In Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel (Howard, July), Kevin Palau, son of evangelist Luis Palau, tells how in famously liberal “Portlandia” he and other evangelical Christians banded together with people of every age and shade, churches and organizations of every stripe, Portland’s gay mayor, and the LGBTQ community to find ways to help their city. The concept became known as CityServe, and it's now at work across the country.
Lots of churches and religious organizations do community service—what’s so different about CityServe?
Unity and lifespan. Churches often don’t know what other churches are doing or work with civic or business leaders. We included more than 400 churches and organizations in the initial conversation, discussed the needs of the city openly, figured out who was best equipped to serve in what capacity, formed unique partnerships, and listened to city leaders about where they felt the greatest pressure. It's a long-term commitment to develop real relationships and partnerships.
Did you start CityServe as a way to rehabilitate the image of evangelical Christians, who are often seen as insular and judgmental, and to open doors for more evangelization?
In some ways, yes, but those weren't the only reasons. We felt embarrassed at our lack of engagement with our city and our own lack of unity as Christians. How we were viewed by others wasn't a pretty picture. Our obedience to God includes sharing the Good News of the gospel, but we're all about helping and loving our neighbor, and we express that unconditionally. Our service comes with no agenda. God will open doors to share his message relationally, in ways that aren't coercive or might hurt the trust that's been built up over years.
Can you give an example of a well-intentioned effort that backfired? What did you learn from it?
Initially at [Portland’s] Roosevelt High School, we came in from the outside and didn't take time to seek true partnerships with neighborhood leaders and churches. We apologized, let them take the lead, and fell into a more supportive role. At Roosevelt, the work began small, starting with simple clean-up efforts. Then came a clothes closet, a food pantry, and a mentorship program. Eventually, corporate partners Nike, Anderson Construction, and other companies completely renovated Roosevelt's athletic facilities.
Was there pushback about churches partnering with public schools to create programs and projects?
Absolutely. City leaders wanted to ensure we were following the laws, and we did, too. There are clear guidelines for anyone working with public schools—and those apply to all community partners, not just churches—so any questions were quickly resolved.
What can someone who is not religious get out of the book?
A sense that Christians can humble themselves and be part of the broader communities where they live. Christ followers have a message we believe to be "Good News," but too often our actions or words haven't measured up to our beliefs. I want this book to give hope to anyone who reads it, that we can understand each other, serve each other, and work together for the benefit of all.