Charles Addy McGee II
Interview by Denise Jarrett-Weeks
When the life you know is collapsing—your country is at war with itself, your career is being wrested from you, and you may soon become a hunted man—you know you must go. To protect your family, you must go ahead without them, to a safe place and send for them.
For Charles Addy McGee II, who was a high-ranking official in the Liberian government of West Africa when civil war broke out, that meant turning a 1991 work trip to the United States into a quest for political asylum. And then a long and anxious wait to reunite with his family.
While he waited, Grace Episcopal Memorial Church waited with him.
Charles explains. “My odyssey with Grace started with my brother James Smith,” who had immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Portland. The brothers had grown up attending Trinity Episcopal Church in Monrovia, Liberia. So, when James got to Portland he looked for an Episcopal church to join. “Of all the churches [James] visited, he got the warmest welcome here.”
So, Charles came to Grace: “It was like an appointment with God.”
“People came during coffee hour and heard my story,” he recalls. “They started to give me leads for job opportunities and, miraculously, the following week, I followed those leads and got a job as a substitute teacher at Open Meadows School and as a research assistant for the public schools.”
He recalls, “In no time, I was given the key to the church.” In those days, church membership was small and ever dwindling, and many things at the church needed tending. Charles got to work doing whatever needed doing, from cleaning the churchyard to accepting an invitation to serve on the vestry. The groundwork for a new life was being laid, but it couldn’t really begin until he had his family back.
“As of Day One, the church had prayed for my family to be reunited, every day,” says Charles. It took nearly two years before Charles’ wife, Cecelia, and their five children joined him in Portland. At that time, Fr. Jay McMurren was rector at Grace.
When Charles told Fr. McMurren that his family’s visas had been finally approved, “Without missing a beat he asked, when do I want my family here?” Charles started to tell him that he’d raised $1,200 so far toward their travel costs. But Fr. McMurren interrupted him and repeated, “‘When do you want your family here?’ And then it dawned on me that he wanted to help; we had not discussed this before. I said, one month. He said, ‘Oh no, that’s too long.” Fr. McMurren gave him a credit card and told him to buy airline tickets, telling him, “We want your family here in two weeks.”
Finally, his family arrived in Portland. “We were the only black family with kids at Grace. People would ask me why don’t you take your family to the black Episcopal church. My response was always: I am always accepted here, I’m not treated any differently. I don’t see the need to find another church. The culture was, and still is, so welcoming; people go out of their way to befriend you.”
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When Charles took his first job in Portland, teaching social studies at Open Meadow Charter School, it was an apt fit.
“Liberia was established by freed American slaves, so our education system was modeled after the American education system,” he says. As a young person, he was drawn to social studies and a lot of his studies focused on American history.
“Social studies is my passion. I’m fascinated with history. I’m fascinated with the past, present, and the future. I’m looking for how, as a human race, we function and how we can make the world a better place for everybody. I feel that a lot of progress has been made. The world is smaller because of communication, because of travel, so…all ills that were hidden are now exposed. With awareness, the human condition continues to improve. Our progress has been made over time.
“That’s one of the reasons why I continue coming to Grace, because of its social justice advocacy,” says Charles. “When I came to Grace, I was received here as a human being. People heard my story, and people helped.
“Grace has become a home-away-from-home,” he continues. “The diversity in the church, it has not just happened overnight. The church has continually worked to improve race relations.”
This is a value he and Cecelia have instilled in their children. And at Grace, their children had meaningful opportunities for putting those values into action.
“Grace has been a great training ground for kids,” says Charles. “There’s no barrier to anything that they wanted to do in the church. It’s just been an open environment for their spiritual and emotional growth.”
Now grown, the McGee children have carried that social justice advocacy into their communities, working on behalf of Portland’s refugees; serving on the state’s medical board; helping Liberia build schools, clinics, and wells; running for school board; speaking publicly and influentially about race relations in the state’s largest school district and prompting that district to adopt race sensitivity training for teachers.
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Our country, at present, is riven; how should Grace proceed?
“Continuously educate our congregation that we are doing God’s work. We can’t rest. It’s got to be ongoing: 24/7. That’s the only way to continue to bridge the divide.”
We are divided, he says, by our incomes, by our zip codes, when we should consider ourselves borderless. “We are a big village; we are one big neighborhood. We must be part of the change, it’s a call for everyone. We all have to work to make things better.”
“Grace is a prayer powerhouse. My appointments with God have continued since coming to Grace. My family is miraculously blessed.”
Charles McGee has served on Grace’s vestry multiple times; he is a lay Eucharistic minister, and he serves on Oregon’s Diocesan Counsel. He has been a middle-school teacher and nursing home administrator, and policy assistant in the office of the mayor. Today, he teaches African History at Clark College, a course that he developed. He serves on the board of directors for Africa House, chairs Oregon Outreach, and is community accounts manager for United Way. Charles and Cecelia have been members at Grace for nearly 25 years.