Editor’s Note: This article is part of the NEW Red Carpet series from RLC. Find out more here!
If you’ve got a stereotype of an old-school evangelism “crusade,” prepare to have it dismantled. Under the leadership of Kevin Palau, the Luis Palau Association has produced some of the largest Christian events ever staged, drawing as many as 1 million people. (wait for it) Enter “festival 2.0”…
We’re hearing about some pretty encouraging things happening in progressive Portland, Oregon. What’s going on?
It really is pretty exciting what we’re seeing here in Portland. Several years ago, we recognized that the evangelical churches in Portland were unintentionally becoming known for what we were against rather than what we were for. Our goal was to change that perception here in Portland.
We felt the only way to counteract the preconceived notions was to humbly go to our city leaders and ask how the evangelical community could join with civic leaders to serve the needs of the city together. The city came up with several key areas of focus (hunger, homelessness, healthcare, the environment, and public schools), and we as the evangelical community jumped in with our whole hearts to serve on a united front. We celebrated that first year of united service in 2008 with a citywide evangelistic festival.
Since we started six years ago, we’ve been able to recruit thousands of volunteers to serve on a regular basis. We’ve also added other areas of focus as needs have cropped up, including the problem of human trafficking and the great issues facing the foster care system in our city. We’ve never seen this level of love and cooperation among churches in Portland. We’re not here to gain any leverage or power. All we want to do is be obedient to the Lord, sharing His Good News in both word and deed.
You mentioned public schools being one of the areas the city identified as needing help. Tell us about the exciting partnership between schools and churches that has developed in Portland since 2008. What was the original emphasis?
We understood from the beginning that public schools are not a place to preach the Gospel or invite people to church; they are places to love and serve. We all understand there’s a line of separation between church and state. In the past, we’ve said “let’s stay as far away from that line as we can.”
Now, the needs are so great in our public schools that we have adopted the attitude of getting as close to the line as we can. The line is still there. No one is saying it shouldn’t be there. But, we need to not let that be a stumbling block as we seek to love and serve our neighbor. We have been able to assure city leaders that our service is genuine with no strings attached.
One large suburban church, Southlake, developed an incredibly robust partnership with Roosevelt High School that has led to a real transformation in the school. It’s led to a 15 percentage point gain in the on-time graduation rate. The school has added hundreds of students. It’s changed both the church and the school, and that led our superintendent to say that every Portland Public School needed a church partner. That should be our goal as the Church – that the world would see us as an ally and friend, not as an enemy.
More information about this exciting movement can be found at www.beundivided.com.
It’s been reported that this initiative in Portland has impacted the Foster Care system. Tell us about that.
In the same way that our overall effort began with us simply asking our city leaders where we could serve, we asked the same question of our Department of Human Services (DHS) leaders. We went to them and humbly said: “You are serving our most vulnerable children. We love you, we appreciate you, and we know this is hard work. Is there anything we can do to make your life easier?”
At some of the meetings, the leaders just broke down in tears, saying: “Nobody has ever asked us that before.”
Asking that question led to a trusting relationship, and let them know that we are here to simply love and serve.
So we started serving them. It began with small makeovers of each DHS office. We created a fun space for the kids, where they can just be a kid and play while they are in the middle of a crisis. The churches also created 4,000 Welcome Boxes for kids coming into the system. We are aiming to have monthly Foster Parents’ Night Out. And ultimately, we want to see 800-plus foster families raised up from our local churches.
More information can be found at www.embraceoregon.org.
There are very few reports today of healthy bridges between conservative Christians and the LGBTQ community. How did you come to partner together in this effort? What are your areas of agreement?
It’s not like we set out with some agenda. We simply began by meeting with our city leaders to discuss the needs of our community. Those leaders (including Sam Adams, our former mayor, and Carole Smith, our current school Superintendent) happened to be prominent LGBTQ leaders. We simply built a friendship and began discussing the things we both care about.
The key for us has been to focus on common ground areas, rather than areas of disagreement.
Initially, we had a meeting with Mayor Adams. I invited key evangelical pastors and Sam invited key leaders in the LGBTQ community. He started out by saying: “This is not a meeting where we are going to try and convince the evangelical community to stand with us on gay marriage. But, Kevin and I have become friends, and we’ve learned that we’ve got a lot more in common than what separates us, and we just thought it would be helpful to get to know each other and learn each others’ stories. Maybe there are some ways we can partner together.”
Now, on areas of bullying and suicide prevention efforts, we can find common ground with the LGBTQ community. They know where we stand on other issues, and we know where they stand. But it doesn’t have to be a fight. We need to show our love, despite our disagreements on some issues (no matter how major they are).
Say some more about the dynamics of these relationships. Do folks just keep their opinions to themselves?
Definitely not. We believe our LGBTQ friends deserve to live in an environment where they feel safe and free to express themselves. We as followers of Jesus need to feel that way as well. I give a lot of credit to Mayor Adams and other leaders who recognize we have to be able to talk to one another in a very respectful way. Sam and I disagree on some important things, but we respect each other. I have clearly expressed the Gospel to him. So has my dad. And it’s done from a position of friendship and care. On the other hand, he has really helped me understand the perspective of the LGBTQ community. That’s important.
At times the church has been tempted to polarize evangelism and social action. How do you see the relationship between the two being lived out in Portland today?
We want to be wildly enthusiastic about both, and we don’t see any contradiction at all. We want to pursue every social justice issue and every common good issue in the city. At the same time, we want to express the Good News of Jesus Christ to everyone in Portland, as joyfully and aggressively as we can. That should play out in many ways.
In Portland, the evangelical community has come together on several fronts. Every summer we have a week of prayer and fasting, called Seven, where we pray for our city and challenge people to pray for their friends that don’t know Christ. Next Easter, we are having a major collaborative Easter outreach event. In all of our Easter services across the city, we are going to proclaim the Gospel in a unified way and give tens of thousands of people a chance to hear the Gospel and respond. And on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, we serve the city in tangible and loving ways. We don’t see any contradiction between social action and evangelism. In fact, we see them as complimentary. And together, they are extremely powerful.
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