You may have seen a quintet reconnoitering the city on billboards scaffolded above the sidewalk, perched atop buildings, and balanced alongside city expressways all the way from the corner of Canal Street and Broadway to a perch across Astoria, Queens near the mouth of the Triboro Bridge. Leading the pack is the smiling face of silver-haired, the Argentinian evangelist Luis Palau with golden letters behind him proclaiming “Good News In the City.”
Evangelist Palau is famous for his friendly preaching style and for his festivals (now called CityFest), which add music, sports, and preaching in a festive public space to make evangelistic events more approachable.
The “Good News” that the billboard refers to, of course, is the Christian message of salvation from the woes of life, the unsettlement of conscience and the uncertainty of death.
Last night at Times Square, Palau and his group of preachers, musicians and celebrities wowed a packed audience.
Today, Palau and his son Andrew will be preaching to thousands of festival attendees on the Great Lawn of Central Park at 4 pm to 10 pm. 60,000 New York area residents have snapped up the available tickets for the event. Those who couldn’t get tickets can watch a live stream event.
Over 1700 churches are involved in this effort, according to the Palau organization. “I don’t think there’s anything that resembles this in over 50 years in New York,” when Billy Graham’s 1957 four month crusade took place, reports Palau’s campaign director Tim Innes.
Behind the billboard is another story that makes this event relevant to the debate about the future role of Christians after the gay marriage decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Palau’s other son, Kevin, has prefaced the Central Park event with three years of mobilizing churches and their resources to do community service for the city in a two-fold evangelism strategy. The Palau organization calls this initiative CityServe.
CityServe was first implemented in Portland, Oregon after Kevin Palau had a revelation in 2009 that the way to a city’s heart was by offering the manpower and resources of local churches to assist the city government in civil service. In what has now come to be known as The Portland Story, Palau and other evangelical leaders in Portland approached the city’s gay mayor and simply asked, “What do you need, and how can we help?”
Twenty-thousand volunteers later, who were dispatched on missions such as cleaning up public school grounds, mentoring students, serving meals to homeless and low-income city residents, and filling backpacks with school supplies, Portland Mayor Tom Potter declared it the “largest, most successful service initiative the city of Portland has ever seen.” The churches matched up to serve areas that the city did not have resources to address. They evangelized without evangelizing, said New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman after a visit to Portland.
While this model of matching social services with evangelism is not new, the Palau Association is one of the first to divide them into two parallel organizations. Further, it is establishing more wide-ranging alliances between the city’s minority and immigrant communities than has ever existed before.
Evangelicals’ previous efforts to revitalize New York City with community services
Historically, the evangelicals in the city have been heavily involved in community services to help the poor and new immigrants. They were pivotal figures in the city’s abolitionist movement to end slavery in the United States. They fought for clean water, better fire safety, safe working conditions, and better housing for the poor. The evangelical presence and community impact in the city declined in the 1930s through the late 1970s.
More recently, the evangelicals have been making a comeback in numbers, and this movement has gradually focused upon doing more community services. Several such ministry initiatives have preceded Palau’s efforts. Here’s Life Inner City, founded by the world evangelism outfit called CRU, has been in the city since 1976. Its boxes of love program has distributed hundreds of thousands of meals. Jeremy Del Rio with roots in the Lower East Side Hispanic community began 20/20 Vision for Schools in 2008 to partner local churches to provide extra resources to local schools. That same year, Mac Pier founded the New York City Leadership Center as a place for thousands of ministry leaders to exchange ideas about city renewal.
The closest thing to CityServe mobilization effort is Hope for New York, an initiative by Redeemer Presbyterian Church to share its money, volunteers and expertise with many ministries not associated with Redeemer. The organization is now partnered with three churches and supports forty non-profits serving the poor and marginalized. Last year, they provided about $1.3 million dollars of grants and mobilized 52,000 volunteer hours.
But CityServe has a few elements that differ from previous efforts.
The CityServe innovations
First, it is an initiative spearheaded by the city’s ethnic minorities. Ted Gandy, the long-time head of Here’s Life Inner City, abashedly admits that New York’s established evangelical institutions have had a habit of organizing city-wide events before consulting ethnic and immigrant groups. In common with many non-profit groups that help the poor, established evangelical community service organizations give poor people little voice at board meetings.
The current Palau efforts happened differently. Hispanic church leaders made the initiative to invite Palau to the city. Indeed, originally CityFest was to be an exclusively Spanish festival. Then, the Korean church got wind of it. Rev. Nam Soo Kim of Promise Church asked if they could get involved as well, Gandy says. After the movement picked up steam, leaders of large, established city ministries joined up.
Ministries like the Hispanic-led 20/20 Vision for Schools have benefited from early spotlighting from the Palau's as well as receiving small grants. CityServe, the community service arm of the Palaus, says that it will eventually provide $500,000 of incentive grants to various ministries.
Second, the Palau efforts have focused first on relationships not goals and objectives. They use an empathic rationality not a transactional frame to judge goals.
“The entire Palau staff has an incredible compassion for relations,” Gandy explains, which he credits as a product of the Palau’s Latino culture.
The difference, Gandy pinpoints, is that in the Palau approach, they are not coming together with churches to form a strategy, but rather they trust that a strategy will emerge as they form strong relationships.
The Palau preference for building a personal connection before anything else is seen in their attitude toward the gay community. Kevin Palau says, “The LGBT community is not our enemy. Many evangelicals are in shock [after the Supreme Court ruling]. They are responding either with anger or withdraw. But we need to pursue deeper relationships! How is the gospel going to go far if we are not pursuing people we don’t agree with? Otherwise, we are just preaching to the choir.”
After the big event in Central Park, the Palaus will continue their relational strategy. First, they believe most non-Christians who come to the event will be there because a friend or relative invited them. “People come usually because someone cared about them and risked the relationship and said, you want to come with me?” Palau says.
Afterwards, those same relations can be used to further the conversations about faith, Jesus and heaven. And how to help the communities of the city together. Palau says that they have equipped thousands of people to share their faith and how to follow-up with friends and relatives. He calls it “encouraging your cousin.”
Second, CityServe keeps its community service efforts separate from its evangelistic CityFest. Kevin identifies his father and brother both as “evangelists,” a word that means someone who proclaims the Bible’s message that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save people from their sins. One might identify the young Palau as a “see-vangelist,” in line with Jesus’s command to let men “see your good works so that they may praise your father in heaven.”
The crux of this idea (which is not new or radical, Palau argues, but is rather “a return to truly biblical living”) is that a Christian community should eagerly serve the larger society around it, even if Christians and their neighbors don’t fit comfortably together culturally or politically. Then, the church can start conversations through service rather than disagreements.
What the north Portland, Oregon experience may mean for the north Bronx
While many pastors in the city have enthusiastically committed time and energy to participating in the Palau events leading up to July 11, some hesitated in giving the Palaus a wholehearted embrace. They are not familiar with Palau and are skeptical that the efforts will have any staying power in the city.
One BedStuy pastor, Bishop Ronnie Eggleston of Ephraim Judah International Ministries, mused that crowds are drawn to exciting events like CityFest but when the community members are in need, “They won’t go to the popular people. They’ll be knocking on our door.” Another fear is that the larger churches in the city will dictate their aims to the organization and the local needs of each small church will be ignored.
The future of the project may be forecast by the experience of AllOne Community Services in Portland.
AllOne Community Services is a nonprofit that connects churches in North Portland with each other and with community needs. Founder David Brewer came out of corporate America, where he worked in large-scale project management, which involved “pulling together people from across the company.” Seven years ago, he decided to apply that skill to uniting churches in North Portland to conduct viable collective community services. Some community needs take efforts on a bigger scale than those possible by churches working individually. He invited 80 churches in the North Portland area to lay aside their theological debates and agree to collaborate on meeting needs of their areas, such as housing, food, homelessness, and education.
Rather than having participants sign a statement of faith, Brewer just informed them, “We follow Jesus. If you’re okay with that, come on board.”
As a result, Brewer formed a collective of many theological flavors: three types of Methodist, Roman Catholic, a liberal Presbyterian, various types of Baptist, two types of Lutherans, a church from the African American denomination Church of God in Christ, and other Pentecostals, just to name a few. These groups were certainly divided over theological issues.
Brewer notes the big question over whether or not to have women pastors. AllOne has at least six female pastors involved, though some participants wouldn’t be caught dead ordaining them. One day he asked a conservative Baptist pastor how it felt to be part of that group. “I’m not going to invite them to preach,” the pastor acknowledged. But participation in AllOne creates a different tone in the discussions.
“When you stand shoulder to shoulder at a homeless outreach…[the people you’re working with] become people,” he marvels. Of course, the theological questions don’t go away but when they arise the sense of community is not lost. We are both here because we both care about this cause. I’m this denomination, and you’re that denomination.
AllOne also hosts forums where pastors can debate how the church should approach cultural trends, racism, sexuality and so forth.
“Jesus talked about unity among his believers,” Brewer reflects. Only once they’ve mastered community, then they truly are ready to take on concerns of the society around them. One wonders if this will include taking on Muslims, Jews and non-believers as partners in the organization.
Because AllOne is its own nonprofit, it also alleviates the tension that might arise between large, high-income churches and lower-income churches. Churches do not donate to particular projects but give to the organization as a whole. That way, no one is dictating where resources are allocated or throw their weight around to switch plans as they see fit.
The trick is, Brewer advises, that some resourced church may need to come in recognizing, “we’re bringing resources to the table but we need you to direct us.” That kind of resource sharing is possible only when all the churches involved see themselves are contributing to the same work, rather than vying for their own projects.
Maybe the greatest revelation Palau’s entrance to the city is not the outreach to those outside the church or the service to the city, but is the uniting of the churches themselves and getting them to look beyond their differences to unite for the common cause of community service.
That would be truly good news in the city.
Check Journey today to find out about the live-streaming of the Central Park Fest!
Read Thursday's story for more on the connection of the Palau community service efforts to their evangelism in New York City.