Some of you might be offended by this book review. If you find yourself beginning to lean in that direction I hope and pray you’ll read the entire article and, more importantly, read Kevin Palau’s book, Unlikely. I’m convinced God’s Holy Spirit is behind this movement.
Palau’s purpose in writing this book is to tell the amazing story of what God is doing in and around the city of Portland, Oregon. God does amazing things in many cities, but His work in Portland is evidence He can do what He wants, when He wants, wherever He wants. Because Portland is weird (and they like it that way). Portland is a place where 8,000, many of whom are naked, cycle through the streets to remind people of the positive impact cycling has on the environment. People in restaurants check the profile of chickens before they eat to ensure it’s organic free range. Portland is a place where the Portland Timbers soccer team is as popular as the Oregon Ducks football team. It’s a place where beards are in, and the gnarlier the better. It’s the only major city where the water is not yet fluoridated. Yes Portland is weird, but apparently God loves Portland, because He’s doing a great work here. (Palau)
The book Unlikely is written to tell the story of God’s work in Portland. And the way I read it, the book is written for anyone desiring to more closely follow Jesus’ commandments, as he exhorts us to when he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (see John 14:15-23)
And the book Unlikely is also written for anyone desiring to follow Jesus’ model. As Palau puts it:
“Jesus lived a life of radical inclusiveness, having ‘table fellowship’ with those far outside what would have been socially and religiously acceptable for a rabbi of his day. Having women follow him around and financially support him? Mary Magdalene, a woman known to be loose, spending money on expensive perfume and pouring it on his feet? Enjoying parties with tax collectors and other collaborators with Rome? They were all way out of bounds in his day. And of course he heard about it from the religious establishment.
What about the time he spent hours alone (in a visible public place) with a heretical woman who turned out to be a serial adulterer? Jesus later told an infuriating story in praise of this same heretical bunch. Most Americans know it as the story of the Good Samaritan.”
What Kevin Palau Believes
Kevin Palau believes in building relationships that follow Jesus’ model. He believes in “maintaining my strong beliefs as a Christian while happily working with people who do not hold all the same beliefs as I do.”
His conviction is so strong, he befriended the first openly gay mayor of a major city in the United States, Sam Adams, (now former) mayor of Portland, and a man who (based on former exposure to Christians) distrusted and perhaps even despised the evangelical community. What followed is amazing.
The Crips and the Bloods vs. Southlake Church
Roosevelt High School was built for 1,600 students. But the school and the neighborhood were severely impacted when the Crips and the Bloods moved into the area. People left in droves. By 2008 only 450 students attended there. The facility was dilapidated. The football team lost every game they played–five years in a row–by an average of 46 points. It was the last place you would want your son or daughter to attend. But then our God stepped in. Using a church from the Portland suburb of West Linn called Southlake, He mobilized 1,000 volunteers and brought in painters, landscapers, and logistical support. They made over the school facility in a big way but He didn’t stop there. Southlake maintained their partnership with school officials and eventually, at the invitation of the school, their outreach pastor set up an office there. Later Neil Lomax, a former NFL quarterback and a Christian, took a position as the offensive coordinator for the Roosevelt football team and turned it around. There’s still work to be done but today the whole school has turned around.
The Roosevelt High School story is just one of many examples Palau shares. As of 2014 there are over 250 school church partnerships. And he writes of many other ways in which Jesus’ church engages in acts of service for the good of the community including involvement in the foster care system, medical clinics, prisoner reentry programs, and gang violence prevention.
He also writes of the great unity among churches in the Portland metro area. Included in this move of God here in Portland are meetings where more than 500 pastors are in attendance. And prayer is always paramount. In fact every year there’s even a seven day period of fasting for the city called Seven.
And it’s not just Portland. Today there are similar movements in New York City, Atlanta, Houston, Sacramento, Denver, and many other cities. (see GospelMovements.org)
But What About Proclaiming The Gospel?
The knock on serving the community in the way Kevin Palau describes has been that the proclamation of the gospel message gets lost in the process. But Kevin’s dad is Luis Palau, a man who’s been called the Latin Billy Graham, and his influence is obvious. And when there’s that kind of unity among churches, and that kind of devotion to prayer, opportunities to share the gospel manifest. In Portland the Luis Palau Association puts on an evangelical festival on the waterfront near downtown. And it’s an evangelical festival supported by the city leadership. And Luis Palau himself shared the gospel. More recently the same was done in New York City’s Central Park. Again the gospel was shared, and again the festival was supported by the city leadership.
What Sets The Book Unlikely Apart
What sets this book apart is its focus on Jesus’ commands to love God, love people, and even to love our enemies. Palau captures what is the current mindset of many American Christians with a story you may have heard.
I was walking across a bridge one day when I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I ran over and said, Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Like what?” he said.
“Well, are you religious?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m a Christian.”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God!”
“…Die heretic scum!” and I pushed him off.
In other words, too often our tone towards other Christians we disagree with is one of hostility, let alone those who we disagree with outside of our Christian community. So the question is: Do we believe the commands of Jesus or not? Will we love people we disagree with or not? Will we obey his commandments to love God and people or not? Jesus says if we love him we will do what he said.
And he said these words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44 KJV)
Do we follow those words of Jesus specifically? Look what happened when Kevin Palau reached out to Sam Adams who at the time may well have considered evangelicals to be his enemies. When Palau, and other Christian leaders involved, lived by Jesus’ words, a great movement of the Holy Spirit was born.
Kathy and I moved to Portland a few months ago and we didn’t quite know what to expect in the way of churches. After all, Portland has a reputation as a radically liberal unchurched community, yet we needed to find a church home. Based on what I’d heard I thought it might be difficult to find a good church so I attended a number of different churches trying to find the right one for my family. Those I attended include Bridgetown: A Jesus Church, Village Baptist Church, Resound, Beaverton Foursquare Church, Good Shepherd Community Church, St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Life Church PDX, Athey Creek Christian Fellowship, Westside: A Jesus Church, and Cedar Mill Bible Church.
(Yeah, I know, OCD right? Pray for Kathy.)
It turns out that the process is difficult but not for the reason I thought it would be. The process is difficult because I felt God’s presence, His love, and a genuine love for people at every one of those churches named. There are so many great choices, it’s hard to decide. I was surprised to say the least. What is God doing here in Portland?
The answer is found in Kevin Palau’s book, Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences To Live Out The Gospel.
I just finished reading it today and it’s the kind of book I’ll tell all my friends and family to read.
And I consider you family.