In 2008, Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon, had seen better days. In fact that’s an understatement. Built in 1922 to accommodate 2,000 students, its enrollment had dwindled to only 450 students. Anyone who could get their kids out of the school had already done so.
Things looked bleak for everyone connected to the school: faculty, administration, and especially the students.
Then people unconnected to the school came alongside the staff at Roosevelt and helped to turn things around, and in doing so, provided all of us with a model of what it means to be salt and light.
The turnaround at Roosevelt High School began when churches in Portland came together to ask how they could have a greater impact in the city. As Kevin Palau, the son of the great evangelist Luis Palau, pointed out to me on “The Eric Metaxas Show,” Portland was the first large American city to elect an openly-gay mayor and is home to the world’s largest nude bike ride.
In other words, it’s not the kind of place that we think of being open to people of serious faith. What’s more, as my friend Palau noted, in recent years Christians have become much better known for what they are against rather than what they’re for. Thus, Portland Christians had their work cut out for them.
As chronicled in Palau’s new book, “Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel,” what they came up with was CityServe. Christian leaders met with the mayor and asked him “what do you need and how can we help?” The result of that meeting was Portland’s “Season of Service,” which brought together more than 27,000 volunteers.
And that brings me back to Roosevelt High School. The mayor and school superintendent told Christian leaders that any help for the school would be appreciated. Portland’s Southlake Church took up the challenge.
It started with a cleanup day: hundreds of volunteers cleaning, painting, and tending to the grounds. But it didn’t stop there. People from the church kept showing up day after day and week after week asking how they could help.
About six months later, the principal came up to the church’s outreach pastor and said, “You’re here every day, why don’t you [have an] office here?” Since then, Southlake Church has had a full-time staff person at the school, running a clothing closet, food pantry, and Head Start program.
Since Southlake got involved, Roosevelt’s enrollment has doubled and graduation rates have risen higher than any other high school in Oregon. The school superintendent, who is also openly gay, told the people at CityServe, “if that’s what you’re talking about, please find us church partners for every school in Portland.”
What happened in Portland helped “change the narrative,” to use Palau’s phrase about how Christians relate to their non-Christian neighbors. It didn’t change the profound disagreements over social issues—neither side compromised on this score—but the unlikely relationships that grew out of CityServe might just make Portland a better place to live.
That is what it means to be salt and light. Now, is it easy to be a Christian in places like Portland? Not really. Then again, I don’t think it was easy to be one in ancient Rome or Ephesus, either. Yet people were attracted to the faith because there was something undeniably special in the way Christians lived.
The same can happen today in your city. I cannot recommend “Unlikely” and Kevin Palau’s vision highly enough. You need to read this book. More than that, we need to live it.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: June 26, 2015