The Story of Downtown Compassion
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.” Matthew 25:35-36
In 2009 I met a young pastor named Milan Homola and heard his inspiring testimony. Milan was associate pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in Gresham, and he and his senior colleague Pastor Gary Tribbett had field-tested a community-based model for providing vital services to vulnerable people in the name of Jesus. The first “Compassion Clinic” was carried out by a coalition of local church leaders and volunteers in the Rockwood neighborhood of Portland in 2006, and from this has sprung a movement called Compassion Connect, which carriers out as many as twenty free clinics a year in greater Portland, and other events in Idaho, Arizona and Africa.
When I heard Milan’s story I said to myself, “Why can’t we do that downtown?” We know that access to medical, dental and visual services, and the means to pay for them, is a vexing and controverted issue in our nation, notwithstanding our vast resources. I was also well aware as I began to dream and ponder seven years ago, that an annual, one-off event with free services would only put a tiny dent in the need. But if local churches could come together in the name of Jesus to welcome and serve our neighbors, to direct them to ongoing opportunities for care, and to create relationships with our neighbors and among the churches that would transcend the event, this would be a beautiful thing.
We assembled a team and made plans for the first “Downtown Compassion” to be held in the autumn of 2010. Melissa Nelson, an administrator in the Providence Health Care system, who had worshiped at FBC as a youth, came on board as a super efficient organizer. Rev. Ed Kelly, of Crossroads Community Church, a practical, hands-on problem solver, with previous experience in the Compassion movement, was – and continues to be – indispensable for this work, along with several members of his family. We negotiated with the administration of Portland State University to hold the first clinic at the Stott Center, PSU’s athletic complex. From the main floor lobby and gym, to locker rooms, weight rooms and meeting spaces, we laid out a complete medical, dental, visual and social services event in the building. And then, just a few weeks before the event, the University pulled the plug! Doctors, dentists and optometrists had volunteered their services and people had arranged their vacations around the date. What to do? In stepped Kevin Palau, son of the famed evangelist and networker extraordinaire. He knew someone in the administration of the Portland Memorial Coliseum, and our date happily slipped in between the Ringling Brothers and the Globetrotters, and so the first Downtown Compassion was held on September 18, 2010, with over a thousand volunteers and guests.
Fast forward to 2015. The expense of renting the Coliseum – even at a reduced rate – and insuring the event are a major burden. With no more “free fare” zone, the site is not so accessible for our target population in downtown and Old Town. And though it is still a big event, better access to care for many of our neighbors has meant that we are swallowed up in the huge bowels of the Coliseum. So how about a radical idea: turn First Baptist Church into a medical/dental/chiropractic, eye care/foot care site, complete with a social service fair, a free clothing boutique and a hot lunch for guests and volunteers. And that’s what we did. We used every nook and cranny of our physical plant save the sanctuary. The social room was a medical clinic, the activity center a dental clinic, the choir room an eye clinic, the lady’s lounge the clothing boutique and Fellowship Hall the social services fair. Fifteen FBC volunteers joined the team alongside volunteers from a number of local churches including Bridgetown, City Bible, First United Methodist, Grace Bible – an unusual coalition of evangelical and mainline churches.
Compassion 2016 will take place here at First Baptist Church on Saturday, October 8. You can review volunteer opportunities at <downtowncompassion.org> and learn about the history and guiding philosophy of the Compassion movement at <compassionconnect.com>. And though the services are offered on a volunteer basis, there are certain unavoidable cash outlays: food, insurance, equipment. You can donate to Downtown Compassion through a dedicated gift to First Baptist Church. And most of all, you can pray for this loving outreach to our neighbors, which Rev. Ed Kelly calls “Jesus with skin on.”
–Dr. David L. Wheeler