Here are some reflections on my visit to Portland Avenue Church of Christ in Louisville last evening.
I spent the day at Kirkpatrick Lectures held in conjunction with the North American Christian Convention. I decided late in the afternoon to forego the evening session at NA to find the Portland Avenue building and visit for Wednesday services. My time was limited and I had to be back in Nashville that night. Not knowing when I would have time to visit PA for services, I set out. I knew the general area of town in which to look, and after several turns and stopping once for directions I was pulling in just as services were starting.
The area of town, to the west of downtown Lousiville, along the river, is a working class neighborhood of row houses, city lots, brick and stone factories, schools and small businesses. I suspect an exodus to the suburbs is partly responsible for its decline. The area has seen better days.
After some helpful directions I soon found a simple, white clapboard church, the Portland Avenue Church of Christ. Immediately my eye was drawn to the vintage black-and-gold-lettered sign on the front of the building: “All are welcome here, especially the stranger and ther poor.” The white building is surrounded by a lush green lawn. Adjoining the back of the building is the facility for the Portland Christian School. This school is among the oldest primary and secondary schools still in operation by members of Churches of Christ. If memory serves me correctly it is the second-oldest, behind what is now called David Lipscomb Campus School in Nashville.
A nice young man took me down a hallway lined with colorful art projects and posters, past classrooms with children to the prayer-meeting, assembled in the Boll Memorial Library.
I found four elderly members, three ladies and one gentleman, discussing the needs of those on their sick-list. They warmly welcomed me and we exchanged introductions. That I was in town and stopped by to visit pleased them (you do have to want to find Portland Avenue, it is out of the way a bit); that I knew of Brother Boll and Brother Olmstead (whose portraits hung on the wall above the high bookcases containg Boll’s library) especially surprised them. I am from Hendersonville, not very far at all from Gallatin, where Olmstead preached. I knew a few people from the Gallatin church, although we haven’t had contact in several years.
We prayed for the sick, mentinoning their families, loved ones, caregivers and doctors in earnest hope for healing and peace. Following the Amen they discussed the needs of their missionaries, in detail and each by name. I recognized most of the names from my reading the Word and Work. Yet the people I knew only by name they knew as people, as family, and as ones sent and supported by the church. Many times someone would say “They really need our prayers, we must not forget them.” We prayed for the missionaries, in detail and by name. We then discussed the affairs of the world, especially Israel and the Palestinians and the war in Iraq. We prayed for the leaders and decision-makers in our land and in other lands in earnest hope for peace. Discussion afterward turned to their beloved minister, Alex Wilson, and how much they appreciated him. We then prayed a final time, for Alex and the congregation. Again, in earnest and with hope that God would work through them for good in their community.
One of the ladies attended Central in the early 30’s when she was completing a Master’s degree at Peabody. One of the ladies and her husband (Mr. and Mrs. Robert Heid) were entertained for an evening meal in the home of J. W. Shepherd. She vividly recalled the hospitality and graciousness of both J. W. and Julia. Robert would later edit and publish the Word and Work; he also would later preach for a time at Portland Avenue. It has been 20 years since he passed from this life to eternity; she, and Heid printing, still print the paper and mail it out each month from a little wooden-frame building adjacent to the Portland Avenue property.
They showed me the auditorium where for over 40 years R.H. Boll preached. New flooring and air-conditioning notwithstanding, it is essentially the same as it was back then. These ladies grew up in the community, attended Portland Christian School, and regaled me with stories about how the building was often packed to overflowing. They told me about how Boll was a studious, meek, and humble man. They told me how he urged them to study the scriptures for themselves, and not believe anything because he or anyone else said to, but because it is what the scriptures teach. Somewhere online is a sermon or two by Boll. I forget the site; but I must listen to them again.
They took me to the Word and Work Bookstore where I bought a few tracts and booklets by Don Carlos Janes, J. R. Clark, Stanford Chambers and Boll. My great-grandfather admired Boll, and subscribed to WW. His son, Dr. McGarvey C. Ice, did as well. He read it faithfully each month. My own personal memories of seeing and reading the WW, and hearing my grandfather speak highly of Boll and his attitude toward scripture and prophecy made the visit to this little shop all the more meaningful.
The prayer-meeting, with just the five of us, will stand out in my memory, I hope, for a long time to come. Seeing the Boll library, and knowing that the study of these books played a deeply significant role in the life of the Portland Avenue church and in the readership of the WW, was particularly meaningful. One book story: I pulled from the shelf Boll’s Lessons on Hebrews, (McQuiddy 1910). Penned inside is a notation, to the effect of: “First Copy, to my dear wife, love Robert, 1910.” In a moment, as I stood in the library holding that book, Boll’s scholarship, ministerial and pastoral presence in the PA congregation, and his humanity came together in a profound way.
More could be said, but this is enough to convey the essence of a wonderful visit to the Portland Avenue church. Someday I hope to return for worship and research.
Who else has been to Portland Avenue? Please share your memory.
Grace and peace,