MARS HILL CHURCH is a wildly successful evangelical church with an indie bent: They host rock shows, make videos about "biblical oral sex" and, yes, they are on Twitter. But the church with seven campuses in the Seattle area is also known as virulently anti-gay. Co-founder Mark Driscoll has described gayness as a cancer and yoga as "demonic."
And the church's newest branch will be located in the heart of Southeast Portland.
The church made waves in the Sunnyside neighborhood last week after it inked a deal to buy a 1905 castle-like church on SE 32nd and Taylor for $1.25 million. The neighborhood couldn't be more out-of-sync with Driscoll's values: The area voted 90 percent for Obama in 2008 and the church is just down the block from a giant street mandala the neighborhood communally paints every year.
Mars Hill Church did not respond to requests for interviews, but on their website, Beaverton native and new Portland Pastor Tim Smith relates Portland's "sexual immorality" with his own tale of coming to Jesus.
"It is a city that is intensely independent and values freedom above almost everything else," says Smith. "It values sexual freedom as an end in itself, with a thriving sex industry that goes back more than a century."
The Portland branch is part of a major expansion by Mars Hill into several new cities, including Everett, Washington, and the Los Angeles area. The Seattle-based church has grown to mega-church stature in recent years, with 8,700 congregants and online sermons that reach millions weekly.
Produce company owner David Rinella has lived in the basement of the historic Sunnyside church since 2007, broadcasting video sermons from the late evangelical preacher Dr. Gene Scott every Sunday. Rinella explained that he sold the building, which seats up to 700 people, for $200,000 less than its market rate in part because he's tired of bickering with neighbors over building permit issues and paying for the building's high costs (he paid upwards of $11,000 last year in property taxes on the church, saying, "God doesn't need a write-off.")
Mars Hill Portland was slated to host its first sermon in the new space this Saturday morning, September 10, but announced on its website on Tuesday, September 6, that it was canceling its first day, ostensibly due to the annual Belmont Street Fair occurring that same day. On its website, the church encouraged its members to attend the street fair and "support the community."
But how the neighborhood will react to the new church remains to be seen. For direct neighbors, parking could trump politics as an issue with the church. Meanwhile, the organizers of LGBT dance night Blow Pony planned a "kiss-in" at the church's opening event. But progressive community leaders are pushing for conversation, not confrontation, with the conservative crew.
Barbara McCullough-Jones, executive director of queer resource group Q Center, points out that queer communities have often experienced the reverse of the situation Mars Hill Church is entering into: conservative neighborhoods who don't want LGBT-friendly businesses or centers setting up.
"To generically throw a blanket over their ability for free speech—we would not want that done to us," says McCullough-Jones. "I think they have miscalculated the support they're going to have by going into that neighborhood. One of the most productive ways that people can address this is to go and talk with the pastor. Go as a family, go as a group, meet the neighbors," she says. McCullough-Jones says she would also be happy to meet with the pastor and attend a service herself.
Civil rights activist and United Church of Christ Reverend Chuck Currie wrote an open letter to Pastor Smith inviting him out to coffee to discuss touchy topics like God's view on homosexuality. "I think there are a lot of conservative evangelicals who would love to come to Portland and reform the heathen liberals. But I think many heathen liberals actually have a lot to teach Christians," says Reverend Currie. "Maybe this will be a place for Mars Hill Church to learn."