Icon invites those on the margins to healing

by Ed Langlois,
Catholic Sentinel – September 3, 2009

Aiming to enhance hospitality to the poor, a downtown Portland Catholic parish has beautified its building and added an icon that speaks to those on the margins.

“From the poverty and brokenness of many who worship here all of us become healers for the community,” Archbishop John Vlazny told worshipers who filled the small St. Vincent de Paul Downtown Chapel for a dedication Mass last month. “The community may be torn apart with drug addiction, homelessness and mental illness, but it becomes a healing community because of the mercy of Jesus Christ.”

After Mass, scores of worshipers walked with the 3-by-4-foot icon of Christ the Healer around the bustling block, praying for the neighborhood. Homeless people sitting on benches or pushing shopping carts looked on in wonder.

At the end of the procession, some strong arms hung the icon above the church’s tabernacle and the congregation broke into spontaneous applause.

“It was an important moment in the life of the parish,” says Holy Cross Father Bob Loughery, the pastor. “This is something we stand for and believe in: the healing presence of Christ in our neighborhood. We are agents of that.”

Father Jon Buffington, a chaplain at Providence Portland Medical Center, wrote the icon of Christ the Healer. Such images are “written,” not “painted,” to show their link with scripture and their divine influence.

Christ stands at the center under a canopy representing the Church, with Mary Magdalene to his left and a beggar to his right. Small stick-figure demons just cast out of Mary spin into the wilderness and she has the beginnings of a halo. The beggar, who has a backpack like many homeless people here, reaches toward Christ’s outstretched hand.

Many homeless and mentally ill people are identifying with the images, feeling invited to a relationship with Christ.

Carleen Corbett, 65, has found herself sitting and praying often before the icon. Now a volunteer who helps homeless people with food, clothing and even art and music, she has wrestled with mental illness.

“Christ the Healer has a lot of meaning for me,” she says. “It seems people are drawn to it. We have lots and lots of people who come here with tremendous problems and brokenness. If you’ve gone though it you have an awareness of what other people are experiencing.”

Each Wednesday evening, a 5 p.m. Mass is dedicated to healing from addictions and mental illness.

The parish counts about 120 steady members, but a data base of friends and supporters amounts to about 900.

The chapel’s leaders asked for some local landmarks in the new icon. Father Buffington included the Burnside Bridge and the Willamette River, which he calls symbols of the holy city and the waters of baptism. They are also places frequented by the homeless community.

“It puts Christ right in the forefront of our mission,” Andy Noethe, the pastoral associate, says of the icon. “It creates a bridge between faith and service, Christ the Healer as a focal point of worship and service.”

Many volunteers who serve here once knew hard times themselves. The step after healing is outreach, many will explain.

The chapel’s worship space is still uncluttered, with a monastic feel. But the plain white walls have been replaced by color and lighting creates an intimate and quiet space for encountering the holy. The carpet has been taken up in place of a simple concrete floor.

It’s all a striking contrast with what is just outside the door, Burnside Street with its feverish pace and complexity.

In addition to indoor upgrades, the exterior of the former hotel is getting work to make it more identifiable as a church and ministry of hospitality. Soon, a series of plaques will show images of hands performing service. Those images are being paid for by a city development grant.

The chapel’s Web site address appears in steel letters high above the sidewalk, as does a cross.

Still to come is a plaque with a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “As often as you did it for one of my least brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

Richard Brown, the Portland architect who oversaw the improvements, says he hopes the work “has a warming and embracing effect, a welcoming effect.”

The building improvements make the chapel more noticeable in the community, says Sophia Tzeng, a 35-year-old mother of three, business consultant, writer and parishioner.

Tzeng is impressed by the deep quality of the service to the poor here. It’s not done in a hurried way, but in a beautiful and respectful manner, she says. Those are the same qualities she sees in the upgrades and the icon.

“There is an uplifting feeling,” Tzeng says. “In this church, there is spirit of service and an action of service that become one.”

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