Yesterday I got totally sucked into this website about the Volga Germans of Portland: http://www.volgagermans.net/portland/index.html. In the interest of full disclosure, the only other website that has this same rabbit hole effect on me is www.mylifetime.com (I can’t get enough of Dance Moms and Project Runway). I seriously encourage you to check it out. It has tons of drama and a cinematic scope…it’s basically a really classy costume drama.
The Volga Germans were Germans who moved to the Russian steppe in the 1700s to escape poverty, war, and land shortages in their homeland. They were promised peace and prosperity by Catherine the Great, who believed “that the Germans…would bring their culture, knowledge, and work ethic to Russia and serve as a model to the Russian serfs.”
Few of Catherine the Great’s promises materialized, and the Volga Germans had an equally hardscrabble life in Russia. Taking advantage of America’s Homestead Act, many of them moved here by the 1880s. So many, in fact, that Northeast Portland was called Little Russia well into the 1930s.
After the devastating Vanport flood of 1948, unable to obtain housing elsewhere, many African Americans with little money moved into Northeast Portland (then Albina). Many children and grandchildren of the original Volga German settlers had been given access to higher education. And with their higher incomes, they chose to move to the suburban outskirts of Portland.
All this is relevant because of an article Pastor Carley showed me yesterday, the one that started me on my Portland history binge: http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2013/01/northeast_portland_church_tell.html#incart_m-rpt-2. The Volga Germans established 8 churches in Northeast Portland between 1891 and 1927. The article tells the story of one of those churches, which started its life as St. Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1904. In 1973 it was reborn as Gethsemane Church of God in Christ.
Now it’s doors have seemingly been closed forever. It’s for sale, and the most likely buyer will raze the historic building and put condos there instead. Community members cite TaborSpace as a model for what they would like to see happening there.
Over the next week or so I’ll be writing a little about the history of Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, how TaborSpace was born, and why I think our model for community-church partnership is so sought after and needed.