Foundation leader reflects on 25 years of helping Salem churches practice what they preach

Sam Skillern, executive director of Salem Leadership Foundation, stands on the corner of State Street and Church Street in downtown Salem on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

If you ask Sam Skillern to take his photo, he’ll suggest meeting you outside Salem First United Methodist Church.

Skillern doesn’t have a particular tie to the congregation. But its location – at the intersection of Church and State streets – sums up how Skillern has spent the bulk of his career.

He’s the executive director of the Salem Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1996 to help local churches and faith communities find ways to improve their neighborhoods.

The foundation often flies under the radar in Salem but has had a hand in helping many other organizations get off the ground, including Salem for Refugees, homeless service provider Church at the Park, Salem Free Clinics and Family Promise.

“We don’t have a building or a classroom or a camp, and that’s by design,” Skillern said.

Salem Leadership Foundation recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Skillern has been at the helm since the group’s founding.

Its origins go back to 1993, when Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, convened a task force to address a rise in youth gang activity in the city. Clergy weren’t present at the first meetings, and when Courtney asked they be invited, it led to confusion.

There was no organized association of clergy or churches for civic leaders to reach out to. Skillern said that at the time, many Salem faith leaders didn’t believe they had a role to play in addressing gang violence or other social problems in the city.

“The leaders didn’t know who the church leaders were so there was all this clumsiness around who to invite to work on this problem,” he said. “When the invitations landed, most of the pastors and priests and rabbis said, ‘No thanks.’ There wasn’t hostility in those days between church and state. But there definitely was disconnect.”

Some Salem residents wanted to change that and began meeting, forming a group which would eventually become the Leadership Foundation.

“This was a group of people that really believed the church could help,” said Nancy Marshall, the foundation’s current board chair.

Skillern, who was raised in Salem, had a background in business consulting and had been working for Habitat for Humanity in Seattle. He started work in the fall of 1996 after the foundation incorporated and spent his first months on the job getting to know local clergy and civic leaders.

The foundation’s mission is to bring together “people of faith and people of goodwill” to make a difference in their neighborhoods.

Skillern’s early focus was to help churches get more involved in their neighborhoods, taking seriously the obligation in scripture to care for those suffering and love their neighbors.

At the time, he said, many churches would collect items for nonprofit organizations in Salem, but churches rarely ran their own programs or served as neighborhood centers.

Within a few months, the foundation helped start a new program at Grant Elementary: “Fantastic Fridays,” where volunteers flooded the school to work with students. Similar reading programs were soon adopted at Highland, Richmond and Bush elementary schools. Skillern helped the schools write a federal grant to fund after-school programs.

The foundation’s relationship with Grant is ongoing, said principal Marc Morris, who’s been at the school for four years. The foundation helped nearby Salem Alliance Church connect with Grant for regular programs, including making Thanksgiving and holiday baskets for struggling families.

“You’ve got to be careful when churches are working with schools that you’re not promoting the church, you’re not trying to convert members for them or gain members for them,” Morris said. The foundation and Salem Alliance “have done a great job” of keeping the lines between church and state clear, he said. Morris said when he needs volunteers for a school event, he can connect with Skillern and the foundation for help.

“They’re trying to make Salem and Keizer a better place for everyone and I think that’s refreshing. They have the right mentality, the right view of making change for the better,” Morris said.

In the foundation’s early years, another Salem church gave Skillern a model for community involvement.

Capital Park Wesleyan Church had just opened a community center in 2000. Pastor Jerry Sloan, who has since retired, said the decision came after he returned to Salem from 20 years living elsewhere and found the neighborhood he grew up in had changed dramatically.

“It used to be called ‘felony flats,’” he said. The neighborhood was overrun with drug deals and gangs, and there was little for kids to do after school.

“A group just started praying about what can we do to make a difference,” Sloan said.

They decided to build a community center and open their doors so young people and families would have a place to go to get help. After school programs and other efforts to help youth soon followed, and crime in the neighborhood began to fall.

Sloan said Skillern used their success as a model for other churches who were willing to make a difference in Salem but was unsure where to start.

Sam came by and saw it and said, ‘If a small church like you can do something like this, every church can do something like this’” Sloan said. “We kind of became the blueprint.”

The foundation now lists more than 20 local churches as neighborhood centers. Skillern said typically church leaders approach the foundation with an idea they need help getting off the ground. That could be opening as a warming center for homeless neighbors during the winter months or hosting a free health clinic.

Skillern and foundation staff work with church leaders to identify the need they want to meet in their neighborhood and help them strategize and buy supplies.

“We’re helping a church build their muscles, build their capacity,” Skillern said.

“They are, I think, a catalyst in our city to help people look beyond themselves,” said Gordon Bergman, pastor of pastoral care at Salem Alliance Church.

Salem Alliance runs several programs that the foundation provided early funding and support to, including Salem for Refugees, a network of local volunteers and agencies that helps newly resettled refugees find work and housing while adjusting to life in Salem.

Bergman said much of the foundation’s success builds on Skillern’s ability to bring people from various backgrounds together.

“When he’s in a meeting, his mind is going, ‘OK, what’s happening with the people in this room: Are they feeling included? Are they feeling excluded? Are they doing OK with whatever this gathering is about?’” Bergman said. “I think that personality trait is a high driving force in his life, and so for what SLF does, that’s gold.”

During the pandemic, Skillern said the foundation gave small grants of $1,000 or $2,000 to churches to set up learning hubs for students to get help with school.

Over the 25 years he’s worked in Salem, Skillern said he’s seen more willingness for people to work with each other toward solutions, even when they disagree over matters of theology or politics.

The intense political polarization on display over the past year at times made him question whether that trend would continue. But Skillern said he doesn’t think that connection is over, especially as people resume more normal life again.

“I just have confidence that good will prevail,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.