The Humor and Life, in Particular Web site
author:  Margie Culbertson

Bethel Baptist Church:  Portland, Oregon.

One Church, Three Congregations.

From 1978 until 1993, Bob Anderson taught at Western Seminary in Portland. Everything changed when a BGC pastor stopped by their home and made a proposal. He urged Bob and Rosella Anderson to consider a ministry at Bethel Baptist Church.

The couple knew others had turned down this challenge. Bethel was a fifty–year–old church in the heart of an aging and urban, ethnically diverse, North Portland neighborhood. Bethel's older membership was small and dwindling. Furthermore, the church did not reflect the ethnic diversity around it. Once the Andersons accepted this church as their new home, they found themselves involved in a ministry that would demand every resource they had. With the membership dwindling, Bob began praying the Lord would send people whom he could serve.

Pastor Hector Rodriguez was the leader of a small ministry in North Portland. His Hispanic flock met in homes. But by 1996 Hector's ministry had grown too large and they needed a church. "We had been praying for a church of our own for some time," Hector says.

In 1997 the 15 members of Pastor Mark Shtefanio's fledgling congregation were without a church home. The group of Russian immigrants was struggling to make new lives in Portland. As Mark says," We came from Ukraine, Latvia, Kazahstan. I was the Associate Pastor in Baltic so many of the group knew me before. We'd been meeting in homes, but we were growing too large."

Illa Busch, a long–time member of Bethel Baptist, wondered why life had dealt her such a cruel blow. She had been a short–term missionary for the BGC to Japan and was due to return to Asia in 1996 and continue her work. But a terrible auto accident intervened and prevented her from leaving. "We couldn't figure out why this door shut."


When Pastor Hector Rodriguez walked into Pastor Bob Anderson's office in 1996 he told Bob that he was the leader of a growing group of Hispanic Christians who needed a building in which to meet. He says many of his congregation had moved into the neighborhood around Bethel Baptist Church. Would it be possible for their group to use Bethel Baptist as their church building? This small band of Hispanic Christians didn't have the money to buy or rent a building. "We went to ask the American church to share the vision of reaching out to an ethnic group. It was the first place we went to ask," Hector says.

Bob Anderson says that he was immediately intrigued. After all, it was the answer to a lot of prayers. He also thought, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if the church could be multi–ethnic?"

Enthusiastically, he put the proposal before the board of directors and an arrangement was ironed out. The Hispanic congregation would use the church on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Meanwhile, Illa Busch — who was beginning to recover from her injuries – was appointed Ethnic Coordinator and took charge of the church's ethnic ministries, serving as liaison between the congregations. It was a job she tackled with relish.

The church started an English as a Second Language program. Illa says that it was through these ESL classes that the transformation began. As Illa put it, "Our people got to know their people as people, one to one. We'd have joint potlucks, joint meetings. We began to work very hard and very long and we began to love each other."

And, as Hector put it, "Now we had a place to worship the Lord with some freedom,"
One year later, in 1997, history would repeat itself in the form of Mark Shtefanio who walked into the church's buildings during services and asked to speak to the pastor. "Our group of family and friends was growing. Also I had been working with young people not attending any church and they were receiving Jesus Christ as their personal savior," Mark says.

Mark prayed to the Lord for guidance and followed where He led – to the church around the corner, Bethel Baptist Church. That's where he met Pastor Anderson, the man who would provide the answer to Mark's prayers Mark made the same request:  could his small congregation also use the church building? The church's board of directors met. There were many misgivings. Surely, it seemed, there were already enough people meeting in the church. Could the church accommodate yet another group of people?

Once again, Bethel Baptist Church opened its heart and its church. They would welcome the Russians into their fold on a six–month trial basis to see how it might work out. The arrangement would be the same as with the Hispanic group:  no landlord relationship, no rent. "You are part of the family — we adopt you, you adopt us," as Bob Anderson put it.

The six–month trial period for Pastor Mark's Russian crew ended long ago without mention. The Russians continue to joyously use the church Tuesday evenings and Saturdays for their worship services. "I believe it's a gift from God," Nadia Shtefanio, Mark's wife, says. And their congregation is growing, partly due to their diligent work to bring other Russian families to Portland.

Illa Busch believes three very different congregations with three pastors sharing the same roof works for them because they all believe in what they're doing. According to Illa, the groups are very compatible despite their differences. "We work very hard together to make it work," says Illa.. But Illa believes there's nothing mixed about the blessings they share. "Other churches are missing a blessing if they don't open their doors wide. Sometimes we sit in our little corner of the world and we forget that there are others all over the world worshipping the same way as we do, worshipping the one Lord Jesus," Illa says.

Illa is proud of how all the groups support one another, such as when joint services are held before each Thanksgiving. "The English–speaking congregation did the service in 1997, last year the Russians did it, and this year we'll have the Hispanics. It's a very special time."

Any initial concerns the original Bethel Baptist congregation might have had have long since been alleviated. They worried the church would be left unsecured or in disrepair, but that hasn't been the case. As Pastor Bob puts it, "They just take it in their stride and make sure it gets done."

The people of Bethel Baptist Church saw different cultures, languages and experiences as an opportunity. By joining hands, three different congregations are reaping the benefits of seeking partnership in ministry. As Paul says in Ephesians 3: 5–6 "The secret ... is that [all] are fellow partners and equal members, co–sharers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Reprinted from article published in
The Standard, October 1999. Newsjournal.

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©Margie Culbertson

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