To The Glory of God, Robin Lee McAllister

I am often in the First Baptist Church building in downtown Portland for work. It’s a grand old building dating to the 1890’s, and like many mainline denomination buildings, it has seen healthier times. It has a tremendous twice a week meal program for people who are sleeping rough, but also holds events which puts its staff in the deeply uncomfortable position of having to move along people on one day they are trying to bring comfort to on another. It has a grandeur to it, with a kidney shaped sanctuary that, in it’s fully open configuration, seats nearly a thousand people, but which must seem echoingly empty on a normal Sunday. It now hosts a Cambodian ministry that is lively and active, with families and elders and children all present.

I am deeply ambivalent to religion—Christianity in particular because that’s my tradition—but I am not hostile to it, and I understand a bit of the function that it provides to people in hard times. These are hard times. Religions are both survival strategies and philosophies for what comes after survival. Pandemic aside, there is so much hardship in our society right now and our civic lives have been hollowed out from churchgoing Sundays to bowling on Wednesdays to drinks at the Eagle Lodge on the weekends.

Millennials were sold a bill of goods. We were told that the best thing about us was that we were not attached to the old ways of doing things, that we were digital natives, post-social, and that those were good things. Instead, internet hypercapitalism Hoovered up all of the civic institutions that needed us to enter them as a generational transition* leaving us with nothing but a never-ending parade of headlines about such-and-such institution closing (until the newspapers themselves closed).

*Of course, many of the institutions sucked. They were racist, they were sexist, they made no room for youth. That’s a huge part of the story, I just wish they had closed for those reasons and not because they had bad websites or didn’t offer online checkout or easy social sharing or any of the thousand, sociopathic reasons we decided to patronize a shiny new online business instead of one with a presence in our actual lives.

One of my favorite places in the church is the doorway to the service entrance to the church, the pathway that goes past the garbage and recycling to the street and where the deliveries come in. That door has a simple stained glass window, dedicated to the memory of Robin McAllister. At their very very best (maybe a rare best), churches are a place where people can turn labor into care for a community through service. I don’t know their story, but I think Robin McAllister must have been a person who understood that.

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