MULTNOMAH UNIVERSITY (formerly Multnomah Bible College) is something of an oasis in the rough seas of East Portland's Montavilla neighborhood.
The quiet, tree-filled campus, with its modern dorms and tidy mid-century administrative building, sits just a few hundred feet from the busy, fast-food-filled intersection of NE 82nd and Glisan and its struggles with sprawl, crime, and streetwalkers.
And that's either one of the 77-year-old evangelical school's biggest blessings—providing a front-row seat to the struggling, sinful world its students are expected to teach and heal−or its biggest curse. For many of the religious kids who move here from up and down the West Coast, it's one more reason to stay safely parked inside something many students call "the Multnomah Bubble."
"It's a thing," says one student, Josh. "There are people who don't think there's a world outside the campus. If you don't ever leave, it's easy to think this is all there is."
Welcome to life on a small, insular campus where most of the 600 to 700 students know nearly everyone's name and story—and where gossip passes through lips just as often as prayer.
"There's a small-town feel," a recent student tells me, the sense you might meet lifelong friends and set down roots. "But you wouldn't want to be the girl who got pregnant. Which happened."
Once upon a time, Multnomah, which moved to its current campus in the 1950s, would openly describe itself as a bastion of fundamentalism. That's a bad word nowadays. But that's essentially what it still offers.
The Christian Bible remains the throbbing heart of the place. Every undergrad is required to major in biblical studies and theology, and faculty must sign contracts assuring they believe certain fundamental principles. Students also must agree to swear off drinking, premarital fucking, and tobacco.
"It's not just because it's Christian," Josh tells me. "It's just smart advice for college kids who are focusing on their studies."
(The trick is to wait for one of the school's seasonal breaks. Those rules? They suddenly don't apply anymore. "On the first day of break, there's always big parties," a recent student tells me.)
Most students live in on-campus dorms where resident assistants keep a close eye on conduct. But some live off-campus. The college also provides apartment-style housing for married students.
Change has come slowly to Multnomah, which has battled declining enrollment. It hasn't been so long since the students' "contract" with the school read more like the plot of Footloose: no dancing or R-rated movies.
And the place re-branded in 2008 as Multnomah University, playing up the liberal arts education it's increasingly trying to layer on. Double majors, still Christian themed, can be had in history, literature, or counseling. (But be warned: You could end up spending as much as $14,000 a semester, so you better make sure getting a bunch of credits that won't transfer easily is worth it to you.)
"I don't feel like I was indoctrinated," one student tells me.
The school has a modest dining hall, commuter lounge, and coffee shop. (The "hip" students can be found off campus, at Bipartisan Café at SE 78th and Stark). It also has an athletic program with men's basketball and women's volleyball.
The library is cozy, and you can check out secular books like The Satanic Verses and Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. Except those books are on the bottom floor, in the back, and in the dark.
Oh, and because I checked, I also noticed there were no books on sex or sexuality—which, as any preteen boy with a library card can tell you, are the last refuge of the porn-starved. The best you could get was a single copy of The Reproductive System and its two clinical drawings of the male and female genitalia.
Of course, there's always the Old Testament (reliably sexy!). And pictures of Multnomah's most famous alumna, Bettie Page.