by: Aubrie Aurand, Rev. Virgil Brown will lead the new Gresham Bible Church, which will hold its first service Easter Sunday, April 8, at Dexter McCarty Middle School.

The Rev. Virgil Brown, an African-American, says he and several other Gresham Christians are hoping to establish a church where people of all races feel comfortable mingling and worshiping together.

'Gresham is increasingly becoming diverse,' he says. 'But you'd be hard-pressed to find a church that reflected that.'

At 10:30 a.m., Easter Sunday, April 8, Gresham Bible Church will hold its inaugural service at Dexter McCarty Middle School, 1400 S.E. Fifth St., Gresham. The new church will offer upbeat music at its worship services, and sermons no longer than 30 minutes, Brown says with a smile.

'People's attention starts to fade - unless you're really good - after 30 minutes,' he says.

Of the new church's 40 or so founding members, at least 10 are men and women - including Brown - who are in racially mixed marriages, he says.

Eric Wood, who will be helping the new church with its Web site and media presentations, says Gresham Bible's commitment to diversity was a factor in his decision to join. Many of Gresham Bible's members like the churches they attend, but are looking for a challenge, he says.

'I think we're all comfortable in the churches we're in now, but sometimes I think it's good not to be comfortable for the greater good of expanding God's kingdom,' he says.

The new church, which is renting space from the middle school, is an offshoot of Cornerstone, a nondenominational Christian congregation that meets at Powell Valley Grade School, at 4825 E. Powell Valley Road, Gresham.

Cornerstone has given Gresham Bible $50,000 to help it get established, says the Rev. Barry Arnold, Cornerstone's pastor.

In addition to wanting to support a new church devoted to racial diversity, Cornerstone also espouses a philosophy of 'planting' churches, Arnold says. Cornerstone already has 350 members, he says, and does not want to become a big church. He also says such mid-sized churches are what more and more people want.

'I think when you get to a certain size, you start managing people instead of loving them,' he says. 'As our culture becomes more impersonal, I think churches need to become more personal.'

Arnold's son, Brian, and Brian's wife, Emily, have joined Gresham Bible. Echoing his father's comments, Brian says the new church offers more leadership opportunities to its members because it's smaller.

The couple also says the new church hopes to reach out to Gresham's growing Hispanic population, as well as support overseas missions.

On that note, Brown says he plans to challenge the church's members to serve those in need.

'There's Christians who feel it's not the church's role to serve the poor,' he says.

Some Christians believe they should only serve others' spiritual needs, and that engaging in charity only enables poor people to engage in behaviors that keep them poor, he says.

Yet such thinking contradicts the Bible, he says. Jesus fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, Brown says, creating a model for his followers.

'It's caring for the spiritual man and the physical man,' he says.

To that end, Gresham Bible members may engage in such ministries as helping people get their cars fixed, providing food to low-income residents or tutoring people who need it.

'If we know about it, we're going to do something about it,' Brown says.

Among the services the church members plan to offer its landlord, Dexter McCarty Middle School, is landscaping, says Tim Tutty, the school's principal.

'He's very willing to assist us in any way he can,' Tutty says of Brown.

In doing so, Gresham Bible will imitate Cornerstone, whose members volunteer at Powell Valley functions on a regular basis, the pastor says.

'We try to make them glad we're there,' Arnold says.

One couple glad to join Gresham Bible are Sovann Pen, a first-generation Cambodian-American, and his wife, Julie, who is white. The couple has three children, and Sovann says Gresham Bible's ethnic diversity was attractive to them.

The church also offers a chance for healthy relationships with others, he says. As a professional counselor, he says the support the new church plans to offer its members is what people need today.

'If we did that as a church community, I'd probably have less work as a counselor,' he says.

Brown says he wants to foster good relationships among church members and says he plans to preach honestly and directly and invite the church's members to respond in kind.

'People want to be open about their feelings, their doubts about their faith,' he says. 'I want to be able to let my guard down when I'm around people I love.'

For more information about Gresham Bible, call 503-679-3641.

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