Reclaiming a corner from brutality and death

by Eric Mortenson,
The Oregonian – November 17, 2003 –

His voice finds space between the rattle of a passing transient’s shopping cart and the hoots of young men leaning out of car windows. “From the brutality of murder and violence,” Fr. Raab sings in the early morning darkness, launching a litany of invocation and response. Thirty-two mourners who have gathered for a prayer service at the corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Burnside Street in Portland close in, straining to hear. Bundled in coats against the 3 a.m. cold and holding candles against the darkness, they sing the response: “Save us, O God.” “From the hardships of poverty and loss,” the priest. “Save us, O God,” the group replies. Perhaps 20 are family or friends of Daniel Adesan, an 18-year-old North Portland man shot to death on this spot at 3:30 a.m. two weeks before. The priest continues the litany he’s written for the occasion. “From the addiction of drugs and alcohol,” he sings, his voice gaining power. “From the fear of isolation and hardship.” “Save us, O God,” comes the response each time.

Fr. Ron Raab has ministered among AIDS patients for 20 years. But the violence that stalks Northwest Sixth and Burnside is something new to him. Portland police say the corner is a hot spot for drug sales. Adesan’s killing on October 25th was the second there in 13 months; another man, Wallace Russ, was stabbed to death in a fight on September 12, 2002. Both men met death 20 steps from the doors of the Downtown Chapel of St. Vincent de Paul, where Raab serves. Both died while the priest slept. Going for his morning walk shortly after Russ was attacked, the priest unknowingly stepped in the man’s blood. Raab says he can’t sleep anymore. It’s time to awake. “I feel we need to do something,” he said before the prayer service. “As a Christian community on this corner, we have to make a stand for peace and forgiveness, and call that corner back to the reality of God.” He invited Adesan’s family and wrote the litany, planning the prayer service for the same hour Adesan died. “From the corruption of sin and darkness,” he sings. “Save us, O God.” “From the terror of gunshots and stabbings.” “Save us, O God.”

Thousands probably drive by the downtown chapel of St. Vincent de Paul every day without realizing it’s a church. They have to crane their necks to see the statue of Christ the King looming 20 feet above the sidewalk, arms outstretched. When Raab came to Portland, somebody told him that addicts who want to buy drugs know to stand in front of the building’s blue doors. “That’s our parish,” the priest says. “You see it every morning, gangs of men hanging out in the neighborhood. Just walk out the door and there they are.” Each morning, the church hosts a two-hour hospitality session. The lobby fills up with 40 homeless men and women who come in for a change of clothes and a cup of coffee. They sit on metal folding chairs, nodding to street acquaintances and talking quietly. One by one, volunteers take them aside and help them make a phone call or locate a relative, find a support group, get some medication. On Friday evenings, volunteers serve soup and sandwiches on the street. Once a month, they hand out food bags to neighbors. The daily Mass attracts a mix of white-haired women who arrive alone and a sprinkling of homeless people, addicts and the mentally ill. At one Monday Mass, a heavyset man who has difficulty doing the simplest things asked worshippers to pray for him especially hard, Raab says, because the following day was his shower day and he wasn’t sure he could get the cap off the shampoo bottle. “I’m 48 and I’ve been trying to approach God with that kind of honesty and integrity all my life,” Raab says. “This is where the church needs to be. I think there is great grace and beauty in working with people on the edge, on the margins. They have such an awareness and a need for God.”

The sharp, rapid pops on October 25th pulled the priest from a deep sleep. He stirred in his bed and began counting. He woke again 15 or 20 minutes later, realizing he hadn’t been dreaming. Pulling the window curtains aside, he saw the strobe of an ambulance. Raab made his way downstairs, opened one of the lobby doors and found yellow crime-scene tape stretched in front of the church. He told an officer that he’d heard five shots. “Well, actually, they shot him nine times,” Raab says the cop replied. “When I went downstairs, I realized I’d slept through the first four shots, but really I’ve been sleeping through the whole thing,” the priest says quietly. “It was a metaphor for our inability to be out there and claim our lives as Christians. All of us here struggle with the drug scene and the prostitution scene. The only thing to do is let them know we stand for something different.” He began planning the prayer service for Daniel Adesan. At first, Raab expected three or four people might attend, but he underestimated the appeal of the service. But the street does not give way so easily. A nightclub down the block is closing as the service begins, and squabbling young women in mini-skirts pile outside to argue noisily about who gets to ride in a stretch limo that idles nearby. Those left out scream profanities. Raab leads the group through prayers. “We come to claim not only our street but our hearts as well, in the promise of peace.” He sings his way through the litany, asking for deliverance from the “bitterness of homelessness and empty pockets,” from the “snare of mental illness and all discrimination,” and from the “deserts of ignorance and suffering.” He finishes with an echoing call. “And from all evil, from all evil, from all evil,” he sings. The responses trail into the night. “Save us, O God.”

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