A team from St. Mary Cathedral poses after working to pack boxes as part of the anti-hunger effort Lift Urban Portland. (Courtesy Mark Uhrich)
A team from St. Mary Cathedral poses after working to pack boxes as part of the anti-hunger effort Lift Urban Portland. (Courtesy Mark Uhrich)

Most visitors to Northwest Portland see its boutiques, trendy cafés and chic shoppers. A crew from St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception knows a more desperate side of the neighborhood.

The team volunteers with Lift Urban Portland, which provides fresh food from the Oregon Food Bank and donors to be distributed to small apartments and hotel rooms where disabled, elderly and other low-income people live.

“They are folded into the fabric of the city,” said Erin Goldwater, executive director of Lift Urban Portland.
Goldwater said the work could not happen without volunteers like those from the cathedral.

“The mission is to stop hunger,” said Franciscan Sister Connie Furseth, neighborhood liaison for the cathedral parish. 

Lift Urban Portland, begun in 1980, is an initiative of faith groups in Northwest Portland, including St. Mary’s, Trinity Episcopal, First Immanuel Lutheran, Temple Beth Israel and a group of Scientologists.

“That it’s ecumenical is really great,” Sister Connie said. 

The pantry is located at Immanuel Lutheran and the ministry keeps a warehouse near Montgomery Park.

Several dozen residential buildings are now on the delivery list. If more volunteers come forward, the outreach could expand to 50 buildings, said Mark Uhrich, a cathedral chorister and retired hydrologist who serves on the board of Lift Urban Portland.

The parish has sent an appeal for volunteers to parents of children from Cathedral School. Many have stepped forward.

Volunteers pack boxes and deliver them, always traveling in pairs. After the work is done, the tradition is to get a beer or hard cider, offered free for volunteers courtesy of Sasquatch Brewing.

“Catholics like beer I guess,” says Uhrich. “It’s a nice way to get to know others in your parish.”

In addition to volunteering and donating food, parishioners bring in their old egg cartons, which volunteers take to the warehouse to fill with eggs and place in food boxes.

Lift Urban Portland gets support not only from the faith groups, but from local McMenamin’s pubs, New Seasons Market and other local businesses interested in civic good.

Uhrich values the teamwork. “We think about how to work together cooperatively as a unit,” he said.

After retiring as a scientist in 2014, Uhrich wanted to give back to the community in a totally different way. He’d long had a passion helping people who are hungry, including at an annual free dinner hosted cooperatively by Temple Beth Israel and the cathedral. He found out the hope-filled meal was an initiative of Lift Urban Portland and he signed on.

The agency offers a program to teach low-income people how to cook, using the supplies in the boxes. The courses also cover how to have a healthy and balanced diet.

“All that is also a way to build community among people,” Uhrich said. “It’s a very successful program.”

Uhrich said that volunteers often get to know their clients, seeing them periodically. “That’s really nice,” he said.

He feels discouraged when people criticize the homeless or poor.

“Christ walked down the road and when he saw the lowest of the low he didn’t judge, he didn’t criticize — he reached out his hand and lifted them up,” Uhrich said. “We all benefit because we are a community.

When people feel they are not isolated, I feel have done my job.”