by Eric Howald
Looking back, the stained glass made them do it. Sixteen years ago, psychology professor Bob Buckler and his wife, Debbie, sold their new home in Tigard and moved their family into the Old Laurel Hurst Church, a decaying Spanish Colonial Revival-style church in Portland. After hearing the 84-year-old building was going to be replaced with condominiums, Buckler dodged the local transients sleeping on the property to look over the building. It was then he saw the church’s 11 ornate stained glass windows.
“He came home and told me he couldn’t believe the windows were going to be taken out and split up for an auction,” says Debbie. Soon, she felt the same way.
“I just wanted it to stay a church,” she says.
They made an offer and life changed.
After long days of teaching and seeing patients, Bob returned to his new 24,000-square-foot home to be handyman and janitor. With more than 30 rooms, there was plenty of work to do.
“We had no idea what we’d gotten into. I tell everyone we were psychotically optimistic. For the first 10 years, it was just like a second job,” says Bob.
Before they installed a kitchen in their living quarters, Debbie often would find herself counting the 44 steps from the basement, where the old church kitchen was, to the third floor, where the family lived. Their three children weren’t in favor of the move, but took full advantage to avoid parental discipline.
“We used to run into the sanctuary and hide under the pews,” says Sara, the youngest and a current student at George Fox.
“It would take forever to find them,” says Bob.
“The first couple of years were hard,” says Debbie. “There was a lot of crying, but also a lot of praying.” She would retreat to the sanctuary. “I’d tell him, ‘Lord this is your place. We’re just stewards, and if things are going to happen, we need help.’” The Lord brought the weddings, Debbie says.
During their first year at the church, two couples knocked on the door to inquire about using the church to exchange vows. The number increased each year. “It got to be too much; I had to quit teaching to handle the weddings,” Debbie says. Debbie now handles about 75 weddings a year, some with receptions. She’s become something of an authority on the matrimony ceremony. Ballerinas and hairdressers are the toughest brides.
“They’re just too worried about how everything looks, they can’t see the big picture,” says Debbie.
The family also rents the church for meetings and seminars. A couple of congregations have used the facility as a temporary home. Until they outgrew the space last Thanksgiving, the Imago Dei Community conducted three services every Sunday. Sharing a building with a church of 1,500 required flexibility. Singing drifted through the wall into their living area. Youth groups, Sunday school, and prayer meetings spilled into the upstairs bedrooms of children away at college.
Since the Bucklers took their leap of faith to save the church, thousands have entered the restored building. Many marvel at the stained glass.
“I think the Lord wanted us to do this,” says Bob. “But if there’s another church that needs renovating somewhere, we’re hoping that someone else is called.”