Last February, a ferocious four-alarm fire gutted a Northeast Portland institution. Fire crews, neighbors, and parishioners watched as the historic Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church was engulfed in flames.
The church building and an adjacent school had stood at 106 NE Ivy Street for over 80 years. The cause of that fire was never determined, and in the 8 months since, the congregation has faced more than its share of misfortune.
But as Andrew Theen reports, the Morning Star congregation is holding fast to their faith and their hope for a rebuilt church.
Pastor Albert Wayne Johnson is tired. 7 months ago, Morning Star’s senior pastor stood under a white tent next to the burned out facade of his church.
On that day, Johnson was defiant.
Rev. Johnson: “Our building is burned, but our passion is renewed, we plan to stay right here.”
Today, a more somber Johnson says that message still rings true.
Rev. Johnson: “That day as a bastion of hope I said we're going to stay right here. That has not changed.”
But for many in Morning Star, a lot has changed since that day.For starters, Sunday services are held at a funeral home in Northeast Portland.
The music spills out of the chapel into the nearby cemetery.
Alberta Phillips is an institution at Morning Star. She's been an active member for 52 years. She remembers the night of the fire.
Alberta Phillips: “You couldn't get near to the church because it was in such flames. Water was ankle deep in the streets.”
Neighbors reported hearing a loud explosion around 11:30 that night. Intense flames singed window blinds in nearby homes. Burning debris was scattered around for blocks.
The months that followed would prove trying. First a trailer at the church site was broken into. Office supplies and building materials were stolen.
Most recently a non-profit group called Ghetto Risen approached Morning Star offering to donate proceeds from a play.
It was a fraud. The money collected never went to Morning Star. The State Department of Justice is investigating the case.
Now Morning Star has a small office tucked away in Legacy Emanuel Hospital's pediatric intensive care unit. In the busy hospital atrium the Reverend Albert Wayne Johnson said those incidents pale compared to the loss of the building.
Rev Johnson: “It felt like a building landed on me the night of the fire. So it has not been like a piece being piled on step by step. Big boulder. Blam, right down on you, you know?”
Fundraising to replace the church has slowed down. Virtually all of the $159,000 raised so far went to leveling the facade and clearing the site where Morning Star once stood.
Pastor Johnson says cleaning up that “eyesore” is evidence the church is serious about rebuilding. But he acknowledges that financially, the church is at square one.
Rev Johnson: “It was coming in big at first. And now. Drip drop. You know. Drip Drop. And we're not doing much right now except holding steady with that.”
Johnson says Morning Star had an insurance policy of close to a million dollars. But it’s estimated that it'll take at least twice that much to rebuild.
Here's how Morning Star member Alberta Phillips sums up the situation.
Alberta Phillips: “I tell people that we're in the toddling stages. And toddling stages mean that when you're a tiny baby you stand up and you try to make a step and you fall backwards. So that's where we are. We in toddling stages. Things may be going pretty good today, and maybe step backward tomorrow.”
Pastor Albert Wayne Johnson is hurting. He doesn't shy away from it. He calls his hurt, “extreme, deep, and painful.”
Johnson says preaching helps both him and his congregation deal with the pain. He said he doesn't preach about sin much. He dwells on hope.
Rev Johnson: “I don't know whether the sermons are so much for just them as it is for me. I don't know whether as I preach the things that are coming are coming as a result of my own personal need, or as a result of them. I would like to believe it is for us all”
One thing that both Pastor Johnson and longtime Morning Star member Alberta Phillips hope to do soon is reinstate the church's soup kitchen.
For five years, the church provided free meals to needy people twice a month. Johnson says without a facility they can't provide that service.
Rev Johnson: “When are we going to build? I don't know yet. When will we break ground? I should say, I don't know yet. I don't know when we are going to break ground, but we are going to break ground. The Lord is going to bless us to do it. We may come through some obstacles and we may go through some things, and we do. But the community loves us and we love that community.”