Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
Your sons shall come from far away;
and your daughters shall be carried in
their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice…
— Isaiah 60: 4–5
First Baptist Church celebrated its 162nd birthday this spring. Literally thousands of people have worshiped and served the Lord as part of this congregation for generations. Portland has changed from an isolated river and logging town to a bustling blue collar city to a national destination for hipsters and millennials. Portland’s demographics have changed — not without some angst and conflict, from a largely white city with isolated black and Asian minorities, toward a multicultural salad bowl more reflective of other large American cities. First Baptist Church has changed as well, sometimes ahead of the curve, as when we welcomed families of Cambodian refugees forty years ago, and sometimes with some discomfort, as we have seen the preeminence of downtown churches such as ours and the social status and clout of churches in general eroding. We have enjoyed heartwarming, life supporting fellowship and have endured periodic spasms of conflict. In all of this we give thanks to God for our beloved church and cleave to Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Across the decades we have enjoyed the leadership of great pastors such as James Whitcomb “Dad” Brougher, J. Lester Harnish and Roland Johnson. (No pastor has served FBC longer than our present associate pastor for Cambodian ministry, Rev. Peter Im, now in his 32nd year.) We have had wonderful lay leaders such as Blanche Hodge, Earle White, Lee Squier, Sharon Rich…(The list could stretch on indefinitely). Quiet, unassuming folk such as the Wilson sisters have left a grand legacy through bequests that continue to fuel ministry. International missionaries have gone out from this congregation; think of Dr. Marian Boehr, Judith Sutterlin. and Ann and Bruce Borquist. Pastors have been formed and nurtured here, most recently Rev. Visal Sok, pastor of English ministries at First Chinese Baptist Church of San Francisco. Churches have been planted: Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Hinson Church, First Chinese Baptist Church, Mountain Park Church, Esperanza Church.
When I was growing up in the Beechmont Baptist Church of Louisville, KY, long residence in our homes, long marriages, long careers with a single business or institution and long tenures in our home congregations were common. My father was a sixty-six year member of our home church until his death last year. We can think of numerous fifty, sixty and even seventy year marriages among our recent and present members, and similar tenures as members of our congregation. Today, when every sixth American household — from single individuals to families — changes residence in any given year, and educational and vocational quests take people far afield, extended church membership is much rarer. And, to be honest, quests for “the right church,” with the right programs and the right mix of people are much more common today — a consumer mentality which struggles with the idea of loyalty to a “church family.” But nevertheless, those whom I call “the alumni” of First Baptist Church serve their communities, excel in their vocations and serve the Lord throughout the Pacific Northwest, across this nation and around the world. Thanks be to God!
The verses from Isaiah that I have quoted above don’t exactly match our situation. The prophet is foreseeing the return of Israel’s exiles from their Babylonian Captivity. But the implication is clear that God has blessed Israel’s children wherever they have been, and has blessed others through them. And this is our conviction as we invite you to come home to First Baptist, invite our “alumni” to join you here, and invite your friends and neighbors to meet this great church family on Homecoming Sunday, September 10. We will celebrate our past and strive to imagine God’s future for us. See you there!
—Dr. David L. Wheeler