How One Church Is Finding Faith Through Art

A faith community in Portland weaves music, visual arts, and poetry into a collaborative spiritual experience.

On a hot July evening in North Portland, an Irish-inspired ukulele weaves its melody through that of two guitars — one with an electric beat and another with a pop/folk sound. The verses of a 22-year-old Asian slam poet flushed with the exuberance of his youth dart in and out of the music. An older African American woman paints an abstract design on canvas, capturing the sparks flickering around her.

A small, diverse crowd sits, Oregon craft beer in hand, absorbing this multi-sensory experience. As the evening progresses, the intermingling of these individual artistic expressions brings those assembled together into a collective body that feels more spiritual and connected than in many church services.

People sing during Portland Abbey’s Ale and Carols — Beer N Hymns Christmas Edition.

This is The Round, a monthly event hosted by Portland Abbey Arts. It’s a collaborative evening of music, poetry, and art, during which three musicians and a beat poet perform in a series of musical and poetic rounds as a visual artist paints in the background.

Many of those in attendance don’t seem to realize that the African American woman welcoming them and running the show is an Episcopal priest. The Rev. Karen Ward is not one to be collared, preferring to wear her black “Portsmouth Neighborhood Association” t-shirt in lieu of a black clerical shirt.

Ward says she’s never bought into the clerical-centric views. As she sees it, the church has always been a body with Jesus as the head.

A self-described introvert, Ward functions in her ministry as a DJ or curator working behind the scenes to create experiences like The Round for people of all faiths, as well as those who claim no religion.

“The focus of my role is to help facilitate the participation of the body of Christ in its own work, which is what liturgy is and church is overall — the ‘small w’ work of the people participating in the ‘big W’ work of God,” Ward said.

The art of neighborhood renewal

Portland Abbey Arts is one component a new faith community formed by the union of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, founded in 1985, and All Souls, an emerging Episcopal mission church founded in 2012 housed in the Portland Abbey campus.

Portland Abbey is a three-building campus that serves the racially diverse and underdeveloped neighborhood of North Portland, well off the radar of the hipster city depicted in the series Portlandia. Despite the lack of upscale amenities like coffee shops with wi-fi, craft breweries, and locally sourced restaurants, this largely residential neighborhood retains an optimistic spirit — poised and waiting to dance.

One older church musician and two Gen Y musicians play in Portland Abbey’s ‘non-ironic’ ‘Mass with Accordions.’

In an effort to facilitate neighborhood renewal, Ward is overseeing the transformation of three underutilized community buildings into the Portland Abbey campus. Presently, the campus runs a food pantry called Hereford House, offers church services, hosts community arts gatherings like The Round, and is developing a non-profit cafe — called the Library — which will offer food, drink, and coffee in addition to art performances and events geared toward a smaller, more intimate space.

“Welcoming people and feeding them is the common denominator,” Ward says. “Feeding those hungry for food, for community, and for spirituality. Everyone needs all three of these things to be a fully alive and flourishing human being.”

Even though this community consists of people from all generations and a diverse mix of races, abilities, and sexual orientations, the church isn’t waving any rainbow flags or participating in political events. Here, the focus is on God as they invite, include, and welcome all people to come to the party and become servants of God, who is the one throwing the party of life.

“We are united in being a progressive, urban Christian community with a contemplative soul,” Ward said. “The heart of the community is contemplation/our nurturing of our relationship with God.”

Within this community, a person is free to simply “be” — without pressure to convert to a specific set of beliefs. As Ward says: “It is God who evangelizes. It is God who ‘converts.’ The best the church can do is cooperate/join with the Spirit of God/the Spirit of Christ as the Spirit moves, doing God’s work in the world. The least we can do (if we are not up to such participation) is for heaven’s sake, to get the hell out of the way.”

Creating grace-filled spaces

While the moniker “spiritual but not religious” is a new church-marketing term to some, Ward began exploring what it means to be a spiritual community back in the 1990s when she was working in Chicago at the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Her friends were interested in questions of God and ultimate meaning, but didn’t see how a church could help them connect with the divine. Ward decided she wanted to create a church community that could fill this gap.

Among her early influences were contemplatives like Henry Nouwen and Brother Roger of Taize, as well as social-justice pioneer Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker. Ward also gleaned inspiration from observing groups like Holy Joe’s, a church group that meets in a pub in the UK, and Spirit Garage, a Minneapolis-based ELCA mission. These endeavors create spaces that welcome those who don’t include “church” is their vocabulary.

When Ward could not find the church support needed to launch her vision in Chicago, she relocated to the Fremont section of Seattle. This historic arts neighborhood is home to the type of people drawn to spiritual events like the Fremont Solstice Parade, but not likely to enter the doors of a church except for the occasional AA meeting. There, Ward oversaw the creation of The Fremont Abbey, which houses Church of the Apostles (COTA), an arts-centered Episcopal and Lutheran mission congregation, and The Fremont Abbey Arts Center, a nonprofit arts organization that puts on creative events featuring local music, contemporary dance, interactive art, and the like. She then moved to Portland, a city she describes as “a giant Fremont where the whole city is artistic in persona, so engaging arts as a means of connection works here as well.”

Promotional photo for an event hosted at Portland Abbey Arts.

In her work, Ward collaborates with other like-minded souls, including Todd Fadel, a punk musician who describes himself as an occasional conspirator and “curriculismist” for Portland Abbey Arts. Basically, he connects local folks who are already leaning toward inclusive community efforts. Also, he helps when he can to develop curriculum, budgets, and promotional tactics at Portland Abbey’s Arts Camp and other events that allow area residents a space to express their creativity in ways that speak to them individually.

Fadel also serves as a co-facilitator of collaborative expression for The Bridge, a gathering of people seeking to be fed both physically and spiritually. The Bridge is a self-described ” audacious community of curators and heroes of (sometimes brutal) vulnerability, consistently poised with curiosity and wonder to learn from another’s standpoint/perspective/approach/witness. Somewhere embedded in the DNA of us is a violent resistance to premature judgment and subsequent advice-giving, in order to make way for some beautiful tension to hang in the air, suspended by a (sometimes fragile) thread of fierce love.”

As Fadel’s wife Angie, co-pastor of The Bridge, says, church for them starts at 10:30 a.m. when those needing food line up to receive bags of donated groceries. About an hour later, Todd and Angie help facilitate a smaller group in articulating themselves through drumming, writing, art, and other forms of artistic self-expression.

In Fadel’s experience, “It takes a certain type of person to be that vulnerable around a people group that you may not be able to help. Fact is, those of us seen as leaders need the help more than the people coming in the door do. Going in as an evangelical not knowing that is a total blind spot.”


All images courtesy of Portland Abbey.

Becky Garrison
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