"What was the highlight of the conference?" I asked another attendee. I wondered if it was Kevin Kelly, "senior maverick" at Wired Magazine, talking about technology and theology. Or maybe actor/director Mark Ruffalo talking about faith in Hollywood.
"I know it sounds strange," he replied, "but it was seeing the relationship the churches in Portland have with the city government." He went on to explain that he was from Atlanta–a city where nearly every city official is a church-going Christian. And yet the church in Atlanta doesn't have nearly as good a relationship with the city as in Portland. "It was very convicting," he confessed.
He was referring to the interview between Kevin Palau, president of the Luis Palau Association, and Portland Mayor Sam Adams–the first openly gay mayor of a major US city.
The interview highlighted the years of labor the churches of Portland have undertaken to establish a relationship of trust and mutual respect with the city government. Mayor Adams admitted being confused by the pastors' repeated offers to help the city with needs–from homelessness to struggling schools. But eventually it began to work.
Portland, as many know, is a very progressive (a.k.a. liberal) city. And given the national reputation of Christians as hypocrites and homophobes (as uncovered by David Kinnamann and Gabe Lyons in their book UnChristian), you can understand why it has taken a decade for the city to shift it's perceptions of their evangelical neighbors.
But the churches didn't give up. Coordinated in part by Kevin Palau, the Christian leaders of Portland discovered what can happen when they engage from a posture of love and humility. Rather than seeking political power or a platform from which to judge and condemn the ethics of their city, instead the sought to serve.
Today Mayor Adams considers many of he church leaders his friend, and when rocked by a significant scandal he turned to them for help. Mobilized Christians throughout the city are also transforming schools, fighting sex-trafficking, and cleaning up neighborhoods. There is no doubt that if all the Christians left Portland they would be missed.
Of course shifting a reputation isn't the whole game. Ultimately, as Kevin Palau said, they'd like to see more residents of Portland come to faith in Christ. While in the past the evangelistic crusades of his father were "rapid fire" events, Kevin says they are now taking a longer view of that process by incorporating a "season of service" and ongoing cooperation with the city and local communities.
While Portland is a unique city, as anyone who has spent time there can testify, Kevin Palau hopes to see the same spirit of cooperation, humility, and love take root in the church in other parts of the country.
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