An Unlikely Church-State Partnership in Portland

The church is breaking stereotypes in one of America’s most progressive, unchurched cities.

When I tell people I’m from Portland, Oregon, I half expect them to launch into some line from the show Portlandia, which is spot-on in pointing out some of the quirky things that make my hometown so lovably weird.

After all, it’s a town where 8,000 citizens cycle naked through the streets on an annual basis, where coffee is king, and where microbrews are a dime a dozen. But it’s not all black coffee and beer and bare biking. Portland is buzzing with life and creativity. (Maybe it’s from all that caffeine.) It is an energetic city full of culture and art and beauty and adventure.

And despite being among the most unchurched and politically progressive cities in the nation, Portland is also home to one of the most vibrant Christian communities I have ever seen.

CityFest Central Arkansas with Luis Palau - October 24, 2009 - Image by Brad Person - 612.207.4230
A homeless outreach event co-sponsored by CityFest Central Arkansas in and the Arkansas Homeless Coalition.

With its unique edge and in-your-face personality, Portland fosters a measure of grit and tenacity in everyone who calls it home. Which is exactly why, a few years back, a handful of pastors in the city felt the confidence to join together and discuss ways to break down the negative stereotypes that have plagued the church and kept many people from hearing the core message of Jesus.

We were tired of the “us vs. them” mentality. We were ready to do something to tear down the walls that separated so many.

We started by approaching Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, with a simple question: How can we, as the Body of Christ, best serve the city?

To be sure, my dad, Luis Palau, was the first worldwide evangelist Adams had ever hosted. In that first meeting, Adams was impressively open to us, not showing a hint of defensiveness. He sensed our sincerity and commitment — and was also sincerely concerned with the needs of the city.

Assured there were no strings attached — and feeling he had nothing to lose — he started the conversation by naming his biggest concerns: hunger, homelessness, healthcare, the environment, and public schools. So began a partnership, CityServe, between the city and a band of churches.

In true Portland fashion, it proved to be a bit unorthodox, and involved a few unlikely partners — like local pastors in conversation with leaders at the Q Center (Portland’s LGBTQ community center), or the affluent Southlake Church adopting long-ailing Roosevelt High School, or the state openly welcoming scores of churches to help overhaul the DHS offices.

Volunteers at Portland CityFest’s Roosevelt High School clean up.

The impact was evident. New relationships were formed. Schools were renovated. The homeless were served. Children were fed. Victims of human trafficking were cared for. And the work continues today.

As a church community, we found ourselves knee-deep in new, exciting, and sometimes uncomfortable relationships. When the ultra-progressive Willamette Week ended up praising the new effort by churches, we knew that a new narrative was beginning to take root: Christians living for the common good. Evangelicals for the city.

And it was beautiful, pushing us all toward greater levels of compassion, understanding, and support for our fellow neighbor. Our evangelical community initiated dialogue and formed genuine friendships with people who do not hold our values or faith. Formerly cultural opposites, disparate denominations, and civic organizations were building partnerships rooted in trust and respect. They were setting aside differences and agendas to address real and pressing needs that can crumble society.

We were reminded of the all-too-often-forgotten reality that life is about relationships. Authentic, vulnerable, real relationships with those we agree with as well as those who don’t share our same perspectives. It reminds me of the life of Jesus — the life we celebrate each Sunday as Christians.

Jesus lived a life of radical inclusiveness, building relationships with those far outside what would have been socially and religiously acceptable for a rabbi of his day. Mirroring the life of Jesus, we have found in Portland that it is entirely possible to maintain our faith while happily working with people who do not hold all the same beliefs we do.

Even if someone doesn’t agree with me about the right to life for an unborn child, that doesn’t mean I can’t work with him on efforts to combat domestic abuse. It’s precisely these common-ground relationships that can build bridges of better understanding that allow you to share the Gospel.

Luis Palau with young volunteers at CityServe Washington, D.C.

The Gospel of love. A love that is willing to sacrifice. To cross the street. To knock on a neighbor’s door. To serve those in need. And to share a message of hope with those around us, no matter their background.

Around the country, people have referred to this radical exercise of faith as “The Portland Model.” We’ve had inquiries from dozens of other cities and hundreds of churches across the country. We don’t try to hide our desire to see people’s lives changed by Christ, yet we are also wildly enthusiastic about loving and serving the city with no strings attached. This is the hallmark of CityServe.

New models of collaboration continue to thrive as trust is being established by a generation of evangelical Christians drawn to social justice and a hands-on expression of faith. They are joining hands with community leaders and our literal neighbors to build a healthy community, strong public schools, and a safe and clean environment for everyone.

I’m proud to call Portland home. Not just for its quirky culture, but for its boldness to challenge stereotypes and shake up the status quo. And the ability to lay aside our differences for a time to serve those in need and share the most amazing message the world has ever heard.

The message of our lives as Christians is the message of Jesus. The simple, beautiful story of the Son of God, who came to serve, who gave His life, who died on the cross, and who rose again so that each and every one of us may have life, and life in abundance.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Images courtesy of the Luis Palau Association.

Kevin Palau
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