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.’
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.
Kevin 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:
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.
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:
And they delivered. Again. And again.
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,
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.
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:
“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.
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.”