Sixty-thousand people are expected at a large Christian festival in Central Park on Saturday, featuring evangelist Luis Palau, Mariano Rivera, and a host of popular musical groups. The event is fueled by three years of effort at bringing churches together for community services in New York City neighborhoods.
A rocketship burns the most amount of fuel getting off the pad, muses evangelical networker Kevin Palau, but once in orbit its momentum carries it along. Palau envisions the launch of his initiative CityServe in New York City will fly on the same principle after the big event this weekend.
For the past three years Palau has made monthly trips into New York from his native Portland to meet with the city’s faith leaders and encourage them to unite in service to the city through CityServe, a branch of the Luis Palau Association.
The community service-oriented initiative is part of the lead up to his dad Luis Palau’s festival of music, sports, and preaching in Central Park that will take place Saturday. Another son Andrew has been speaking at various mini-fests around the city as well.
The elder Palau is an Argentinian evangelist based in the United States and is one of the most successful and likeable successors to the legendary Rev. Billy Graham. Palau re-tuned the “evangelistic crusades” of Graham’s era into the more celebratory “festivals.”
Graham’s four-month revival run at Madison Square Garden in 1957 was so successful in winning converts that it has entered into lore as one of the most significant events in American religious history. Toward the end of his career, Graham returned to the New York stage for a large crowd at Flushing Meadow Park, Queens in 2005. Now, it is Palau’s turn.
Though a significant evangelical Christian figure in his own right, the evangelist Palau is lesser known than Graham and has had to work harder to gain attention here in New York City. What is unique about the Palau approach is that it includes his son’s organization CityFest which is focused on spreading civic cheer and social services without the typical evangelistic message.
What will remain after the noise and shebang of the festival, Kevin Palau hopes, will be 23 networks of local pastors and community leaders who have begun to explore ways to cooperate in community services as education, feeding, foster care, and immigration assistance.
A blessing from a gay mayor in Portlandia
Palau marvels how he just “stumbled into the blessing” of his community service model CityServe first in Portland, Oregon.
In 2008 he and Portland pastors were perplexed about how they could fit into the increasingly secular city, one of the most secular in the United States. Palau suggested that instead of first asking how they can evangelize local Portlandiens, they should ask how they could help meet their community’s needs without evangelistic strings attached.
To evangelicals this was a bit of heresy: after all, they are called evangelicals as in dedicated to preaching! Palau’s argument is that being a good neighbor isn’t based on agreement about religion but on agreement that the community needs should be met. If you lend a hand to a neighbor, then he or she is later more likely to talk to you about religion. The community setting will be nicer, and the conversation sweeter.
After growing acceptance of this argument, Palau and the ministers knocked on their gay mayor’s door with an offer to help. Both sides were a little wary, but the mayor Sam Adams came to see that these pastors were not planning a sneak attack of evangelism once they were inside the city schools and government offices. And he was surprised and grateful that they weren’t asking for money from the tight municipal budget.
And the pastors saw that Adams was willing to work together without requiring the pastors to buy parts of the gay political agenda.
Wary introductions turned into cooperation which turned into friendship. Palau has written about this unusual gay-evangelical alliance in his Palau’s new book Unlikely: Putting Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel.
Portland Downtown comes to Broadway
NYC masterbuilder Robert Moses was invited to redesign Portland back in 1943. Now, it is the Western city’s turn to help New York City firm up a new social map of the city that includes evangelicals working alongside gays, Pentecostals joining hands with Catholics, and Manhattan learning to love the boroughs.
A small group of Christian leaders invited the Luis Palau Association to try its two-track model of civic services happening parallel to evangelism events in New York City. Although this happened long before the gay marriage decision that has shocked many evangelical Christians, its timing couldn’t be better in showing how a postsecular city like New York City can successfully embrace widely divergent viewpoints on religion and morals.
Supporters kicked in over $10 million, and 1,700 city churches are participating in local community service events along with over 100 music and evangelism events across the city since last September. Some more liberal churches are opting to spend more time in social services, some more conservative churches opt more for evangelism. But both are willing to be harnessed together.
The challenge in replicating The Portland Model is the sheer size of New York City. Palau observes that with a population that is more than ten times the size of Portland, and the most densely populated, ethnically complex city in the United States, someone trying to make an impact here could be “daunted by false expectations of needing to do everything right now.” That isn’t possible and would end in disaster.
Palau instead counts up each small victory of cooperation in city improvement as a lead up to bigger things. You have “to have the mindset of celebrating small victories,” he says, in order to do something big in New York City. Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway, and finally, hopefully, the stellar impact.
Another challenge is that successful pastors in New York City are typically independent visionaries. Collaborating with others means laying aside their own work for a while and investing resources in the group’s plan.
Additionally, many of these pastors have a “skepticism” of outsiders who “come to New York and claim they’ve saved the city.”
So far, Palau has convinced many church leaders that CityServe is theirs, not some sort of Palau dictate. Instead, CityServe is working as a conduit for city leaders coming to together to work continuously in community services for the first time.
The organizing started with the “asking of simple questions and not getting tired of asking the same questions,” Palau remembers. The conversations identified churches who are invested in their communities on the ground level. Then, Palau asked them, Who is really influential in your community? Over “a thousand cups of coffee”--literally-- the figurative “cream rises to the surface” revealing which pastors were willing and able to devote time to meeting with others.
If you think it’s easy to get this many churches to partner, Palau warns, remember that you are working to overcome over 2,000 years of denominational divergences and thousands of years of ethnic divisions. But he believes that the three years spent in getting to know each other will prove the most valuable investment for the city, a big divergent from past fratricides. After the festival, these churches will still know each other, their lessons of working together, and the community’s needs better than ever before..
Palau says that investment in the community good of a big city has to be continuous. And if Christian community service can work in New York, then this is “the most influential city in the world.”