by Kourtney Hannaway
When Bonnie Hamit goes to work during the day, she must leave her husband at home alone. He’s blind. They’ve lived in Trainsong for years, but there are still days when he wanders off track while crossing the street for the mail. She fears how easily he could step into one of the gaping potholes that have been left unrepaired. Bonnie says, “It becomes not only a problem with the neighborhood, but a health issue.”
Trainsong, a neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon, is situated so that unless you’re going there specifically, you won’t. Marsha Phillips, who used to be a bus driver for the area, says, “This neighborhood is kind of forgotten.” And Jesse Lohrke, a Trainsong resident, adds, “We think it’s underappreciated.”
Trainsong has struggled with years of being ignored. It is beginning to find a voice through an unexpected, but welcomed, outlet: Bethel Community Church. This neighborhood congregation found its home in Trainsong 10 years ago. It is named after Bethel Christian Church, which owned the building in the ’50s and ’60s, when Trainsong was included in the Bethel section of Eugene. The name biblically means ‘House of God.’ During the past few years, Bethel Community Church has become a place for open, honest conversation, a refuge for families and the place to make change happen in Trainsong.
City officials didn’t realize the extent of the problems in the neighborhood, Phillips said, until a few of them came to a Christmas party last year put on by Bethel Community Church. “That’s what got the ball rolling.”
Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, who attended, says she loved the Christmas party and the singing children. Piercy has had a long relationship with Trainsong. She worked with the Department of Environmental Quality on railroad health and safety impacts. “Over the years,” she says, “we have worked on the Baxter plant cleanup, the roads, public safety and most recently trees.”
At a church service on Sunday, November 14, Brad Lane, the pastor of Bethel Community Church, described the recent focus on trees made possible partly by the Christmas party. He explained that the day before, he participated in the planting of 115 trees along the entrance of Trainsong. The trees will help pollution issues connected with the train yard and help with beautification. Lane said, “It was a blast.”
He says he enjoys helping the community and is thankful that the church has become a significant part of the change happening in Trainsong. At the planting, when he was being introduced to the mayor, Piercy told his introducers, “Oh I’ve been to his church; he has a great voice.” Her friendship is just one sign that Bethel Community Church does not only offer spiritual fulfillment, but is also a locus of influence in the area.
The change started simply, with a couple of people asking Lane if they could use the church as a meeting spot to discuss solutions to vandalism and unsupervised teens. Lane agreed, and from there eventually the Trainsong Neighbors Association started, city officials got involved, tree-planting grants became a reality and overall change began. “The church has become, some have said, the heart of what’s going on in the community,” Lane says. “And I say that not from a religious standpoint, but from the standpoint of being a place where people can come together and talk about the issues, be very open, and feel like it’s a safe place.”
Members of the congregation agree. Rose Devereaux, a Trainsong resident says, “The church has been a big plus for our neighborhood. The pastor is someone who cares for the neighbors whether they belong to the church or not.” And he does. Lane makes it a part of his job to take walks with his Dalmatian, George and get to know the neighbors. Deveraux says that one of the improvements she’s seen during her nine years living in Trainsong is neighbors working to get to know one another, which helps her feel safer. Lohrke says, “Everyone respects [the church’s] presence and neutrality. The pastor, Brad, is a lot of that.”
The connection to the surrounding neighborhood is representative of a larger change in the purpose and application of religion. Church attendance has not increased in recent difficult years, as predicted, but instead types of churches and congregational structures have seen significant change and in some cases, decline. A 2008 American Religious Identification Study found that almost all denominations have lost ground since 1990, despite the addition of 50 million adults to the population. This could be related to ongoing struggles over how to deal with sensitive issues like gay rights and marriage to unbelievers. But even smaller-scale concerns (such as how a church service should be conducted or how deeply to be involved in politics) create friction between members. In a book called Congregations in Conflict, Penny Edgell Becker explains the conflict: “At the heart of the community model is the commitment to balance caring for each member’s needs with exploring what stands to take on potentially divisive moral, social, and political issues.”
Bethel Community Church is a nondenominational Christian church. This is common for the region, with 27 percent of Oregonians considering themselves unaffiliated Christians. Members call Bethel Community ‘interdenominational,’ meaning they let people with any religious background or belief attend and participate. Lane says that sometimes this creates conflict, when individuals have firm beliefs about a certain issue. But he is willing to talk to anyone individually and work to find a compromise. That’s one of the things he values and enjoys most about the congregation. “We’re all working to together to find, hopefully, mutually beneficial solutions,” he says, “and that’s been very exciting.”
In order to find those solutions, Lane has to make sure people feel comfortable talking about what is bothering them. Creating an atmosphere of trust and compassion that makes people willing to open up in a productive way isn’t easy, however. One of the ways the church tries to foster such an environment is through religious education. Lane’s message in that November 14 sermon focused on outgoing concern for others and finding things in common. He mentioned the variety of people who were involved in the tree planting, saying, “They had different looks, clothing, hats, they were people who normally may be in disagreement. But we came together to do something cool, coming together with a common purpose, and we discovered we’ve got something in common.”
Donna Langan, the church’s bookkeeper, sees his efforts to create a tight community working. “There’s a closeness to other people,” she says, “like another family.” And although Lane’s messages are religious, his themes reach a secular audience as well. Mayor Piercy says, “I have appreciated the church creating sort of a community center for the area. The neighbors working together to make changes and give voice to Trainsong is a terrific contribution. I think every bit of that matters and improves quality of life.”
They are certainly improving the quality of life for Bonnie Hamit. “I’m so thankful for the neighbors,” she says. They are the ones who see her husband in danger and guide him back home. That’s the kind of community Trainsong is becoming.
Bethel Community Church is small, so it has relatively few events. The church service on Sunday mornings is their most substantial and consistent event. After Brad Lane greets everyone, the service begins with a few songs. Some stragglers walk in during this. Marsha Phillips runs the PowerPoint presentation that is projected on a screen. The slides show lyrics so the audience can participate when desired. A few members in front perform the songs, with Lane on lead guitar and vocals. Sometimes Lane mixes prayer in with the music. Afterwards, Lane encourages everyone to meet those around them, and to smile. He gives an uplifting, practical message that he thinks will benefit them that day. Sometimes, he says, he will change his prepared message if there is a theme more pressing or urgent. About halfway through, the children are released for ‘Children’s Church,’ and come back after the service with crafts in hand.
When just the adults are left, Lane moves into more somber topics, talking about mistakes in life and failings. But he comes back to the encouraging aspects of spirituality frequently. It is a simple service, built more around what seems to benefit the members than any particular tradition. Usually someone brings snacks for afterward and most members talk for a while.
Sometimes there are additional Bible studies or get-togethers on a Tuesday night. The men eat breakfast together on the first of each month, and put together work parties for those in need. The second weekend of each month is set aside for women’s ministry. The Christmas party is an annual event and most look forward to the pirate exchange, where they steal gifts from each other. Lane is excited about the possibility of more resources for families. He would like to provide seminars about parenting, and youth groups so same-age kids could participate in positive activities. All this is a ways off, but the “little connections,” like talking with kids at their bus stop, is a start.
Formerly known as Bethel Triangle Neighborhood, Trainsong is bordered by Maxwell Road on the north, Northwest Expressway on the east, Roosevelt Boulevard on the south and US Hwy 99 on the west. Train tracks surround the neighborhood.
Zip Code: 97402
Area: 1.418 square miles
Population: 1,775, 1.1% of Eugene population
Median Age: 28
The neighborhood contains many young families, with nearly 60% of households being families, and 1/3 of the residents being under 18.
Zoning: 50% industrial, 25% commercial, 25% residential
School District: 4j School District, North Eugene High School
The neighborhood includes Trainsong Park, at its center. The park is well-maintained and includes a section for skateboarding as well as swings, a jungle gym, and a merry-go-round.