The Table Podcast

Ministering to Your City

In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock and Kevin Palau discuss seeking the welfare of the city, focusing on ministry in Portland, Oregon.

How Christians can have an impact on the city
The religious and cultural demographics of Portland
Theological foundations for seeking the welfare of the city
How and why local churches united to serve Portland
Changing the mindset of the church about the city
Changing the mindset of the city about the church
Loving your city opens the door to evangelism
How to form relationships with city officials
The outcome of seeking the welfare of Portland
Resources Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel Luis Palau Association
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table. We discuss issues of God and culture, I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary and my guest today who is a veteran of The Table, he’s getting a second medal today, is Kevin Palau, President and CEO of the Luis Palau Association. Welcome Kevin, back to The Table.
Kevin Palau
Thanks so much Darrell, I’m really honored to be invited back.
Darrell Bock
Well it’s a pleasure to have you with us. You’re gonna tell us the story of your ministry in Portland and really, well what I’m excited about in relationship to this podcast is, is that we talk theoretically about how to engage and we think through the theological background of how to engage, but yours is an actual live, living, breathing story of engagement. And so, so we’re looking forward to that, but let’s get a little background. Let’s talk personally about you first. You have lived in the Portland area for how long?
Kevin Palau
Most of my, let’s just say 50 plus years, if people know anything about us they tend to know my dad of course, Luis Palau, and he’s from Argentina, the Luis, the Billy Graham of Latin America was kind of shorthand way that people would have to describe who we are and what we do and hey, that’s an honor, I mean who wouldn’t be honored to be, you know have their name mentioned in the same breath as Billy Graham. So that’s who we are, but Mom and Dad, my mom’s a native Oregonian and Mom and Dad met in 1960 at what was then called Multnomah School of the Bible, now Multnomah University. And so because of Mom’s, you know Portland being home that’s been home most of our years and it’s been a real blessing strange as it might seem to be based as an evangelistic organization in such a radically unchurched proudly progressive place and it’s really forced us to take a hard look at how we do what we do.
Darrell Bock
Okay well that, that sets a nice table for my next question which is let’s talk a little bit about Portland demographics and maybe to set the scene a little bit I’ll talk a little bit about Dallas demographics since that’s where I am. In the Dallas area on any given weekend it’s said that about 50 percent of people are in some religious worship service so we’re talking synagogues, mosques, but primarily the church. And that’s a large number, that’s a large number in many places in the world and my guess is – is that that’s not Portland.
Kevin Palau
That is not Portland sad to say, we are, we are among the least churched parts of the country. We would be, we would be probably closer to ten percent that would be a part of, I think that would be generous if you included you know every Christian denomination, that certainly wouldn’t just be evangelical. Though interestingly as a, if you divide it up between more progressive protestants, Catholic, Mormons and others, you know evangelical, evangelical would be by far the largest. I think you know there’s not a lot of cultural value in going to church, if you go to church you’re going because you’re, if you’re an evangelical you’re going because your life has been radically changed and you’re kind of swimming against the tide.
Darrell Bock
So the cultural Christian is something that doesn’t exist in any significant form in the city.
Kevin Palau
Exactly, much, much less, there’s, that’s one of the positives I would say of living in the cultural context like Portland is your faith really, you’re consciously saying is this what I really believe, am I willing to pay a little bit of a price? Trust me I’m not talking about paying a price like our brothers and sisters in some parts of the Muslim world, etcetera, but paying at least a little bit of a cultural price.
Darrell Bock
Yeah and just so people have a sense of kind of where Portland is on a larger map, there are places in western Europe and in Australia where that percentage is even lower, probably in the one to three percent range. So, but as I often like to say if you think of the country as kind of, in its Christian involvement, and think of an upside-down cross okay? So you’ve got a strong Christianity base running through the southern part of the country, really from one coast to the other, maybe a little break as you move west. And you move up the middle part of the country, it’s there, but if you go to the east coast or the west coast particularly as you move to the north up those coasts then you’re talking about a completely different culture and environment and of course Portland’s right in the middle of one of those, the northwest pocket.
Kevin Palau
Darrell Bock
So that’s important to know, now there’s actually more detail to this so my next question is so exactly how progressive or maybe that’s not even the right word, is Portland, I mean because Portland has the reputation for actually enjoying the fact that it’s different than the rest of the country. I think of the old show that used to be on, I don’t know if they still run it, called Portlandia which the whole premise of the show is we’re a very different place than most places.
Kevin Palau
Exactly, Portlandia was a big hit nationally, they just finished I think their you know eighth and final season is done now, but it pokes fun as you know kind from an inside perspective at how crazily quirky Portland is. There’s always the debate between Austin, Texas, and Portland as to who came up with the you know keep Austin weird bumper stickers, we have our keep Portland weird bumper stickers and billboards and murals. We’re convinced we came up with it first but Austin would respectfully disagree, but you know we are home for example of the largest naked bike ride in the world, 16,000 people, every year they break the record.

And that’s just the kind of crazy thing that Portlanders, not all Portlanders, I’ve never participated, but it’s a place that values hugely the environment and what you’d call kind of liberal or progressive depending on how you’d want to call it, values. Portland prides itself on that and it’s created an environment that can be really challenging for people, evangelicals and others that are really trying to maintain you know a healthy, respectful, conservative view of scripture and trying to live our lives under the authority if scripture. It can be challenging when socially we’re out of step and that’s the very reason though that we felt so strongly a dozen years ago to say we’ve gotta be the ones to take steps toward our very secular progressive city leaders.

At the time that we were having this initial conversation the mayor of Portland, Oregon, was the first openly gay mayor of a top 25 city. Our school superintendent at the time was a really prominent member of Portland’s LGBTQ community. So we recognized you know, they’re probably not gonna walk toward us and want to build friendships around common good sorts of things, but if we want to be part of the conversation, if we want to build bridges of trust by showing that we actually are for the city, that we’re not only against things, sadly that was the reputation we had. You know people could have said well we know exactly what you’re against, they could have named the two or three issues that well isn’t that all that Christians care about? And we said you know if we could build some trust around serving the city could that be something without compromising what we believe scripture teachers, could we build relationships of trust and that’s indeed what’s happened in these last ten years.

Darrell Bock
Well let’s talk a little bit about the theological kind of foundations for that approach, and really two images come to mind for me and then a third idea. Those two images are the picture of being exiles in a foreign land which is both an Old Testament and a New Testament image. You see it in Jeremiah, you also see it in I Peter, and the picture in Jeremiah is particularly poignant because they’re in Babylon which I always remind people isn’t the most stellar culture ever invented by man. And yet they’re told to pray for the city and pray for the prospering of the city. I call this the concept that I’m working with is a concept that I call shared space, you know we share space in the world with people who are very different than ourselves. The scripture will sometimes call that shared space simply the world, it reminds us that that space is not quite like the church. The church is a separate space, in fact the church is almost like a sacred space in the midst of that shared space that you invite people into when they respond to Christ they get capabilities and enablements they would not have as human beings if they didn’t respond to the gospel, that kind of thing.

And so the challenge is how does this sacred entity that are exiles but they’re also ambassadors, that’s the second biblical picture. They represent God and they represent the presence of God in the midst of this space, the church is called the body of Christ. I tell people that the church is supposed to represent the presence of Christ in the midst of Christ’s seeming absence and that’s one way to think about the church. And so it represents Christ like an ambassador would represent a country so between the picture of exile and ambassador you have the question about how you walk into this shared space and live into the midst of it. And it seems to me that what you all have tried to do is to ask the question how do we represent God well in this shared space, be who we are, and yet at the same time come alongside people and ask how can we share the space that we do share well together?

Kevin Palau
Very well said, yes I think that combination of being in exile but being an ambassador representative of Jesus Christ is what we’ve striven to do here. And I would say when I say we I want to make it really clear that I’m not really primarily talking about the Louis Palau Association, I’m really talking about the local church. What we’ve been privileged to be able to do here is I think partly because we know we need each other. You know when you’re in a situation like Portland where you know you’re a minority and we know we don’t have the political power to gain authority or kind of take back the culture.
Darrell Bock
Or even social power.
Kevin Palau
It forces, social power exactly, so the positive thing that that does or can do is create a sense of humility within the body of Christ toward each other to say we desperately need each other. Those of us that are attempting to be the ambassadors of Christ, to be attempting to share the good news and live out the good news, we need each other. We have to celebrate the work of God in and through us together. So for us what we did, this was about 12 years ago, we were preparing for what we call a Palau Festival, a big evangelistic event, like we had done for decades. But this time we thought you know what, in a place like Portland if all we do, and I’m not disparaging or demeaning the value of simply proclaiming the gospel, we are an evangelistic organization that does that joyfully.

But what we felt was if we could show the city of Portland our love and by working together for the common good that would help pave the way for evangelistic relationships and would just create a better environment even for gospel sharing let alone making the city a better place. So we went to see the mayor, and I mentioned Sam Adams the mayor at the time, he remains a very good friend, he lives in Washington, D.C., now. At the time because he came, because he’s so openly gay, very progressive mayor, we were worried how he might receive us. And to our pleasant surprise when we went to see him, and we basically used that Jeremiah passage of seek the shalom, seek the peace and prosperity of this city.

So we kind of explained look, we know that as a Christian community unfortunately we’re known way more for what we’re against than what we’re for, but you know part of our living out our faith and being the hands and feet of Jesus is to come alongside you, pray for you, and try to find ways to serve. So quickly in a few conversations the city identified helping out our public schools, working with kids in foster care, working with the refugee community, among other places where you know even though we disagree on some pretty core issues we definitely agree on wanting the best education environment for our kids, we agree on wanting kids in foster care and foster parents to be well supported, we, of being welcoming to the stranger and the refugee.

So we found so many areas of common good and the churches had a big pent-up desire I would say, to be seen as working for the good of the city, that we had tens of thousands of Jesus followers that participated in hundreds of community service efforts from doing school makeovers to doing makeovers of the Department of Human Services offices that manage the foster care system. It’s now become a ten year plus journey of kind of unleashing the latent power of the church to engage in the community, to love unconditionally without losing our gospel witness.

Darrell Bock
Okay that’s a good overview, I’m gonna want to go through the stages of this, but before we get there I want to make another observation that sometimes happens. And this may be a difference between the south and the northwest pocket that we’ve talked about, and I actually think this is an important conversation because the context in which different people work as they give their Christian witness obviously impacts how they go about their work and what they’re able to do and what they need to do, etcetera. And you’ve stated that there was an advantage to being a minority in one sense and that you recognize that you need one another, you know you don’t have the political and social power to influence things, and as a result that requires, that requires thinking through how you share that space.

I think back to where other parts of the country are that are in the upside-down cross that I talked about where there is still some political power, there is still some social power, there isn’t quite the awareness of the need for one another. And I think that can create a blindness that I think is important to raise which is we get so, we in the parts of the cross that where the Christian presence is strong, we end up, I’ll use the word bickering, we end up bickering with each other about things that are kind of internal to our own affairs, if I can say it that way. And in the midst of that we’re spending so much time talking about each other and usually in negative ways, in challenging ways, that we are ignoring the need that surrounds us in the larger culture.

And as a result the opportunity to put forward a witness that speaks well of who Christ is in the need and caring of others, gets muted with all this static, if I can use the picture, that and people say well those Christians they can’t even get along with themselves, how in the world are they gonna help us, you know that kind of thing. And so I think that there is a lesson in that for the larger church that, that thinking through kind of what are our own internal conversations, what I like to call family squabbles, and what we need to do together to accomplish the Great Commission and what the Great Commission is about which obviously the Great Commission is an important mission statement for what the church is supposed to focus on and have as a priority. When we let that get in the way of the Great Commission we actually undercut what it is we’re called to do and be.

Kevin Palau
Absolutely, yeah well said, yeah I think we’ve been so blessed to have worked for unity in the body of Christ in Portland for these last dozen years or so and we’ve, once, it’s funny I’ve found that once that idea really takes root in the hearts of many of the key leaders it can become more of the norm, I would say with hard effort. We now have been, a situation in Portland where every time you know one of our key pastors you know leaves we have a pastoral transition, we are very intentional about kind of almost discipling these new pastors that are coming into Portland into like the Portland way. You know what, hey when you’re coming into Portland you’re coming into a place that has a rich history of we’re for each other, we care about each other, we celebrate and rejoice in each other’s victories, and weep with each other, you know with each other’s struggles.

And so many pastors have said you know as they’ve gotten used to that, I’ve never been in a place where there was such an intentionality around unity and not just in a kind of holding hands singing Kum by Yah, but in a sense of we are practically speaking going to work together for the common good, we’re gonna show the love of Jesus in our schools and foster care, etcetera, without losing a passion for the gospel. So I’m excited to see lots of other cities that are beginning to develop that approach of please can we work together and emphasize what we have in common rather than the, like you say the squabbling over you know in importantish, but really ultimately secondary kinds of issues.

Darrell Bock
Yeah the things that make for differences in denominations as opposed to think that touch on the center of the gospel.
Kevin Palau
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
Let’s, okay so let’s, so I’m gonna wind the clock back, it’s 12 years ago, you, since you have this reputation, obviously you know you don’t just march into the mayor’s office and say we want to talk. What happened before that? What was before that meeting and how did you get to the point where you decided this is something we ought to think about doing?
Kevin Palau
You know I think it really did come out of a gospel heart and a gospel intent. We were, we had about 100 pastors in a room together for lunch at our headquarters and there was really a sense of I’d say a little bit of discouragement, you know we recognize we’re not making the kind of progress in the gospel that we long to see, what’s holding us back? So out of that prayer time internally, in other words we weren’t at that point talking with city leaders or thinking external, we were just saying internally what would it take for us to be really together for the sake of Portland? And it was actually some of the pastors who raised their hands so-to-speak and said you know what, as local congregations we’re realizing that we’ve got to get our people out of the pews, out of being so afraid to engage, and actively loving and serving. So there were some individual local churches that had begun to experiment with partnering with their public schools, you know sitting down with their principal and saying you know what, yes we’re a local church, yes we understand there’s the separation of church and state, but we love this school, we have kids in this school, how can we serve you and make your life easier? So we kind of grabbed a hold of that idea that had been kind of a onesie, twosie idea, to say could we as a collective of churches, could we all together reflect the love of Jesus to our city leaders, could we go as a group of churches to meet with the mayor and say how can we make Portland a better place?

So really what began with a few individual churches, the idea quickly took hold, you know what if we’re gonna get together, you know a big crowd to do a big evangelistic festival couldn’t we precede that festival with months and months of active engagement with serving our schools? And schools were kind of the first among equal because at the time Portland Public Schools were in a shambles and were only graduating about 55 percent of the students on time which is a pretty shocking statistic. And one school in particular, Roosevelt High School, was on a short list of schools to be closed because it had dwindled from 2200 students in the 1920s down to 450 and they had no community will to kind of make a difference. And there was no football team, well you talk about from a Texas standpoint, no high school football team –

Darrell Bock
How could that be?
Kevin Palau
People about jumped through their microphone, like how can that possibly be? And but you know it’s funny, it was the idea of the church engaging with schools but particularly Roosevelt High School, that the transformation of Roosevelt High School became kind of a picture of what’s possible when community volunteers and people motivated in this case by their faith, we willing to jump into the deep end and work, you know what began as a makeover of the school in the summer of 2008 became a year after year engagement of dozens and dozens of volunteers. One key church embedded their outreach pastoral staff at the school and became the fulltime volunteer coordinators for the school. They got Nike involved, they rebuilt the football field and the track and the grandstands, they’ve more than doubled, almost tripled the number of students there now in these last five years. The graduation rate as Roosevelt as it began mentoring every student in the freshman class each year, it climbed like 20 percentage points. So the transformation of Roosevelt High School, which I’m sharing quickly, it took years, really inspired our school superintendents, including those from the LGBTQ community to say let’s work together to find a church partner for every school in Portland Public Schools, and we’re about 70 percent of the way there. So I mention that because you know typically schools are tended viewed as like a, especially in a place like Portland, a Bastian of you know I’m not, I wouldn’t send my kid to a public school, how dare you do that, you know we should homeschool, we should go to a Christian school.

I have nothing against that if that’s the way the Lord leads, by all means we need Christian schools and we need parents to homeschool, those are good things. But most of our kids aren’t homeschooled or in Christian schools, the vast majority in Portland are in public schools. And if we remove our Christian presence from those public schools you know we’re only making matters worse. So it’s been remarkable to see the changes in our schools as the churches have engaged and jumped right into the deep end, the trust that’s been built has been phenomenal, the trust that’s been built even with our gay and lesbian community hard as that might be for some people to understand.

Darrell Bock
Okay well there are lots of pieces that you’ve dropped into the bucket as you’ve told us the Roosevelt story, let me back up and deal with a couple of things. Did you have any pushback from people who said if you go in this direction you are moving away from the commitments to the gospel and the Great Commission, did you have any of that pushback?
Kevin Palau
We did a little bit but not as much as people might imagine. I think part of it was the hard-earned reputation of the Louis Palau Association over decades for standing firm for gospel proclamation. In other words we began this whole serving effort with kind of celebrating that effort with a clear evangelistic campaign. We had you know Chris Tomlin and The Newsboys and all these different bands and Louis Palau, my dad, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in front of the 20,000 people that were there each day. So we felt we were on solid ground in both serving unconditionally but also making it very, very clear we are unashamed of the gospel, in fact we’re proud of the gospel. The reason that we are serving is because our lives have been so transformed by Jesus Christ that a natural outpouring or a natural reflection of who we are is to love and serve. So I’d say it is a fair concern if a lot of intent isn’t given to maintaining a healthy, holistic balance between word and deed, it’s a fair concern. I would say that in fact we had to form an evangelism team just a couple years ago as we evaluated this movement over the years, we had unintentionally found ourselves drifting away from being as clear about the gospel. It was unintended but I can kind of raise my hand and say guilty as charged, unintentionally. We began with a big public festival in our waterfront park proclaiming the good news and celebrating the service. But in the years since that so much of our energy was going towards school partnerships, foster care initiatives, refugee care, healthcare, we just assumed that well people are just naturally gonna share their faith as they’re serving.

Bad assumption. We had to, we had to regather and reaffirm. What we did is we gathered some of our best evangelistic leaders in Portland, leaders of Alpha and Crew and Intervarsity, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Young Life, and we picked a handful of our key senior pastors that really have the gift of evangelism and we gather regularly to keep each other inspired, but more to kind of serve as a catalyst and a champion for evangelism to be sure that looking all the other good things we’re doing in seeking this shalom of the city, we have to maintain a clear gospel witness.

And that doesn’t just mean being nice to people and hoping they will ask us why we’re so nice, it has to mean a lot more intentionality than that. We’re saying let’s double the number of churches that are running Alpha, let’s do an annual evangelistic gathering of some sort, let’s do regular equipping to help both pastors and everyday believers remember the importance of evangelism. So we’re finding a real refreshment in our evangelistic zeal and the good works that we’ve done have helped pave the way for much more of an openness and less of the jaded cynical attitude among the people we’re trying to reach.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, the interesting thing is – is that in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke when Jesus is talking he makes a point about loving your enemy and in the midst of that he says you know that when you care for people and they see your good works they’ll praise the Father in heaven. And so this attempt to sever if I can say it that way, the pursuit of the gospel and the testimony about God about being an ambassador from the way in which we step in the community and serve, which as you rightly say can be a danger if you’re only on one foot. But the severing is also a danger because what that means is you actually lose one of the most powerful means of testimony that God gives us to point people towards God. And so keeping those two things, I often joke with people when I get into the social gospel and gospel conversation, I said you know what God has joined together let no man tear asunder you know. We use it with regard to marriage but we don’t use it here and here is another place where I think we need to think about the relationship between these two pieces and the way in which evangelism is served by a solid testimony from the church about caring for people. You know when you say God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life and the next question is well how can I see God’s love, there better be an answer there.
Kevin Palau
Yeah that’s right, I think it’s true everywhere, I think it’s more stark, the reality of that is, seems more stark and clear in a place like Portland than it might seem in Dallas. But I think the reality is still there and I think you know right or wrong, I mean it’s a sad reality, that youth culture is very similar, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the Bible Belt, you know youth tend to think the same way. They’re quickly forming the very same, very liberal or progressive you know feelings on social kinds of issues. So like I would say you know not to overemphasize it but we’ve been fairly intentional about our relationships with the gay and lesbian community in Portland, not because, I would say precisely because we know we are in serious disagreement on some core issues.

I’ve said to you know we’ve talked about a journalistic state, well that’s all the more reason that we should take steps toward that community not to compromise but to say you know, clearly we disagree on some pretty serious things, but you know what we also agree on a number of things, like we all agree on wanting Portland to be a place where everybody feels comfortable talking about what they feel and believe in a safe way. And we want to see our schools thriving and our foster care kids thriving, you know what if we work together in some ways where we can agree because we know we disagree. I think so much we have the attitude unless we can agree, it’s within the body and outside the body, unless can agree on everything we’re compromising, we’re being hypocrites if we work together.

Well that’s no more true within the body of Christ than it is in the community at large. We’ve been shocked at how open many, not all, many of our LGBTQ friends, I will say in the Portland area, have been surprised like you want to have a relationship with us? Like we clearly understand that we’re not on the same page when it comes to gay marriage for example, evangelical churches in Portland like evangelical churches and Catholic churches in most part of the country, they’re not performing gay weddings and they’re not planning on it. But that shouldn’t mean that we can’t build genuine relationships of trust that ultimately we believe would lead to people that may feel very far from God or at least are evangelical convictions about who Jesus Christ is. So many good gospel conversations as we’ve had those non-compromising but open to listening dialog.

Darrell Bock
Okay now this is actually where I wanted to go next and you’ve kind of gone early which is great. Let’s talk about that a little bit ’cause I imagine this initially felt awkward and, and a challenge. And so how, describe for us how you worked through that, I mean I think the value of communicating we’re gonna relate to people as people in relationship to people problems that we feel like we can share space well on and use that as a way to build relationships that then can you know begin to at least explore our differences, is that a fair kind of path?
Kevin Palau
Yes it is and again I’d also be the first to say we didn’t strategically plan any of this out, I want to make it clear that like we feel not to have this kind of feel like a spiritual copout. But we really do feel like looking back was where we saw some of these Holy Spirit things develop. It wasn’t like we sat down with a consultant at the beginning with a white board and strategically planned these things out. We happened to have at the time that we were led this way, the first openly gay mayor of a top 25 city. Our school superintendent happened to be a key lesbian leader. We didn’t wait for the strategic time, we just said we need better relationships of trust with our city leaders.

That fact that they happened to be coming from that background and therefore happened to have let’s say an unusually fine-tuned sensitivity and concerns about the evangelical community. The way that they each would say they had been treated by people at least that they perceived as evangelical Christians, was pretty universally negative. Now as friendship was built and as they got to know us better they were the first to say wow, we had a lot of untrue negative stereotypes based on the media portrayals. You know just like sometimes some evangelical or conservative people you know think that every single gay or lesbian person is the person you know scantily clad dancing on the pride parade.

Well that’s one part of the gay and lesbian community, it’s not everybody. You know most evangelical, most followers of Jesus aren’t marching through downtown Portland or Dallas with hateful kind of slogans that are directly attacking the gay and lesbian community, but that’s kind of what sometimes people tend to stereotype. So as we simply built trust with the mayor who happened to be gay, the school superintendent who happened to be gay, trust was built as they saw huh, okay I know these people disagree pretty strongly, like I don’t agree with their view of human sexuality, but by golly, I’m not quoting them, they might have said by golly, I, this is not what I expected, like they seem, they’re eager to listen, they’re asking good questions, they’re consciously saying even though we disagree we love you, like we love you, thank you for serving our city, thank you for sacrificing for our school kids.

Darrell Bock
It was the recognition and appreciation of what was going on.
Kevin Palau
Exactly, appreciation, and then listening. We had some meetings when Sam was the mayor, and I may have told this story before, but like the first time we had a meeting that was just a random, not about something, we just found ourselves at this political barbecue thing and I was sitting there and Sam was sitting there. And he comes up to me and says wow, how much heat are you getting from your constituency about this, you know fairly visible relationship between the evangelical community, the churches, and him as mayor and you know also a leader in the gay and lesbian community? And kind of my response was like none, like I was getting zero heat because the churches in Portland understood that we were doing this for the sake of the gospel, we were doing this to show the love of Jesus so that we would have greater open doors to proclaim the good news.

He said wow, I’m getting a lot of heat from you know some of my constituents about this partnership with you people. So he said like let’s gather, let’s have a quiet meeting in my office, I’ll bring some of Portland’s key LGBTQ leaders, you bring some of the senior pastors of some of the large churches and let’s just kind of see what happens. And it was a fascinating meeting of just listening to each other and I would say from the pastors’ side, apologizing for what we could and should apologize for, which is not apologize for what scripture teaches about human sexuality so I don’t want any, I don’t want you to get angry, or anyone else get angry, you know from these compromises.

Trust me it was very clear, look we’re not in agreement. So in fact the way Sam started the meeting was look, this is not a meeting where we, meaning the LGBTQ community, are gonna try to persuade the evangelicals to stand with us on gay marriage, that’s not gonna happen. But Kevin and I have realized and even though we disagree on some pretty core things we’ve been shocked at how much we do agree on, we agree on probably 80 percent of the, kind of all the ideas in the world as far as making Portland a better place. And so we figured it’s much better to agree where we can agree and work together where we can agree and then out of relationship we can disagree on the things we disagree on and actually maybe get somewhere in listening to each other. But this kind of screaming at each other across the battle lines is doing nobody any good. And so Portland I think partly, it’s part of the Portland vibe, Portland’s a pretty chill place so that helps, but I would say you know it’s been a joy to have gospel conversations with people that never expected to have those kind of conversations out of trust because they saw a different side to the Christian community than they expected.

Darrell Bock
Okay so the practicality of this and believe it or not we’re actually beginning to run short of time, the practicality of this is that the way kind of the stereotypes were broken was to seek out these meetings, to do some really good listening, and then to figure out the places where there was common ground and as you told the beginning, the most natural place to start is to ask questions like what is the best way to serve people and that put you in the schools and with refugees, etcetera, what we might call human services. And in the midst of working side by side together it changed the environment, so as the stereotypes began to break down and I take it that took awhile, I mean you know I mean ’cause you’re talking about a 12-year story and I don’t know where we are in the timeline here. But tell me kind of what’s emerged on the other end ’cause that’s probably all we have time for.
Kevin Palau
Yes, yes, yes and yes, I get so excited about these things I just, thank you for bringing me back home. So yeah as far as the outcomes I’m so, the reason I’m so enthusiastic about what could feel like a 12-year old story and let’s face it, something 12 years ago is ancient history these days. Things change so quickly, but it’s a living, breathing, active story, we’re on our, this our, we have our fourth mayor now in this long process. But what’s changed is that now rather than it being like there are Christians in Portland, really?

I didn’t know that. It would now be we need the Christian community and particularly evangelical community to stand with us if we’re gonna get anything done because that’s who actually shows up and works without asking for money or complaining about anything. So there’s now a school partnership network that includes 70 percent, more than 300 public schools have a formal church partner. I sit around the table on something, there’s a thing called Collective Impact which you don’t have time to unpack, but our mayor, school superintendents, key business leaders, key non-profit leaders, and I serve as kind of the faith leader, we gather regularly to try to work hardcore on changing educational outcomes. There’s a desire for the church to be at the table. On the foster care system, there was such a radical transformation of the foster system, story for another day, that the state of Oregon came to us, meaning the church, and said without a penny of government funding the churches have done more to impact foster care than the millions we spend trying to engage the community, please let’s take what happened in Portland to all 36 counties across the state of Oregon, same has happened on the refugee side.

So it’s funny, even a smallish Christian community properly engaged and mobilized, kind of sent on mission, can make enough of a difference to move the needle on these social issues and have the very leaders that might have felt like we are a nuisance at best, to come and say you’re an indispensable part of the community. And I would say that the other thing that is done is it’s given many believers, I wish I could say every believer, but many believers I’d say have a greater confidence in the gospel. Maybe we should say hey it shouldn’t take something like that external to have a confidence, you’re absolutely right it shouldn’t, but the reality of it is we’re affected by our culture.

If we’re part of a culture that demeans what we believe and tries to paint us all as hate mongers and homophobes you’d think twice about opening your mouth and declaring the good news even in winsome ways because oh I don’t want to be perceived this certain way. When over years the church collectively has aimed to change the narrative, to make the story of Christ’s presence in Portland be about engaging in justice and serving issues without in any way being squeamish about hey, we believe that the best gift we could give anybody in Portland, even more important than a great foster family or a great school, is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We’re unembarrassed to talk about Jesus.

We’ll do it appropriately. We understand that there’s times and places where that’s not allowed, you know during school hours, etcetera, but we are not embarrassed about reflecting the love of Jesus and calling for people to join this, this movement, to be part of the body of Christ, to be part of this family. So we’re finding you know a number of healthy churches being planted in Portland’s hipster core that were not there ten years. We have five churches of 1000 plus in kind of the most challenging part of Portland which is the place where the tattooed and pierced, you know hipsters from all around the country come. We’re seeing gospel progress and I would say it’s very much linked to our unity, our holistic witness, and our working hard to maintain a bold, joyful proclamation.

Darrell Bock
Well it’s a terrific story, I mean and it echoes, we did this in a small basis here in Dallas, it’s a story I tell on The Table pretty regularly about six evangelical churches banding together to figure out the poorest part of the city and to plant a church in the middle of it. They had an African American theological student who wanted to go back into the projects that he grew out, up out of and minister there. The first thing they did was plant a church, the second thing they did was build a gym that they could built a sports program around to minister to the kids in the area and to draw them and to bring them into positive activities, etcetera.

Then they built a school and in the midst of that ten years in the Dallas Morning News writes an editorial entitled “Angels in our Midst.” And the gist of the editorial was you know the Dallas Independent School District struggles on the issues of race and having effective schools, that kind of thing. Here’s a project that has involved all the races working together in positive tones and it’s transformed this neighborhood in which this church and school was planted. And you’ve got people graduating from school for the first time, they had students who came back to teach at the school because it had meant so much to them in their lives, that kind of thing.

And it was just a terrific witness, completely self-sustaining church, and 30 years down the road it’s still a shining light in the city. So this kind of engagement is really a positive example and I think stands out in a time in which really finding good positive examples of people working together, you sometimes struggle to go there. And so I do appreciate you taking the time with us to tell us a little bit of your story. There’s a lot more to this and you know we’ll probably do; we’ll probably do a sequel.

Kevin Palau
Down the road, and you know one thing I forgot to mention that if people want to get, kind of dig a bit deeper into this Portland story and interestingly see like the forward to this book. I wrote a book called Unlikely about this unlikely city of Portland and unlikely partnership between a progressive city and the evangelical community. The book’s called Unlikely and the forward is by Sam Adams, the mayor that I mentioned. So some people it’s like hey just to see like what does the proudly progressive openly gay mayor of Portland, Oregon. How did his view of the church go from being these are the worst people in town to these are my friends that are indispensable. That’s one resource and in the Dallas area Rebekah, there’s a wonderful group called Unite Dallas by the way, that’s doing some of the same things, Rebekah leads that.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, yeah, we’re familiar with the group here. We’ve actually met and chatted with them as well about some of this. So well again Kevin, many thanks for taking the time to walk us through this. I’m sure we’ll come back and talk to you more about it. It is a wonderful example, a good practical all right, what does it look like when the rubber meets the road story and the beautiful thing about it is – is that it’s not a story. It’s not made up. It’s the real deal.
Kevin Palau
That’s right, thank you, thank you, thank you and yeah God bless every listener and you know it doesn’t have to be, don’t feel daunted by well unless I can get hundreds of churches working together. No, I mean one individual, this big story, all it really is – is many, many, many, many, many small stories of everyday believers taking that step to engage in that way.
Darrell Bock
Wow! Thanks again. We appreciate you taking the time with us and we thank you for joining us on The Table. Hope you’ll join us again soon. If you have a topic you would like for us to consider for a future episode please e-mail us at, that’s thetable@, that’s the ampersand, And we love, we love getting your suggestions and taking ’em into consideration and we hope to see you again soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Kevin Palau
Kevin Palau is president and CEO of the Luis Palau Association. Kevin joined the Palau Team in 1985 and began directing the day-to-day operation of the ministry in the late 1990s. Under his leadership, LPA has partnered with tens of thousands of local churches to produce large Christian gatherings in cities around the globe, including major evangelistic campaigns in Washington DC; New York City; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Kevin holds a degree in religious studies from Wheaton College. He lives in Beaverton, Oregon near LPA’s headquarters with his wife, Michelle. They have three grown children.
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