When Franciscan Sister Theresa Lamkin walks in Portland’s gritty Old Town, she reminds people of everyone’s favorite sibling.
Those who struggle with disabilities, mental illness, poverty, criminal records, addictions, or just being homeless greet her and get back genuine warmth. Social workers hail her. Bus drivers wave.
The 55-year-old religious sister, pastoral coordinator at the Macdonald Center, wears a simple wooden cross and humble civilian clothes. She knows that people in this district are hungry for more than food. She tries to offer spiritual sustenance like healthy relationships, respect and prayer.
“We try to help them come back to recognize the love of God and to see they are every bit as valuable as the person who lives in a high-rise apartment,” says Sister Theresa, who has been serving people who are poor, homeless and mentally ill for a dozen years. She came to Macdonald Center three years ago.
She visits residents of the small, dark studio apartments in the area’s aged hotels. After a friendship starts, people often come to see Sister Theresa at the Macdonald Center Office on Northwest Sixth Avenue. Her aim is to meet their long-neglected emotional and spiritual needs. “They don’t wear the masks you and I wear,” she says. “What you see is what you get. They are pretty honest about where their faith is. We can really get down to questions like ‘What is your relationship with God?’ or ‘What gives you hope each day?’”
Most of all, people want to know that their lives mean something. One of the common questions Sister Theresa is asked is, “Do you think God can forgive me for everything I have done in my life?” She answers that God loves without condition.
“A lot of my mission is to help them realize they have a lot of worth and that God loves them just as they are,” she says. “God may not like the choices they make, but loves them as they are. It’s hard for someone to feel good about themselves when they are sleeping on a sidewalk or eating from a Dumpster. We work hard to help them see that they have value.”
Madonald Center has the motto “Hope in the Heart of Portland.” It was founded in 1991 by Holy Cross Father Richard Berg and his sister, Mary Sue Richen. The primary mission was to break down the isolation that is part of urban poverty. In addition to a drop-in center and a visiting ministry, Macdonald Center added an assisted living residence, which houses the poorest frail and elderly people in Portland. Then the center began offering money management and medication assistance. Last year, Macdonald Center built a new apartment building to serve the working poor.
Sister Theresa was born in Nebraska, one of four children of an Air Force officer. The Lamkins moved to Portland in the mid-1960s, when Theresa was in third grade. They put in roots at St. Clare Parish, served by Franciscan friars and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Young Theresa took her third grade teacher as a model. This religious sister had a way of making every child feel indispensable. “I loved how she talked about her faith and her relationship with God,” Sister Theresa explains.
After St. Clare, she attended St. Mary of the Valley, then a school for girls on what is now the Valley Catholic campus.
Now, as a Franciscan, she naturally loves St. Francis and St. Clare, the medieval saints who helped revolutionize religious life. “I like their simplicity,” Sister Theresa says. “I like that they were about relationships: relationship with God and relationship with others.”
She lives in a small community of Franciscans in Milwaukie. Once the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia sold their provincial house on Palatine Hill, they moved into neighborhoods all over the city to live in twos and threes. She belongs to Ascension Parish in Southeast Portland, served by Franciscan friars. During the week, she attends Mass at St. André Bessette Church. Frequently, people from the streets go with her.
Franciscan Sisters have long served Old Town. A group took up residence in a hotel in the 1970s and served the alcoholics and traveling men who then populated the neighborhood. Another Franciscan, the late Sister Maria Francis Waugh, founded Outreach Ministry in Burnside in the 1980s to serve mentally ill Oregonians who were then leaving the shuttered state institutions. Outreach Ministry, now merged with the Macdonald Center, was known as the place where the helpless and hopeless got a last chance. Sister Theresa says Macdonald Center is carrying on the legacy.
“The relationships with the people at Macdonald Center help them feel valued and loved,” Sister Theresa says. Her aim is not to convert people to Catholicism, but to help people foster their spirituality.
She focuses on the individual with her. The task is building a connection characterized by respect and love with people who have been rejected for most of their lives. “I walk into that community room and walk into the hotels and introduce myself,” she says. “You build that relationship and a sense of caring and trust. Later, when they are having a hard time or when things are going well in their lives, they want someone to tell.”
Some people who meet her are attracted to the Christian way of life. One woman felt bereft after a death in the family. She came to Sister Theresa and, though professing not to be religious, wanted to pray.
Another woman, with no religious background, said she feels so good around the center’s staff that she is curious about the church. “Many times we start with a smile or a handshake and we build on that,” Sister Theresa explains. “Then people come and talk about God in their lives.”
Sister Theresa leads women’s and men’s groups and retreats. Residents take field trips in to the mountains. Often, the goal is letting people on the margins of society know they are worthwhile.
Often, it’s the people who are poor and homeless who create bonds of community. They reach out to help one another with wisdom gained on the streets. Sister Theresa describes this peer ministry as one outcome of the universal call to holiness.
Once their own basic needs are met, people on the streets begin to feel intense compassion for others. They come to Sister Theresa after hearing about tragedy in the news. They want to help after horrors like Newtown and the Boston Marathon bombing.
Sister Theresa urges them to pray and honor victims by helping people right in front of them. “How can you create peace in your heart and peace with your neighbor?” she asks them. “That is what we are sending out to the rest of humanity. That is how we build up the Kingdom of God.”
On occasion, one of those forgotten poor will promise to pray for Sister Theresa. It almost makes her weep because of the sheer grace.
Sister Theresa was invited to Spokane to give a talk on vocations at Gonzaga University in Spokane. She emphasized everyone has a vocation and is called to serve.
“There is not a single one of us who doesn’t have a vocation. In the old days, the priest was up here, religious were here and the laity was down here,” she says, using crisp hand motions to illustrate the hierarchical thinking. “There isn’t any of that now. Each person’s vocation is every bit as important as the next person’s.”
In ministry, Sister Theresa says, the divine and the earthly mingle. When she carries out what appears to be a daily task, like visiting someone at a downtown hotel, it may be the love of God that has motivated her.
“When someone is struggling or dying, I am present to them in whatever way they need,” she says. “I pray that I can be Christ’s presence and say what they need to hear, that Christ will speak through me.”
“Sister Theresa is all about love,” says Michael Schoenfeld, who lives in Macdonald Center assisted living. “It doesn’t matter to her who you are or what color you are, or if you’re angry that day. That’s what she’s about.”