ready to pay attention to any sign of spiritual longing in this new city that I explored. My assumption about the secularity of Portland made me interested each time I noticed a sign of someone grasping for God, and those signs were all around me.
These spiritual longings were often not anywhere near organized religion; my observations matched the statistics about religiously unaffiliated Portlanders. But I saw the possibilities for the church’s local mission as much in the fact that nonreligious people were ready to seek the divine as I did in any clever program that a church developed.
Here’s an example: many Portlanders we met told us about the city’s housing crisis. They used the word “houseless” instead of “homeless” to describe people without a place to live. I heard in this language a respect for the dignity of these people who indeed had a “home” in an emotional or historical sense, and I heard a desire to work for change so that these people could also experience the dignity of a “house,” a roof over their heads. A sign of a God-sensitive heart, caring for fellow image-bearers.
Another example: a city park had a labyrinth painted on the floor of a picnic shelter near the playground. Why would the city allow a symbol from the Chartres cathedral on this public property? It could be used for meditation by a Portlander of any religion, I suppose, but I saw it as another sign of a God-sensitive heart.
A third example, the sign of spiritual longing in Portland that I’ve been thinking about lately: the wishing tree. We read about it on some tourist website and went to find it with my parents and brother when they visited.
It’s a big old tree between the sidewalk and the street in a residential neighborhood, and in true Portland fashion someone has made a collaborative art installation out of the tree. There are cardstock tags and sharpie markers on the ground around the tree, and visitors are encouraged to write down their wishes and tie them to the tree.
It didn’t look like the tags with wishes were ever removed from the tree, so they accumulated, some of them gray and tattered, others brand new. There were wishes for physical healing and for restored relationships. There were wishes for jobs and for money and for a place to live. There were wishes for world peace. Many of the newer wishes were for an end to the pandemic.
These wishes were not addressed to the Triune God. They were probably not spoken out loud. Some of them were not even words (my three-year-old son drew a square and hung it on the tree). But they seemed to me to reflect an impulse to pray, a need to express the desires of our hearts. They reflected an impulse to share these wishes publicly, too – to write them down where others could see them, and to read and take to heart (or bring to God?) the wishes that had been written by someone who came before.
I don’t think religiously unaffiliated Portlanders are secret Christians. I take them at their word about their own faith and their own loyalties. But I did take the wishing tree as a reminder of the ways that the Holy Spirit is always working. I took it as a reminder of the spiritual longing and impulse to pray that every one of us has, inside and outside the church.
Because of our “neighborhood engagement” learning goal, my congregation started meeting with a consultant to help us think carefully about our local mission. We keep trying to think of ideas for new outreach programs, and he keeps asking us, “What is God already doing in your neighborhood?” The question helps me pay attention in new ways. And I’m noticing that one thing that God is already doing in the neighborhood is that God is hearing prayer.