The inspiring story of an unlikely partnership between a band of churches and the openly gay mayor of Portland that led to unprecedented change throughout the city and launched a nationwide movement called CityServe.
Our dream is to help change the mindset of the city about the church, and the mindset of the church about the city.
Portland is among the most unchurched and politically progressive cities in the nation. It’s a European-type city with a unique edge, a television show called Portlandia that emphasizes its weirdness, and the country’s largest naked bike ride. You wouldn’t expect Portland to be home to one of the most successful partnerships between local government and area churches. But it is.
In 2007, Kevin Palau and a few dozen pastors approached Portland’s mayor and asked the question: How can we serve you with no strings attached? City officials identified five initial areas of need—hunger, homelessness, healthcare, the environment, and public schools—and so began a partnership, CityServe, between the city and a band of churches seeking to live out the gospel message. Since then, the CityServe model has spread like wildfire, inspiring communities across the country to take up the cause in their own cities.
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.
CityServe is proof that when differences can be put aside for a worthy cause, real change can be attained, and unlikely beauty is born.
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About the Author
Kevin Palau is the son of international evangelist Luis Palau. He joined the family business, The Luis Palau Association, in 1985 and began directing the day-to-day operation of the ministry in the late 1990s. Under his leadership, LPA has produced some of the largest Christian events ever staged, created a worldwide network of hundreds of partner evangelists, and developed new models for citywide outreach that integrate major community service initiatives along with open-air evangelistic gatherings. Kevin is also the founding editor of GospelMovements.org. He holds a degree in religious studies from Wheaton College and lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Michelle, and their three children.
Read an Excerpt
“For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?”
—Isaiah 43:19 NLT
There Dad stood, more than forty years ago, in the middle of the bullring with his black slacks, black suit coat, white shirt, and black tie. Black Ray-Ban sunglasses to shield his eyes from the blazing sun. He stood, looking a little like Johnny Cash, only he wasn’t growling out “Ring of Fire.” He was holding up his Bible in one hand, the other hand raised to the sky. The sun beat down as his voice rang out to the captivated audience in Quito, Ecuador.
To Dad, bullring or flatbed truck or packed arena, it didn’t matter. His love was Jesus Christ and the life-changing Good News he brings. All these years later when I think about the early days—before we moved back to Beaverton, a western suburb of Portland; when we were living in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico—I think about the bullring. I think about the big posters all over town with my dad’s smiling face on them. He was a big deal to some, but he was always just “Dad” to us. He was a husband, a father, a man who loved Jesus and wanted to tell as many people about him as possible. It was as simple as that.
From the time he was a kid, raised in a small village just outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dad had a heart to share the Good News he and his family had experienced.
Dad was only ten when his father died. Grandpa was thirty-four. He came down with bronchial pneumonia right in the midst of World War II (which meant there was no penicillin). Dad remembers getting the call from his aunt, telling him to rush home from the British boarding school he attended as soon as possible. His father didn’t have much time left. The fever was eating him up.
By the time he got there, though, Grandpa was already gone, but the story Dad heard became seared into his mind. As Grandpa lay dying in bed, burning up from the fever, barely hanging on to life, he suddenly sat up and sang a Salvation Army song as he clapped his hands: “There’s crowns up there, bright crowns for you and me.” Then his head hit the pillow, and he pointed up to heaven and quoted St. Paul, saying, “I’m going to be with Jesus, which is better by far.” Those were his final words.
That was it for Dad. Even at a young age, he knew. “I’m going to tell people about Jesus,” he said. “I want everyone to have the hope my dad had, even in the midst of death.”
Dad was relentless in his ministry. It started with small neighborhood meetings. Then he and his buddies bought a tent. They traveled the region during the summer, putting on outreach campaigns and gatherings. As soon as he gained momentum in the 1960s, he was off and running. People often called Dad the Billy Graham of Latin America. Their ministries were similar. After all, Dad had the greatest respect for Mr. Graham and had spent years learning from him. It was Mr. Graham who gave the seed money for Dad to start his own ministry. It was Mr. Graham who opened doors for him in many places around the world. It was Mr. Graham who was always ready to give insight, encouragement, and wisdom when needed.
Adopting Billy Graham’s crusade model, Dad introduced this style of mass evangelism to Latin America and was one of the first evangelists to develop a radio ministry across the continent. Today he continues his strong radio presence on over 2,600 stations throughout the region. It’s one of the reasons he’s so known and loved by millions down there. In fact, Dad will sometimes have leaders, even presidents, pull him aside and tell him, “You know, Palau, my mom made me listen to you every morning when I was a kid.”
Dad was also one of the first to try live television. In cities where we hosted crusades, he would appear on television and open up the phone lines to counsel people about family problems, faith, you name it.
I remember going with him to the TV studios at HCJB in Quito, Ecuador. My twin brother, Keith, and I got to go in front of the cameras to invite the audience to come to the crusade each evening. We were two little blond boys, which in itself created a certain level of interest. In a place where everyone had jet-black hair, people would routinely come over to touch our white-blond hair. It’s amazing what you get used to.
I never doubted Dad’s methods. In fact, I felt proud of him and his commitment to God when I watched him in the bullring—the Johnny Cash evangelist—passionately imploring folks to come forward to receive Christ. It was Dad’s desire to introduce all people to the Jesus he loved, and to whom he’d given his life and family and ministry.
Dad was not only a great dad; he provided a never-ending opportunity to travel around the globe, mostly around Latin America when we were kids and in Europe during our teen years. I remember the first time Dad took Keith and me to a crusade with him. It was in San José, Costa Rica. We must have been eight or so.
Those being simpler and safer times, Dad didn’t seem to think it was much of a risk to leave us alone for parts of each day at the hotel to explore and swim while he’d be off meeting with the president, speaking to local business leaders, or preparing for that evening’s rally in the local soccer stadium.
It was a thrill to attend the crusades in the evenings. I loved seeing thousands of people gathering each night, joyful to be together with brothers and sisters in Christ from many different churches, proud to be able to express their devotion, and eager to share the Good News with others.
The highlight of those nights was always when Dad would give the “invitation.” It was the climax of the whole gathering, the time when everyone would be led in a simple prayer, opening their hearts to Christ in response to the biblical message. Following the prayer, Dad would issue a challenge for folks to leave their seats and make their way down to the front of the stage. The people who came forward were joined by local counselors, believers who’d been specially trained to answer questions and pray with those who were responding either for the first time or perhaps recommitting their lives to Christ after having drifted away over the years.
It was stunning to see God move in such a tangible way, seeing hundreds stream forward. And this is what the whole program was geared toward: the invitation.
When I look back on those times from my youth, I am filled with feelings of pride—pride for my dad and what he accomplished, but even more, how strong his heart was to do something few were doing—something so difficult—because he felt called by God.
People sometimes ask me what it was like growing up as the son of such a well-known man—whether I felt the pressure to measure up or struggled living in the bright lights. In reality, it was a pretty normal life. For the most part, no one knew Luis Palau in Beaverton, Oregon. My childhood—aside from the occasional trip to Latin America for a crusade—involved the normal experiences of any suburban family.
Just because I grew up Palau didn’t mean I inherited a faith in Christ. On the one hand, I’m guessing few people heard a clear expression of the gospel as often as my brothers and I did. I was one of those kids who prayed to receive Christ countless times, just to be safe. I can’t point to any one time that I first committed my life to Christ. It was something I reconfirmed over and over in Sunday school classes in Mexico City and at Vacation Bible School.
For me, personally, I look back to when I was sixteen years old as the time when I made a more mature commitment to follow Jesus for the rest of my life. It was at a Christian camp and conference center called Hume Lake near Fresno, California. A speaker named Bill McKee challenged us to stand up in front of everyone if we were willing to share our faith and not be “lukewarm.” As simple as it may seem now, it was a powerful moment for me. I felt convicted about certain things I was doing, music I was listening to, habits I was forming. I stood up in front of several hundred other kids, hands sweating, looking down at the ground, and felt a sense of relief that I was clear on my life’s purpose: to do what I could to help lead people to Jesus.
It was a pivotal moment for me. I returned home with clarity and excitement. My brother and I became far more active in our church’s high school group than we had been before. We even led Bible studies and prayer times at Sunset High School.
Just recently at one of my high school reunions (I won’t tell you which one), Keith and I were surprised by the number of people who came up to us to tell us how much our actions played a role in their lives. One old friend told us, “You didn’t know this at the time, but I saw you guys praying in the school library on a regular basis. God used that to plant some seeds in my life. I came to trust God in my twenties, and my wife and I now attend Village Baptist.”
It is such a privilege even now to see how those personally monumental moments of childlike faith can be used by God in other people’s lives.
During those early years of my commitment to Christ, I devoured books like Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot (as well as The Lord of the Rings, but that’s another story). It was that book—a book about a missionary from Wheaton College who was martyred in Ecuador in the 1950s—that pushed me to attend Wheaton myself. (It didn’t hurt that Billy Graham had gone there as well—Dad never let us forget that!) I loved my years as a Wheaton student. God used my time there to develop my Christian worldview and kindle the dream of how to live out the school’s motto: “For Christ and his kingdom.” I felt sure God wanted me to serve him in some way related to missions; I just wasn’t sure exactly how.
The August after finishing my studies, Michelle and I got married. (We met in the youth group at Cedar Mill Bible Church, where we’d both grown up.) I started working for my dad that same month. It was only supposed to be for a year, just as we got settled into married life. A chance to pay off some student loans and get ready for Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. I’d already been accepted. Seemed to have my trajectory figured out. But a funny thing happened in those first six months. I fell in love with the work, the joy of seeing dozens, even hundreds, of churches, working together to try to impact their cities. That resonated with me. I was hooked.
Plans quickly changed. Michelle and I knew we needed to stay on longer with the team. We bagged the Fuller Seminary plans and decided to dig our roots into Portland—the place we both loved.
I became the guy whose job it was to fly out to various U.S. and international cities to meet with pastors who wanted to have a Luis Palau Crusade. It was up to me to cast the vision of what this effort would do for their community and why it was worth the significant investment of time and money. I knew the routine. After all, I’d grown up in the midst of these crusades. I knew what they could do, and I believed in them wholeheartedly.
Some of the selling points, for lack of a better term, remain the same today: the value of uniting churches across denominations and ethnicities, equipping folks from those churches in sharing their faith in a visible, large-scale way. I was a pretty naïve twenty-two-year-old, fresh out of Wheaton College, when I started flying around to places like Kingston, Jamaica, and Manhattan—Kansas, that is—trying to lay the foundation for a successful crusade. I loved it, but bit by bit, I became aware of critiques of the crusade approach. Not everyone was as excited and convinced as I was. The pushback usually ran along certain lines:
• Are the crusades reaching those who need to hear the gospel, or are we preaching to the choir?
• Do the people who respond to the gospel message end up in local churches?
• What’s left a year or even six months after you guys leave?
I had never really thought about the crusade approach in this way, this critically. For me, what made these critiques tough to stomach was that they came from the very people I was supposed to convince.
I developed my answers to these questions and critiques, but, over time, doubts began to gnaw away at me, especially when attendance at our U.S. events started to decline and costs climbed. Were there better ways to do this? If so, what were they, and where were the examples of these better approaches?
We, as a family and a team, felt the clear conviction that the best way to change a person’s life for the better was to help them see and experience God’s love by sharing the Good News with them. If there was a better way to impact a city and share the gospel, what was it?
When I was thirty-two, “Say Yes, Chicago” came along. Michelle and I had started our family. David was four, and Daniel was just eighteen months old. Dad had long dreamed of tackling this big, tough city—“my kind of town,” according to Frank Sinatra. We had a lot of good relationships from Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute, and Dad had preached in Chicago many times over the years.
We thought this time we’d try something new. So, we embarked on a fresh (for us) approach. Really, it was an older approach: taking on a city for much longer than just a week. What evolved was the idea of doing what Billy Graham had done effectively in the 1950s, where, for example, he filled New York’s Madison Square Garden for (if you can believe this) four months straight. That was in the summer of 1957. For Dad, as a twenty-three-year-old just getting geared up to move to the United States for further theological studies in Portland, Oregon, hearing and reading about that marathon crusade at Madison Square Garden was one of the primary things that cultivated his vision for this sort of big-city effort.
It wasn’t completely new to us. In the past, we had tried it in other cities with varying success. “Mission to London” in 1984 was sixteen weeks long. It was challenging at times, but the fruit was clearly visible. Even today, many church leaders (like worship leader Matt Redman) look back to that campaign as the beginning of their walks with Christ.
Dad wanted to tackle Chicago by taking one venue and staying there for several months, but I felt that approach would lead to disaster. If we were struggling to fill an arena in the United States for five or eight days, how were we going to survive two months? We eventually compromised. I moved to Chicago with Michelle and the boys to settle in for a two-year time of preparing. It was grueling, traveling all over the Chicago area, visiting pastors from the North Shore to the South Side. Some loved our idea; more were unsure but polite. It takes something out of you to try to sell a vision day after day after day, knowing many people aren’t buying it.
In the end, we pulled together a schedule that included two months of outreaches, ranging from women’s luncheons to rallies in suburban arenas, to two weeks at the UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) Pavilion. Over the course of those months, tens of thousands of people heard the Good News, and thousands committed or recommitted their lives to Christ. I truly am grateful to have been part of it all. But I had this sinking feeling that the ambivalence from many churches that had been masked fairly well in the suburbs would be uncovered in a very public way when we began our fourteen nights of outreach in much tougher urban Chicago.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety. I still deal with it today. Yet never have I felt so claustrophobic and sick as when dawn broke on the opening day at UIC Pavilion. (In writing this chapter I was surprised at the feelings it still brings up.) It was a Sunday. I felt I just couldn’t face what I was convinced was going to be an unmitigated disaster. It was humiliating to call Dad and say I wasn’t coming, after spending the better part of two years preparing for this—traveling all over trying to enthuse Christians to come with their family and friends. Dad was understanding and didn’t push me, though I’m still embarrassed I didn’t have the courage to go.
I paced around the small missionary apartment we’d been living in those two years, courtesy of our friends at Winnetka Bible Church, waiting for a phone call from one of the crusade staff. My heart sank when finally, around 9:30 P.M., I got a call with the news. Fewer than 2,000 people, in a venue that held 8,000.
My worst fears were confirmed. My work had been shown to be wanting. I felt like an utter failure. What made it even worse was that at the opening of the message, Dad had publicly said, “My son Kevin warned me this might happen.”
I somehow braced myself and attended several of the remaining nights. It was a bit of a blur. I tried to smile and make small talk backstage beforehand with the various pastors and Christian leaders I’d worked side by side with for the past two years. I did my best to pretend I wasn’t churning inside, wanting to sneak away the first chance I got. I mean, what could you do at that point? Magically make folks appear?
I remember resigning from the team several times during those weeks. Of course, it was only to Michelle. It didn’t ever really get close to being put on paper. I loved and admired my dad all the more for his amazing love for Christ, the churches, and the people of Chicago that led him to mount that stage night after night to share the Good News of a God who loves us so much he was willing to do anything to draw us back into a relationship with himself.
Chicago was a turning point for me. I determined if we couldn’t find another way to reach people, I’d have to consider quietly finding another way to serve God. Maybe I could finish my master’s degree at Wheaton and teach?
The old methods were not working as well as they used to, at least not for us, especially in the United States and other Western nations. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I didn’t hold my father, or other evangelists who utilized this approach, in any kind of contempt for it. And some are still seeing wide success, which is wonderful. It just wasn’t working for us.
I wanted to tell people about the relationship with God I had found as a young man. I wanted to show others the person of Christ, the person I saw in Dad and in Mom and in so many other leaders I had the privilege of meeting. And I knew I wasn’t alone. All those leaders I met in Illinois and Jamaica and Kansas—the ones who gently raised questions about our methods and effectiveness—they weren’t against the gospel. They weren’t down on evangelism. They just had the same questions I did.
None of us have perfect childhoods, but I think sometimes we can be fortunate to be spared from certain things that might otherwise hobble us in our faith. Being the son of an evangelist had given me such a global view of the gospel and how that message could change a person’s life and how that life could, then, change a whole community. I saw in our Chicago approach, though, a method that had, perhaps, run its course, at least in parts of the West. And one question haunted me:
Was there another way?
Was there a way to keep all the great stuff of the crusade approach, the model Billy Graham had used for decades that had found various sorts of expression for more than a hundred years through the likes of D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and others? Was there a way to build upon that foundation and move it forward? Certainly, we weren’t the only ones asking these sorts of questions. Other great evangelists, like Greg Laurie, were building on the Graham model as well—focusing on great music, creative design, and the best in media to communicate the Good News more clearly. It seemed obvious to most of us that the culture was shifting. Was there a way to create a better environment for the powerful message of the Good News, allowing it to be unleashed more naturally and empowering believers to live it out in their own lives on a daily basis?
As an association, we had never really practiced what we preached in our hometown of Portland. Over the years, the local churches had grown to love and trust Dad, as he’d spoken in most of the larger churches over the decades. The city had its own Billy Graham Crusade in 1992 at Civic Stadium (now Providence Park, where the Timbers play soccer). The Graham Crusade was a phenomenon. It overflowed the stadium into nearby Lincoln High School for eight days.
Five years later, those same pastors felt it was time to unite again to share the same message, and they wanted our team at the helm. I was determined to try something different. There was no way I wanted to do something that could be compared to Billy Graham’s 50,000-plus attendance per night. And there was no way I was going to relive Chicago. I still remember talking about it with my younger brother Andrew and Dad in his kitchen.
“What if we put on a two-day music festival in a park? Bring in great bands, food, even corporate sponsors?”
To be honest, some of my stance was based on fear. If we did this outdoors at, say, Waterfront Park—the living room of the city, where thousands came for annual events—there would be no empty seats. Even if just 3,000 people came, they could spread out on blankets, and it wouldn’t feel too bad. (Some faith and vision!)
But despite that, the kitchen vision caught on. Sometimes God uses even our lack of faith for his own ends.
“Maybe with a family fun zone people could bring their little kids. They wouldn’t need to find babysitters.”
“Would folks be more likely to try bringing their friends who need to hear the message? It might be more comfortable for them if they can come and go as they please.”
We talked and talked, and the idea grew and formed into something pretty interesting. When we pitched it to the pastors in our community, they seemed excited. And then, the typical year of behind-the-scenes preparation progressed. There did seem to be a fresh enthusiasm. In the back of my mind, I thought, This might actually work!
Still, when the festival week began, Dad was nervous.
“What have my sons gotten me into? What if this flops? We live here! What will my mother-in-law think?”
Dad was so nervous he decided to move into the Marriott Hotel downtown, just a block from Waterfront Park, along the Willamette River. He wanted to be able to pray and to get away from any distractions.
When the day actually came, I was amazed. People started to show up in droves, overflowing all the arrangements we’d made. It was by far the largest U.S. crowd we’d ever seen. A brand-new opening band that few had heard of called Skillet played, along with TobyMac and Kirk Franklin. It was a blast! People sat on blankets with friends and lined up to get ice cream, lemonade, burgers, and corn on the cob. The kids hung out and played in the Veggie Tales Family Fun Zone, or watched X Games–caliber athletes skate, including guys like Jamie Thomas. More important, of course, was the opportunity for the church to be visibly together in the heart of the city, worshiping together and sharing the life-changing message of Jesus.
It had felt risky. I mean, you can’t really hide from a massive flop in your hometown. But, thank the Lord, and thanks to the amazing local churches that joined us in the risk, it wasn’t a flop. It was a spark. A spark that launched a new model for evangelistic festivals around the United States and the world.
Invitations for Palau Festivals, as we now called them, came from Myrtle Beach to Houston, the Twin Cities to Ft. Lauderdale, San Diego to Washington, D.C. International cities such as Buenos Aires, Argentina; Newcastle, Australia; Tirana, Albania; Suva, Fiji; Madrid, Spain; Cairo, Egypt; Kigali, Rwanda; and beyond. Dozens of cities in all. They caught the vision, jumped on board, and saw great fruit. It really did feel like a breakthrough. And in a way, it was. This approach felt fresh. We were getting out closer to where folks lived and breathed. The festivals created a family-friendly, nonpolitical environment that blended a music festival with direct preaching. We met amazing friends along the way and had once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
The new model didn’t come without its challenges. It was a little more complicated to figure out how to have folks respond to the gospel message, since there was no room for them to come forward for the invitation. As a result, we began training local followers of Christ as festival counselors to watch for the hands that would go up and approach individuals right there, in the midst of the crowd. It lacked a bit of the drama of the past, but it worked.
Still, as a few more years went by and the newness of the model wore off, some of the same questions remained:
• What really remained after we left town?
• Did the unity among the churches continue?
• How could it, when we’d left no clear means for that to happen?
• Were we even reaching the right audience, or just preaching to the choir?
I have always had a way of driving myself crazy that way. The questions. The doubts. But looking back, they seemed to be leading us somewhere. And it was only a matter of time before another little glimmer would shine. A way to build upon this festival model and make the fruit even more long-lasting. And funny enough, the next big breakthrough again came in good ol’ Portland, among the least-churched and most progressive cities in the United States.
As wonderful as the festivals were, and still are, they are examples of the attractional approach to ministry. In other words, “What can we do to create an attractive environment for people to come and hear the message?”
There’s nothing wrong with that. We want to see more churches and ministries that are attractive and winsome. (After all, what’s the alternative? The opposite of attractive is repulsive.) Yet, as many in the church were wondering, was there more to our witness than attractional ministry? Was it really just a matter of building bigger church buildings and having better worship bands and more exciting kids’ programs? Of having better and better bands at festivals? Is that, in and of itself, enough? We all wondered if there was more we could do.
The word “missional” is admittedly in danger of growing stale from overuse. But to me, it still communicates that new/old vision of the early church—to be on mission with Christ. Isn’t that our hope? For our communities? Our families? Our children? Ourselves? Unleashing more followers of Jesus to see their lives as a mission to love others and share the Good News?
My mind was spinning. How would communities respond to a kind of Christian witness that dug right into their own neighborhoods and truly helped—truly loved—because God so loved the world? In an oversaturated culture of rhetoric, could simple love in action prove to be a profound, ground-shaking witness? Could we recover a more radical expression of what Christians are to be known for on this earth?
If we, as Christians, are still known more for what we’re against rather than what we’re for, how likely is it that the people we are trying to reach will darken the doors of our churches or come to our festivals—no matter how great the coffee or how amazing the music? Some will always come. The gospel itself is attractive and relevant and powerful. Friends will invite friends, and neighbors will invite neighbors. That’s always the core. And we must persist. But what else could we do to bridge the gap that seemed to be widening year by year, growing into a chasm that we could hardly see across?
The reality was that on a broader culture scale, at least in many parts of the United States, we had created our own Christian bubble. Our own music, books, video games, schools, churches. We had become experts at isolating and protecting ourselves from the very people Christ called us to love unconditionally.
Armed with a desire to get beyond the borders we’d set for ourselves and to see greater impact, seven years after the last festival in Portland, in 2007, we again gathered with dozens of key area pastors. We all agreed—we needed a fresh way to communicate the gospel that could fold into and enhance the festival model. It had to be sincere. It had to be relevant. But it also needed to be so much more than a method. It had to be a way of life. The idea was nothing new. It was biblical. It’s the way the earliest followers of Jesus lived and shared the Good News.
Dale Ebel from Rolling Hills, a great suburban church, stood and told of the progress they’d been making in engaging the community, even taking a Sunday and canceling regular services to actually serve the community. It was like a lightbulb popped on.
The year before, at our Houston Festival, we’d been challenged by Jim Herrington, Dave Peterson, Rachel Quan, and many other great leaders there to think a little more creatively about a holistic “word and deed” approach to evangelism. That great challenge prompted us to organize a number of creative service projects there, partnering with local schools and meeting with the mayor to be sure he knew the festival was coming. But we knew we were just scratching the surface. Those conversations began to light a fire in my heart, as well as the hearts of many on the Palau Team staff.
It was simple, really. We wanted to add feet to our faith. The fact is, actions often speak louder than words. We needed to marry our words and our actions.
That afternoon at our Beaverton headquarters, we got excited at the thought of mixing things up. It was time for something a little different. The ideas began to swirl. Would a stronger and more sustainable commitment to serving the community find traction with the churches? Would local officials be open to some sort of partnership? Would this approach make the festival more effective overall? Would believers find better relational bridges to their neighbors if they served alongside them, showing unconditional love? Could the church, too often known for being hypocritical, angry, judgmental, and harsh, show a more Christ-like face?
Thus began a journey that would lead—through dozens of twists and turns—to unlikely opportunities and impact. It would include a unique chance to address dozens of individuals at the Q Center, Portland’s LGBTQ community center, sharing my heart and hope for our city and speaking of the love of Jesus Christ. It would involve standing with our school superintendent in front of dozens of principals and pastors, forging new partnerships for the sake of our students. It would help develop fifteen free neighborhood medical and dental clinics run by area churches. A cover story in Willamette Week would end up praising the new effort by churches, an unprecedented move by the ultraprogressive media outlet. It helped launch the festival forward, gathering tens of thousands of people over two days at Waterfront Park in the summer of 2008 to hear the Good News presented by Dad and celebrate the work that was accomplished. These surprising open doors would be a glimpse of God’s Spirit at work, and it’s been a thrill. But the best part—the real foundation of it all—has been our recovering a confidence in the simple power of the gospel: lived out and proclaimed.
My dad’s favorite Bible verse is Galatians 2:20. I’ve heard him preach about it on countless occasions:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Most of us want to do something great in this world—to make a difference for our family, our children, or our community. We want to do our part. But what’s enough? What’s expected? What’s even possible?
My dad was asking the same question in college years ago. He had just arrived in Portland from his home country of Argentina. He was fluent in English and Spanish—successful in the world’s terms, as well as in spiritual terms. He had been on the radio for years, had spoken in dozens of churches, was being mentored by some of the greatest leaders in the Christian world, and was dreaming of beginning his ministry career as a world evangelist. But on the inside, he was falling apart. He felt like everything was a show. That’s when Major Ian Thomas spoke in chapel.
Major Thomas was the founder of the Torchbearers, the group that runs the Capernwray Bible School in England. His thick British accent and frequent gesturing with a finger that had been partially cut off grabbed Dad’s attention.
His theme was “Any old bush will do, as long as God is in the bush.” It was based on the story of Moses and his encounter with God in the burning bush. It took Moses forty years in the wilderness to realize that he was nothing without God, Major Thomas said. God was trying to tell Moses, “I don’t need a pretty bush or an educated bush or an eloquent bush. Any old bush will do, as long as I am in the bush. If I am going to use you, I am going to use you. It will not be you doing something for me, but me doing something through you.”
It’s funny how a message like that can stay so clearly in your mind for years. I wasn’t even there. Not even a blip on the radar. But Dad has told me the story so many times that I can picture the chapel, Major Thomas, and the finger. I can hear the words.
As we gathered with those pastors in 2007 to talk about what God could do in Portland, I was brought back to Major Thomas’s words. We were all that bush: a useless bunch of dried-up sticks. We could do nothing for God. All our reading and serving and asking questions and trying to model ourselves after others was worthless. Everything was futile unless God was in the bush—unless we came to the end of ourselves.
The astonishing fact is that Jesus lives within every believer, and they become one in spirit. The apostle Paul described this as “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26–27).
Christ living in and through us, by the Holy Spirit, was the only way to effectively live and serve. That was the key. No need to impress others. We just had to allow Christ to live in and through us. It’s a lesson I have personally had to learn on many occasions.
Through my struggles and doubts and fears, I have found myself not more “right” in my interpretation of the gospel but more humbled by it—more in love with it. More in love with the simplicity of it. I came to recognize that no program or method is the answer, but rather the Spirit of Jesus working through me, and you, and thousands of others who, imperfect as we are, choose to follow Jesus today. This is the foundation that allows us to build unlikely friendships and find common ground we haven’t seen before. To see our schools and community impacted. To build solidarity within and among the churches. To be more joyfully bold in sharing the Good News.
And when we find ourselves allowing Christ to live and work through us, an odd thing happens. We find the gospel—alive—in us! We find it is “no longer I, but Christ.”