The long-running television series “Portlandia” satirizes the Oregon city as a place filled with entitled urban hipsters. One famous episode euphorically describe Portland as the place where “the dream of the 90s is alive,” a place where “young people go to retire.”
But Portland, with a metro population of 2.5-million people, has big-city problems. The city prides itself on tolerance and inclusion, but following the 2016 election, riots broke out in the city. Though Oregon has a relatively small African-American population, race relations in the city have been troubled. Portland has seen white supremacist groups emerge. Gentrification has made housing unaffordable for the middle class, driving lower income families out of the center city. Portland is also one of the most secular cities in America, with less than 30 percent claiming any religious identification, with evangelicals at only about 6 percent.
These facts weighed on Kevin Palau. Palau, president of the Luis Palau Association and son of the famous evangelist, helped stage some of the largest evangelistic events on the planet, but Portland is his hometown. So in 2007, he called on church leaders in the area to participate in a day of service to the public schools.
The leaders at SouthLake Church on the city’s south side liked the idea and asked to take on nearby Roosevelt High School. Roosevelt was once one of Portland’s most outstanding schools, but by the time SouthLake partnered with the school, it was failing and slated for closure.
But SouthLake mobilized more than a 1000 volunteers for that first service day, and since 2007 SouthLake has been a daily presence at Roosevelt, with up to 75 regular volunteers plus hundreds more who participate in special events. Among the church’s ministries: They stock a clothes closet for students, though “closet” fails to do justice to an outreach that now serves about 350 people who come each month for clothes donated by SouthLake members and others. In 2013, an anonymous donor gave the “closet” $20,000 for clothing racks.
SouthLake also started a student mentoring program and annually holds special events at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“A lot of people think you have to go overseas to do a mission trip,” SouthLake’s outreach coordinator Heather Huggitt told the “Portland Tribune” in 2013. “This was a different concept. Look in your own backyard at a local school.”
The story of the SouthLake/Roosevelt partnership inspired a documentary movie and became an important story in the founding of City Gospel Movements.
City Gospel Movements, also founded by Kevin Palau, encourages and fosters “city gospel movements worldwide.” According to the group’s website, “We are striving to share best practices and stories from current movements so that you can stay encouraged in this work. We also hope that this website is a place of connectivity in order to find other like-minded leaders. Our desire is to foster collaborative relationships that learn together, encourage missional effectiveness, invest in leadership development and create collaborative opportunities.”
According to Kevin Palau, City Gospel Movements doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel.” He says that lots of ministries are already doing great work, but need a place to tell their stories, share best practices, get help with problems, and celebrate victories. “This is our investment in leaders,” he said. “We have just as much to learn as we do to give. Together we can make our cities better, places where the gospel is thriving, where the church is a key part of the community.”
Image: City Gospel Movements