Black church celebrates 154 years

Article for the Portland Tribune news section.


PORTLAND TRIBUNE: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR – First AME Zion Church was established at a time when blacks were banned in Oregon. Now the Reverend George Whitfield welcomes the community to celebrate the congregation’s 154th anniversary.

In 1862, Portland was not a friendly place for people of color. At the time, the state constitution barred blacks from residing in Oregon, though some lived here anyway. Amidst this discrimination, a group founded an African-American church in downtown Portland in the home of one of the members, Mary Carr, at what is now Southwest Ankeny Street.

The mindset of a group that refuses to leave in the face of hostility is illustrated by a quote from one of the pioneers of the national AME Zion Church.

“Be not discouraged,” said Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist and black leader. “There is a future for you. The resistance you encountered now predicates hopes. Only as we rise do we encounter opposition.”

The local First AME Zion Church, the oldest African-American church in the Pacific Northwest, is celebrating its 154th anniversary April 16-17.

They have moved locations several times, but never left the city they called home.

“All over, as African Americans, when we try to do better there is opposition,” says the Rev. George Whitfield, current pastor at First AME Zion Church. “Our brothers and sisters, ancestors, when they had opposition, they stood, feet firmly planted.”

Whitfield came to the church from East St. Louis in 2014, after the previous pastor died. He had never been to Oregon before, and was happy to see the sun shining when he first stepped off the plane. In fact he enjoyed abnormally nice weather the entire first year.

“I told my members it was because God wanted to make sure I loved it here,” Whitfield says. “He didn’t want to show me the real weather until my second year.”

Whitfield is the youngest pastor the church has ever had. He had to get used to the ethnic makeup of Oregon, being from a place with many more African Americans.

“The members here helped a lot in my first year, especially when I got homesick,” Whitfield says. “They remind me that I’m not alone; I have family here.”

Community has always been an important part of the congregation, with 110 members. Many of the original members joined after migrating from the South. Phillis Whitmore, who is co-chair of the anniversary weekend, grew up attending the church with her parents, who were from Arkansas.

“They were looking for some place more permanent, even though the atmosphere was still negative toward blacks,” Whitmore says. “They didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so they decided to stay together.”

Even for Whitmore, growing up in the 1950s meant there were places she wasn’t allowed to work, and counters where she couldn’t sit at to eat downtown.

“It got better because collectively we decided this was where we wanted to be,” Whitmore says.

When Whitmore was a child, the church was on North Williams Avenue in North Portland. The church moved to its current location on 4304 N. Vancouver Ave. in 1962.

“I was a teenager then and back in those days everyone was marching,” Whitmore says. “So we thought it would be symbolic to march from the old church up to this one.”

When Whitfield first arrived at First Church, the new pastor didn’t know he was joining a place with so much history. It wasn’t until he spoke with the members that he realized he was becoming part of something bigger.

“I feel honored to know there are people before me who paved the way,” Whitfield says. “Here I am standing on their shoulders — its been an amazing journey to learn more about what the First Church has been to this community.”

The events planned for the anniversary include a prayer breakfast Saturday morning, dancing and celebrating that evening, and a worshop with choirs and a guest speaker, Bishop Steven Holt, on Sunday. The Saturday events will cost $15 at the door, and the church requests advance notice to ensure there is enough food for everyone. The Sunday event is free.

“We encourage anyone to attend this event,” Whitfield says. “Even though we are a historically African-American church, we accept people from all walks of life.”