At Beaverton-based global evangelist Luis Palau's suggestion, conservative Christian pastors at rapidly growing suburban mega-churches may join with liberal Portland Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Erik Sten to fight homelessness.
Details remain to be worked out, but local churches point to a Palau festival in Houston that drew 225,000 people in October as proof of the help they can bring a city. Local churches led a citywide food drive at the festival and cleaned up 211 vacant lots near schools in one day.
They hope to spark a similar outpouring for the homeless in Portland, where the next in Palau's series of festival extravaganzas is slated for August 2008 in Waterfront Park.
Last fall, after Potter asked him for help, Palau began sounding out pastors at some of the larger Portland-area evangelical churches. Then Palau met with local elected leaders—Potter again in December, Sten in March, Beaverton Mayor Rob Drake in May, and Hillsboro Mayor Tom Hughes on June 1.
Palau and his $20 million-a-year, 110-employee organization have no experience helping the homeless. But Sten and newly rehired housing aide Marshall Runkel are working on a menu of simple, concrete ways that churches could help.
The city wouldn't be handing out grants or contracts to churches. But Sten sees tremendous potential in collaborating with churches or any community group that's serious about helping.
"Homeless people need to have a community that can help them reintegrate," Sten said. "Whether you call it the spirit or the soul or what makes us human, it tends to shrivel up when you're chronically homeless."
Potter, who was raised by a strict Southern Baptist mother, isn't a churchgoer at age 66. But the 72-year-old Palau, a native of Argentina, is famed for massive born-again festivals like the one in Portland's Waterfront Park in 1999 that drew 93,000 people over a two-day period. (See "Closing for Christ," WW, Aug. 25, 1999.)
Potter, who once directed the New Avenues for Youth teen homeless shelter, asked Palau to help get evangelical churches to do something about homelessness when the two were together at a 2005 Portland appearance by first lady Laura Bush.
For Palau and his son, the call coincided with a change in his own thinking, and a change underway in the evangelical movement to work on campaigns combating poverty, AIDS in Africa and global warming.
"We don't want to be viewed as these weird separate people," says Kevin Palau, the 44-year-old executive vice president of his father's ministry.
Evangelicals have a way to go before they can match the efforts of old-school Christian denominations, says Alan Hotchkiss, national director of church mobilization for the Luis Palau Association.
"The Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, African-American churches—they've been forever at the top of their game in service and community engagement," Hotchkiss said. "The evangelical community has been really good at sharing the gospel, but we've been pretty poor at helping people at their point of need in the community. We need to repent of that."
Palau may be an ideal ambassador for the shift. A sort of Latin Billy Graham, Palau has avoided polarizing political stances. He doesn't have his own weekly congregation, but instead organizes revival events in the United States and Latin America from his worldwide headquarters in Beaverton.
Palau's festivals have evolved over time, adding Christian pop music and skateboard and BMX riding. (In 2004, Kevin Palau worked with actor Stephen Baldwin to make a documentary about Christian BMX riders and skateboarders at Portland-area skate parks.)
Says Kevin Palau: "At the heart of the believers we know, there's a genuine sense that we want to be part of the community."