- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

This past week I’ve been vacationing in America’s most unchurched state.

Seventeen percent of all Oregonians describe themselves as nonreligious, the nation’s highest percentage of the religiously unaffiliated, according to adherents.com. But you can’t tell this from simply driving around the place.

Around Portland, there are two Protestant seminaries, several religiously affiliated colleges (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, evangelical Protestant and independent Bible) and a lively ecumenical movement. Youth With A Mission, a large missions group, has one of its training centers in Salem, an hour south of Portland.

A Mormon temple sits by a freeway in nearby Lake Oswego. As a student at Lewis and Clark College in southwest Portland, I learned the basics of Jewish holidays at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center a few miles away. I have never encountered Buddhists in Oregon, but according to adherents.com, they’re more numerous than Jews.

During my days as a reporter in nearby Oregon City, my most memorable assignment involved visiting in 1982 a commune belonging to followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a guru who set up his own city, Rajneeshpuram, in central Oregon, where wearing red, orange or pink (the colors of the sun) was mandated.

Yet my alma mater - and Reed College just across the Willamette River - were listed by the 2007 Princeton Review as two of America’s 10 “most godless” campuses.

Despite this, religion in Oregon surfaces like a perennial flower. One of the country’s best-known Gen X authors, Don Miller, writer of the 2003 evangelical memoir “Blue Like Jazz,” worked at a campus Christian ministry at Reed.

William Paul Young, author of the best-selling 2007 book “The Shack,” set in northeast Oregon, lives in nearby Gresham. He grew up in Canada, came to Portland to attend Warner Pacific College - an evangelical school - and never left.

Still, two conversations with journalist friends in Salem and Eugene revealed the paucity of religion reporters in newspapers around the state. Far more staff in many Oregon newsrooms is devoted to covering the environment.

The night before I Ieft Portland, I stopped by Good Samaritan Ministries in nearby Beaverton, a major aid group for people in the Third World and a teaching, healing and training center for Christian counselors. I met its founder, Bettie Mitchell, in the early 1980s, when she taught Bible classes at Portland Community College. They were packed because Bettie had a way of asking disturbing questions about Jesus’ radical demands and playing off people’s answers to create more questions. Instead of blithely sailing through a passage, she wanted listeners to interact with it and apply it.

After an encounter with God on the walls of Nineveh, Iraq, in 1976, she quit her junior high school teaching job and began expounding on the Bible. She also began counseling people in her home and founded a ministry that has aided the brokenhearted around the world. As I got to know her, I discovered a person with a rare ability to see beyond people’s humble and plain exteriors to the inner self.

Maps of 16 African countries line the walls of her Beaverton office with photos of the poor - people who would have never risen above life’s depths had a teacher from Oregon not taken pity on them.

“The roads of life are very, very difficult,” she says. “Sometimes we feel we can’t make it, but we must make it.”

Now 74, she will retire next June. Oregon will be the poorer when she is gone.

  • Julia Duin’s column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at [email protected]

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