Unlikely: A story of reconciliation and city-building from Portland

Dan Harris of ABC News interviewed Kevin Palau, President of the Luis Palau Association (left) and  Portland Mayor Sam Adams in 2011.

Dan Harris of ABC News interviewed Kevin Palau, president of the Luis Palau Association (left) and Portland mayor Sam Adams in 2011.

A new book tells the story of an unlikely alliance between a liberal gay mayor and a coalition of evangelical churches in Portland. The story is heart-warming – and offers hope for Vancouver.

Portland and Vancouver have a lot in common. Both are large west coast cities with citizens who would, broadly, see themselves as politically progressive and ‘spiritual but not religious.’

At a conference on Christ and Cascadia (the bioregion running from south of Portland to north of Vancouver) last fall, key organizer Matthew Kaemingk told a Seattle Times reporter how hard it is to gain public attention for the gospel:

What scholars have found, Kaemingk said, is that Pacific Northwesterners are described as freethinking, anti-institution and individualists, making them more inclined to participate in a yoga class, hike a mountain or even attend a Seahawks game to find spirituality, rather than step inside a church.

With so many cultural, political, theological and sexual differences in the same place, Kaemingk said, churches need to reexamine some traditions to appeal to the broader community.

unlikely1Kevin Palau describes one Cascadian experiment in Unlikely. The book’s subtitle – ‘Setting aside our differences to live out the gospel’ – gets to the heart of the story. The publisher (Simon & Schuster) introduces the book in this way:

In 2007, Kevin Palau and a few dozen pastors approached Portland’s mayor and posed the question: How can we serve you with no strings attached?
Officials identified five initial areas of need – hunger, homelessness, healthcare, the environment and public schools – and so began a partnership, CityServe, between the city and a band of churches seeking to live out the gospel message. Since then, the CityServe model has spread like wildfire, inspiring communities across the country to take up the cause in their own cities.

Unlikely not only tells the story of the inception of CityServe, but also challenges readers to evaluate their understanding of the gospel. Today’s church finds itself torn between social justice and direct proclamation. Unlikely proposes a both/and scenario, showing how the gospel can truly penetrate a region – through word and deed.

CityServe volunteers have taken on a wide range of projects in Portland since 2008. Photo supplied by CityServe.

CityServe volunteers have taken on a wide range of projects in Portland since 2008. Photo courtesy of CityServe.

Since 2008, CityServe partners have worked with their communities to provide clothing, mentoring, sports and beautification programs. There are now church-school partnerships throughout the Portland area. The churches of Portland have also partnered with the city to fight homelessness, human trafficking and hunger.

The book’s title stems from the unlikeliness of the partnership between the two key players in this still-unfolding drama. Kevin Palau is the son of international evangelist Luis Palau, while Sam Adams was the  mayor of Portland from 2009 – 2012. (He is better known to many, no doubt, as the mayor’s assistant on the TV show Portlandia.)

The two men met at the request of Palau, but  circled each other warily at first. Relations improved quite quickly, but Adams has this to say in the Foreword to Unlikely:

Growing up in Oregon, my experience with evangelicals was mostly negative. Based on my direct experience and what the mass media portrayed, I assumed most evangelicals were judgmental, accusatory, closed off and unwelcoming.
I thought Kevin, his dad and the evangelical pastors asking to meet with me had their presuppositions about me as well – that their request was a check-the-box official courtesy for whoever happened to be mayor. . . .
Kevin and the others came with a new kind of offer to help Portland. And their attitude was not at all what I had expected. They were humble, not judgmental. They were open, not closed off. They wanted to work together, look beyond our differences and serve the city. They made it clear they had no hidden agendas. They offered humble community service, not self-promotion or inappropriate proselytizing
Photo courtesy of CityServe.

Photo courtesy of CityServe.

And they delivered. Again. And again.

I can tell you rather bluntly that Kevin has not lost his evangelical edge. I know where he stands. He, his dad and the evangelicals in Portland love to share the message of Christ and aren’t shy about it. Personally, I have not lost my progressive political outlook either. . . .
We need to learn to disagree in a civil manner. To share our beliefs and convictions with humble attitudes and hearts. We should always be looking for points of agreement, acting upon those points of agreement for the good of our society and culture. . . .
The partnership to serve our city has changed our city. It has changed me and the lives of countless others.

Some elements of the Unlikely experience are no doubt unique to Portland. But the creative partnership has caught the imagination of several media outlets over the past few years, including The New York Times and ABC News,

Writing in The Oregonian June 23, Steve Duin linked CityServe’s success in Portland to a dynamic new initiative in New York City.

CityServe is their signature moment. It is built on the call in Jeremiah 29 that congregations should leave the sanctuary and work tirelessly for the “peace and prosperity of the city.” Launched in Portland as a “Season of Service,” it led to extensive interventions at Roosevelt High School and the Metro area’s foster-care system

When Adams and Palau carried that vision to New York last year, the political and faith communities were both challenged and inspired.

“Portland showed New York what was possible,” Palau says. The result?  NY CityServe and NY CityFest, a July 11 concert and festival with Luis Palau that will [did] draw at least 60,000 to Central Park.

CityServe volunteers have taken on a wide range of projects in Portland since 2008. Photo supplied by CityServe.

Photo courtesy of CityServe.

Another writer suggests a political element to Palau and Adams efforts. In a June 30 Huffington Post article titled ‘GOP Candidates Risk Turning the Gospel into Bad News,’ Tom Krattenmaker said:
While Republican presidential candidates woo white evangelicals with their professions of piety and dark warnings about the oppression of Christians, a well-known evangelical ministry is gearing up for a very different outreach in a dramatically different setting. . . .

“Good news.” That’s the emphasis of the large-scale faith demonstration happening in New York. It’s what the gospel is supposed to be about.

Someone needs to remind the pious presidential candidates spreading all that bad news to Christian voters on the campaign trail.

Christianity Today recently interviewed Palau and Adams. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, but here is a portion related to the broader implications of their cooperative efforts:

CT: Some people have called your partnership the “Portland model.” What do you think?

Adams: I actually like that because to me it’s a simple way to say something. It was the Palau Organization, on behalf of the evangelical community, that reached out their hand first. And we grabbed it. None of this would have happened had not that hand been outstretched first. Honestly I don’t think I would have gone to the evangelical community and said, “Hey, let’s do this thing called CityServe.”

Palau: We may have extended a hand, but someone had to take it. Now Sam and I have flown around the country to tell the story. I think when people can see a working model it’s somehow a little different than if they read a scholarly article about the theory of social interaction and dynamics. Seeing it in action helps them understand that it’s doable.

If any city can learn from Portland experience, it should be Vancouver. Unlikely would be a useful read for Vancouver Christians – and Vancouver politicians. Maybe we will be fortunate enough to have Palau (and Adams?) up here some day to testify in person to their experience.

Adams, by the way, would probably love to be asked (though he is now based in Washington, DC as director, U.S. Climate Initiative with World Resources Institute). In an interview with Rick Cluff on CBC earlier this year, he said he is inspired by Vancouver, particularly by its craft beer (despite Portland’s reputation as a craft beer Mecca); Mayor Gregor Robertson (“He’s so much smarter and better looking that I am!”); and “big ideas”:

Like Vancouver, Portland’s city council has an agenda that promotes environmental sustainability, transit, biking and new solutions for to end homelessness.

“I come up here and my folks come up here and steal every good idea you’ve got and try to learn from every mistake you’ve made,” he said.

“We’re a much smaller city than you are, but if we can offer up those kinds of lessons, we’re here to help.”

Share this story

3 comments for “Unlikely: A story of reconciliation and city-building from Portland

  1. I almost came to tears reading this article. Portland is very much like Vancouver, but if anything Vancouver holds a much stronger anti-Christian bias. Why hold ourselves apart when we are called to love anyone and everyone . . . we preach about God reaching out to this and that outcast but the amount of outreach is minimal.

    Anything like this taking place here is great. But I think it is important to put forward an intentional partnership with “no strings attached.” Happy if it already is and I just don’t know about it.

  2. Good question; I’m not sure of the answer.

    One key difference, I suppose, is that CityServe represents a network of churches working together voluntarily. The Salvation Army is both a denomination and an institution with a long history of working in several specific areas of social service.

    I believe that CityServe looks to help where there is a need in the city, alongside schools, secular agencies (like Big Brothers, etc) and religious groups (like the Salvation Army) – ie, try to avoid duplicating services. (Quite possibly some Salvation Army churches are connected with CityServe.)

  3. Hi Flyn

    Do you have any sense of how City Serve compares or contrasts with existing organizations such as the Salvation Army that would appear to be doing similar work?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *