You’ve seen Portland, Oregon on the news. But the clips that make enticing news stories don’t tell the whole story by a long shot. So it’s hard to get the real story from the news. The real story is that you can find Christ and Christ’s reign every night on the streets here. I wish you were here to experience it yourself.
Here’s what I wish you’d hear about what’s happening in Portland. I wish you’d hear the voices of the young Black leaders (and they are so very young…children almost) voices hoarse from 101 nights of protests, once again calling to the crowd: “Say her name”… and “No justice, no peace…” and “Black Lives Matter.” And I wish you’d hear the protesters call back, “Breonna Taylor” and “…no racist police!” And I wish you could hear the crowd affirm again and again and again the reason we all are gathered, chanting: “Black Lives Matter.” I wish you’d hear the testimony as those young people stand up and in their cracked but strong voices tell the stories of false arrests and violence perpetrated against them, and then proclaim what they hope for the world instead.
Here’s what I wish you’d see about what’s happening in Portland. I wish you’d see the young (did I mention how young these protesters are?) woman in a gas mask and ponytails, picking up garbage around the park where the protests are centered, leaving it predictably, astonishingly tidy every single night. I wish you’d see the sign-making area, protesters kneeling on the ground like people at prayer, creating petitions of cardboard and paint, messages of hope and revolution. I wish you’d see the sign on the porta-potty that tells everyone that someone has rented this for the use of the protests and if they want to donate to keep it there more nights, they can go to cashapp or venmo.
Here’s what I wish you’d feel. I wish you’d feel the coolness of a puddle of hand sanitizer, placed in your hand by one of the dozens of people working the crowd, passing out PPE because after all we are still in a pandemic. Or stick around until the protests are declared – erroneously, ridiculously – a riot. And then here’s what you can feel. The soothing stream of the handmade eyewash that the young (so young!) volunteer medics pour into the streaming of eyes of those running from the weapons-grade teargas. That gas, by the by, was bought second-hand from some military supplier and was developed for wartime situations not civilian crowd management. We’ve learned that’s expiration date on the gas has passed. No one knows what means, what the effect is on creation and humans who are exposed to it for months. One day we will know.
In the meantime, here’s what I wish you’d taste. Sandwiches, pizza, ribs cooked fresh every night, bottles of water, granola bars, candy bars, wrapped fruit. Gluten-and-dairy-free options too because, you know, Portland. The ethic of mutual aid means that everyone who gathers at the park outside the (in)Justice Center which is the focus of the protest activity is fed, every night. One night, I gave the sign I was carrying to medic who needed it for “an elder,” an guy about my age as it happens whose home was in the park and who was looking for something to sleep on more sanitary than bare ground. You don’t have to search hard to find legal help, medical care, bicycle and car repair, music jam sessions, housing information, money for those out of work due to pandemic or protest.
How about what you’d smell? Well. Today you’d smell smoke since the forests surrounding the city are burning, a new annual reminder that climate change is as real as police violence. But the smoke in the air that’s turned the sky red all day doesn’t stop people from showing up. For example, at 2:33 this afternoon, I saw a request on my Twitter feed from the Jail Support Team (who greet arrested protesters being released from jail with food, support and rides home) sent out a request for snacks. By the end of the afternoon, the post was updated to note “we’re good on the above items, hot food or something more filling would be great!! (vegan/veg options too please!)” It is Portland after all.
Here’s what I wish you knew about what’s happening in Portland. These are not riots happening on the streets. They are gatherings of citizens exercising the right of assembly and speech to say “Enough” to a system that is built on generations of violence and oppression. It is not an act of violence to graffiti on buildings, when human lives are at stake. Here’s what is happening on the streets of Portland. What is happening on the streets of Portland is the creation of the Reign of Christ. Sometimes, like all creation, it is messy and complicated, but the community being formed is real and meaningful.
What does the Reign of Christ look, sound, feel, taste and smell like? It’s like Black and Indigenous voices being centered instead of marginalized. It’s like food for whoever comes to the table, at no cost. It’s like medical care provided with no questions asked. It’s like the imprisoned being freed into the arms of caring friends. It’s like young people leading the way. It’s like elders being offered tender care. It’s like the transformation of systems that have for too long oppressed rather than uplifted. It’s like giving all that we have to make the world better. It’s like…well, it’s like what church might be.
Jennifer Garrison Brownell is pastor at Vancouver United Church of Christ just across a bridge from Portland Oregon. She is contributor to the new book of psalms edited by Martha Spong Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle and she is at work on a book in which she asks a 16th century reformer and badass for advice about navigating turbulent times. She lives by a river with her partner, son and a variety of unruly animals.
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