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Church Gives Up ‘Right to Preach,’ School Transformed

By Paul Strand

CBN News, WASHINGTON — A new documentary relates the odd tale of an evangelical church in largely unchurched, liberal Portland, Oregon, uniting with a secular, public high school.

“Undivided” documents how suburban SouthLake Church laid down its right to preach so it could serve with a whole heart students in one of Portland’s most troubled areas.

Steve Duin, a columnist for The Oregonian, has been writing about Roosevelt High School for years.

“Roosevelt is largely a collection of the kids who’ve been left behind, been abandoned on any number of levels,” he says in the documentary.

When gangs began moving in to Portland, they clustered and recruited in neighborhoods around Roosevelt. Students already hampered by poverty were now dragged into the middle of turf wars and gang violence.

Filling in the Gaps

But things began to turn around when hundreds of churches in Portland united for a Day of Service organized by the evangelical Luis Palau Association in 2008.

It was a way for the churches to fill in some of the gaps left when budget shortfalls made it hard for the city to continue the level of services it had offered.

One of the most impressive acts of service during that day occurred when some 1,500 SouthLake Church members showed up to spruce up and clean up rundown Roosevelt High.

School custodian Phyllis Dean knew better than almost anyone how much physical work the cash-strapped school needed. She was stunned by how much the church people did in just a few hours.

“They cleaned the outside, made a big difference in the outside,” she says in the documentary. “They’ve come in, they’ve painted, they’ve cleaned all our furniture, cleaned our walls, did all our windows inside and out.”

Both school officials and SouthLake were so impressed with how much was accomplished in a day, all agreed an ongoing involvement of the church in the life of Roosevelt could have powerful positive results.

“Undivided” documents how the last few years have seen numerous efforts by SouthLake congregants to serve the students and help turn their lives around.

“It’s really been about meeting needs, filling gaps, and expressing the good news of God in a way that really has made a difference,” SouthLake Lead Pastor Kip Jacob told CBN News, speaking of his church’s good works at Roosevelt. “It’s just making a difference in the culture.”

Fear of Church People

But just what kind of a difference had some secular Portlanders worried, concerned church members couldn’t help but preach inside the school.

“There’s a fear that these church people are going to come in evangelizing and trying to get all your kids and staff saved,” Roosevelt High Principal Charlene Williams says in “Undivided.”

So the congregation basically promised to keep quiet when it came to witnessing with words. Then, they had to show they meant it.

“The best way to convince people that you don’t have an agenda is to not have an agenda,” SouthLake staffer Kristine Sommer says in the documentary.

And that’s led the church and its allies to see the Gospel really is about so much more than words.

“The world has heard the Church as a mouth,” Sommer said. “Now they need to see our hands and feet moving.”

“Evangelism usually connotes words. And so this is more about works,” Pastor Jacob explained to CBN News. “Rather than proclamation only, it’s more about demonstration. And really about demonstrating good news, which we think ultimately is what changes people’s lives.”

Individuals from SouthLake have come again and again to help Roosevelt, its students, and staff.

‘Like Locusts’

“I liken it to locusts because they come and they work so hard.” Dean, the school custodian, described.

Principal Williams expressed both awe and gratitude for the help and attitude of SouthLake’s people.

“SouthLake’s approach is more of ‘let me show you through the works, through my actions, what love really is,” she says in the film.

Church staffer Kristine Sommer agreed.

“We can stop talking for awhile and just serve because that’s what’s been lacking,” Sommer said.

As idealistic youth, Sommer spent less time at her desk at SouthLake Church and more and more helping at Roosevelt. She began to wish out loud that she could just work inside the school full-time.

Interestingly, Roosevelt High’s principal proposed that’s just what should happen.

Luis Palau Association President Kevin Palau explains what happened in the film.

“The principal at that time said to Kristine, ‘You should just office here,'” he said.

Both sides agreed and SouthLake began to pay Sommer to be at the school rather than at the church.

“I thought, ‘Well now, that’s interesting. Is that separation of church and state?’ I wasn’t sure if it was an issue,” she said of her initial reaction.

“It’s unusual for sure,” Pastor Jacob said. “But the needs are so great. Our public schools are searching for solutions and really open to community partnerships, including with faith communities.”

“Roosevelt needed somebody there to coordinate volunteerism and so they asked us to do that,” he said.

Making History

This unusual arrangement shocked, in a good way, Portland-based evangelist Luis Palau.

“As far as I’m concerned, that business of SouthLake Church having an office in a public school – I don’t think that’s ever happened in history,” he says in the documentary.

Sommer moved into the school with the same attitude of servanthood that characterized all of SouthLake’s interactions with Roosevelt High.

“We’re just here to fill holes,” she told the filmmakers. “That really was my strategy from the start: where are the holes in support? What can we do to fill them?”

Columnist Duin describes in the film about one of Sommer’s main initiatives.

“She began a clothes closet where people could donate clothes. And every morning kids could come in and basically take what they needed,” he said.

Suddenly, students who’d shivered through winters had thick coats. Teenagers who’d been wearing shoes riddled with holes now had good, solid footwear.

In the documentary, Sommer is seen talking to the filmmakers after living through a moment that shows what an impact generosity and giving can have as she watched a teenager eye a fancy coat.

“The coat was originally $270,” Sommer said. “This kid was trying it on and he sees the tag and goes, ‘I can’t believe some dude thinks that I’m worth $270.'”

In the film, custodian Dean looks all around the school at the many improvements made by SouthLake’s volunteers and sums it up in a few short words.

“It’s beautiful. I just can’t liken it to anything else,” he said.

“We are there to do the work,” Pastor Jacob says in the documentary. “Because the kids are worth it and the need is there.”

Taking It Nationwide

People talk all the time about the need for the separation of church and state. But “Undivided” documents how the Church can do so much good for students in public schools.

It suggests, in this case, that the divide between church and state should be bridged.

That is now the nationwide goal of SouthLake and its Portland partners, along with the producers of “Undivided.”

“We have a big dream and that’s to inspire churches all over the country,” Pastor Jacob told CBN News. “There are 300,000 churches in America and 100,000 public schools. So, what if the Church could really seize this opportunity to demonstrate good news, meeting needs of kids? And that’s what we hope to do.”

They’ve launched a campaign titled #EVERYSCHOOLMATTERS to team up churches with schools in long-term serving partnerships. More than 16,000 people have responded online.

“This is doable,” Williams says near the end of the film. “This is doable here at Roosevelt. This could be done anywhere.”

Christian Swain became Roosevelt High’s head football coach about the time SouthLake began serving the school. SouthLake member and former NFL all-pro quarterback Neil Lomax felt led to volunteer to help Swain out with the team.

Can’t Stop Love

“Undivided” portrays how they lavished many hours of sweat, concern, and love on what was once a demoralized, often defeated bunch of players. Swain and Lomax soon turned them into a group of jazzed, often-winning sports warriors.

“I know that there’s supposed to be a separation between church and state,” Swain says in the film. “But the bottom line is: no matter how hard people try, God is love, and you can’t stop people from loving people.”

“Undivided” is available through iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, VUDU, XBOX and Playstation.

Report via CBN News



 

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