Mission possible
by Father Bill Edens, CSP
October 6, 2014

Portland is an unchurched area in Oregon, which is a highly unchurched state. St. Philip Neri is located in a southeast Portland residential zone within an area bounded by Ladd’s Addition, a traditionally Italian neighborhood, and the rapidly growing Division Street neighborhood. For almost a century, St. Philip’s was the heart of the Italian community, but only the older people from those days still come. The young people moved away. The new folks peopling the area have not yet discovered the treasure of St. Philip Neri, which they walk or bike by every day. Hundreds of young adults each evening flood Division Street, which is replete with bars, music venues, restaurants, food trucks and microbreweries.

My first goal in young adult ministry is to meet the young adults in their natural habitat. As a missionary of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, my first concern is go to the people whom I want to serve and learn about their lives. I’ve been asking directly through listening sessions.

To get into the neighborhood, I’m starting with music. There are no fewer than a hundred music venues in the Tri-Met area (the three counties that cover the greater Portland area). On any given evening there are on the average of 30 music venues to visit. Many are free. The music is home-brewed.

Last week I visited Mississippi Pizza, where a rock-and-roll band was playing. I was wearing my Roman collar. At first I sat in my seat, but the rhythm kept calling me. I was bouncing up and down in my chair smiling and moving to the beat of the music. Eventually I got the courage to go to the dance floor. It was not couple’s dancing nor was it romantic dancing. It was simply people rocking out to the music. After a few songs, I went back to my seat, and on the way several people stopped and told me it was great to have a priest at the bar. One even said he wanted to go to confession.

Later that week I went to “SUNDAEPDX, Portland’s Ultimate Summer Patio Party.” It was a rare sight in Portland, a mixed crowd of a hundred young adults, of Afro/Anglo/Latino/Asian extraction. Top DJs were playing. Young people were strutting their stuff on the dance floor while others watched. I decided to strut my stuff too, so I went on the floor and threw down some breakdance moves. Someone with a video camera caught my moves, and I ended up on YouTube! Several young people came up to me afterwards and said, “Wow, we don’t get many priests here!” Several spoke about having been Catholic when they were younger.

Adrienne Jarvis (left), Tommy Manning and Father Bill Edens strategize on how to reach young adults in the kitchen of the St. Philip Neri rectory in Portland, Ore.
Adrienne Jarvis (left), Tommy Manning and Father Bill Edens strategize on how to reach young adults in the kitchen of the St. Philip Neri rectory in Portland, Ore.

I have a three-fold approach at this point. First, I’m casting a wide net to the young adults themselves. Next, I visit parishes of the Archdiocese of Portland, where there is a young adult ministry. I talk with the priests and the youth adult ministers to get their perspective. When I ask the youth ministers if they’re being fed spiritually they invariably say, “No.” Their job is to spiritually feed the adolescents in their programs, but they need spiritual sustenance, too. There is a clear opening for us Paulists. Finally, I’m visiting the alumni gatherings of the Catholic high schools in the area. One thing that’s true of every young adult is that they were once a teenager. Why do young people educated as Catholics tend to fall away? That is something I can ask the alumni of these schools.

To find out, I’m visiting the campus ministries in the Tri-Met area. And finally, I believe that the spirituality of Isaac Hecker can well connect to the Northwest psyche. Oregon and Washington are outdoor-conscious states with bicycling, recycling, bioswales and beer. The tall Douglas Fir trees and Giant Sequoias form outdoor sanctuaries. Young people are into rock climbing, hiking, gymnastics, skateboarding, skiing and crabbing. Many young adults believe in Jesus and read the Bible, but have trouble with the institutional church.

Though Portland is highly unchurched, there are a few young adult-friendly parishes that draw 150 or so young adults to their Sunday evening Masses. One is the nearby Jesuit parish. The Jesuit charism is evident. The other is a parish staffed by the Society of St. John, who serve two campus ministries in the diocese and two parishes. Their charism is quite evident as well. We Paulists need to add something to the archdiocese that is distinct. We need to offer the Paulist charism. We must draw from Isaac Hecker’s spirituality in a way that speaks to young adults.

How do we do that? That is what I aim to find out!