By Ed Langlois

Of the Sentinel

More than 1,100 church- and synagogue-goers on Sunday demanded that a Southeast Portland church be allowed to continue weekly outreach suppers as a constitutive part of its faith life.

The rally at First United Methodist Church was Portland's largest interfaith gathering on record. Shoulder to shoulder in the overflowing sanctuary, Christians, Jews and Muslims often leaped to their feet and cheered in support of Sunnyside Centenary United Methodist Church.

Last month, a city land-use hearings officer closed down Sunnyside Methodist's Wednesday and Friday evening fellowship meals. The hearings officer, Elizabeth Normand, cited neighbor complaints that diners - some of whom are homeless - were causing crime and sanitation problems in the neighborhood.

The City Council is scheduled to take up the ruling and Sunnyside Methodist's appeal on Wednesday, March 1. On Sunday, Feb. 27, hundreds of church supporters will gather at Sunnyside Methodist to reaffirm their stand.

Although the group of neighbors sees the situation as a land-use debate, religious leaders see Normand's decision as an affront to religious liberty and the common good.

'What we demand of our city officials is the unequivocal cessation of this assault on kindness that it seems only people of faith can speak for in this day and age,' Rabbi Joey Wolf told the large assembly.

As the crowd gave the rabbi a standing ovation, he walked from the podium and received a bear hug from another speaker - Father Jack Mosbrucker of St. Charles Borromeo Parish. It was that kind of a day for religion.

'Serving these poor and protecting people who need protection is part of our faith,' Father Bob Krueger of St. Andrew Parish said after the gathering. The priest added that the large rally 'put a human face' on the city's social woes.

Pat Schweibert, coordinator of the Wednesday evening supper, says Normand erred in considering the church's ministry mere social service. 'We are a church holding a fellowship supper and inviting neighbors. We sing, we pray, we eat and we tell our stories. We do what families do together. . . .We will continue to share our lives and food with the poor, not because of permission given by the city, but because it is a mandate given by the God we serve.'

The Wednesday meal, served family-style with china plates and silverware, has been a part of Sunnyside's ministry for 14 years. After neighbors began to raise concerns two years ago, the church hired a security guard and commissioned a night foot patrol.

In her decision, Normand said the efforts were not likely to help.

'This raises the specter of the government deciding what are legitimate activities and what are not,' the Rev. Steven Sprecher, superintendent of the metro region's United Methodist Church, told the overflow congregation.

The religious community has used the Sunnyside case to highlight its position on key social issues in Portland. Organizers of the rally had the crowd vow to lobby the city not only on the evening meals, but on creating a permanent fund to boost affordable housing citywide.

Rising housing costs, stagnant wages and gentrification in places like Sunnyside have left Portland with a growing group of 'working poor,' said Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Southeast Portland.

'This is a livability issue,' Chapman said, borrowing a buzzword from neighbors concerned about the meal nights. 'Portland is becoming a beautiful city. But the hidden cost, the human cost, is very high. Even working people cannot afford to have both housing and food on the table.'

Of the more than 100 religious groups on hand, dozens were Catholic. The Archdiocese of Portland sent delegates, as did the Sisters of the Holy Names, the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon and 20 Catholic parishes.

'A gathering to address a constitutional issue became our opportunity to identify with the poor,' says Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland. 'We began by calling them our guests and then recognized them as part of the community of faith.'

One of the hundreds of people who came to the rally by MAX train was the Rev. Pat Harkins, who served at Sunnyside Methodist for five years ending in 1993.

A veteran of ministry among homeless people, Rev. Harkins sat in a light rail car surrounded by men and women who said they frequented the Sunnyside meals.

'It's easy to dump everything on the poor,' Harkins said. He told the tale of one Sunnyside neighbor who came to him claiming that a meal visitor had stolen her watering can. As the minister and the woman spoke, the woman's husband walked to them holding the can, saying he had stored it in the garage because he was tired of tripping over it.

'These are humane people who come to the dinners, but because they have dirt under their fingernails, they can't be trusted,' says a miffed Rev. Harkins, still a resident of Sunnyside. 'The problem is, we've got yuppies moving in and they don't want those sort of people to ruin their nice little environment.'

Normand's Jan. 14 ruling included a controversial 70-person cap on the size of Sunnyside Methodist's Sunday congregation and weekly Bible classes. Constitutional law scholars argue that the limit is unconstitutional. In a Feb. 7 memo, city attorney Kathryn Beaumont suggested that the City Council nix the cap from the ruling.

Normand left intact Sunnyside's night shelter, a day care center and an Indochinese Socialization Center.

Sunday's rally was organized in part by a group called Metropolitan Broad-Based Organizing.

With a core of churches - including more than a dozen Catholic parishes - the group seeks allies among labor unions, schools and other institutions. High on the organizing project's agenda are affordable housing and higher wages.

Members of the coalition such as Father Krueger of St. Andrew's say the Sunnyside case may help solidify a religious presence in the halls of government.