Finding Common Ground in Portland

05/05/2015 11:10 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016

There we were in the mayor's conference room in city hall. Six pastors from some of the largest churches in the area. Six leaders from influential LGBT organizations in the city. It felt like a middle school dance. The two groups had never met before, and no one said a word. Each group sat on opposite sides of the room. The mayor, my friend Sam Adams, had been the one to suggest the meeting. He would invite his friends from the LGBT community in Portland. I would invite my friends from the evangelical community. But Sam was late. He was stuck in traffic.

Sam finally arrived and broke the silence. He opened the meeting with this:

We're not here to force agreement on all topics. We know that's probably not going to happen. But Kevin and I have become friends and have realized we have more in common than we thought possible.

Nothing but good has come from us getting to know one another as we've worked to better serve the community. We have learned how to disagree respectfully while still engaging in the areas where we do agree. We thought it might be good for the community as a whole if we attempted that here.

We went around the room and began to tell our stories. Rick McKinley from Imago Dei Community started off. He began by simply apologizing, "We're sorry that some people who call themselves Christians have treated you so badly and that we've misrepresented the love of Jesus to you."
And from there, we listened. It was a profoundly moving experience to hear of the struggle and pain most of the LGBT leaders had experienced in their interactions with individuals "in the name of Christ." Tears were shed, and friendships were born that last to this day.

That meeting was a foundational moment for us as we began building bridges in order to seek the common good. In fact, just a few months after our meeting, a church in the area was vandalized after a newspaper article accused them of being anti-gay. The first ones to come to their aid, denounce the actions and help clean up were some of the LGBT leaders who were in the room that day.

What we are beginning to learn here in Portland is that when we are able to push through the presuppositions and set aside our differences, productive things can happen. Things that can benefit the whole community. And as a follower of Jesus, I have learned first-hand that it is possible to maintain my beliefs while happily working with people who see the world differently.
Sam and I had found common ground more than a year earlier. I had joined more than 100 church leaders in Portland who came to the city with a desire to do more to love and serve. We realized we'd become more known for what we were against than what we were for. We wanted that to change. And that's what brought us to gather more leaders from our respective groups to talk about how we might work together to serve our schools or kids in foster care.

This didn't mean we had to leave our convictions at the door. Evangelicals love to share a message we've experienced as "good news." But we also realize that message has been drowned out at times by the way some have been treated. That's what needs to change.

If there's one thing we have learned in Portland, it's that great relationships are possible around common-ground issues, even with those with whom we might disagree. In fact, I would say these sorts of unlikely relationships should be eagerly pursued by every one of us. These relationships are what can lead us toward greater impact: Thriving public schools. Kids in foster care who are well cared for and their families supported. The needs of our homeless friends and neighbors addressed. And we've seen it right here in Portland.

As a community, we have found ourselves knee deep in new, exciting and sometimes uncomfortable relationships. And it's pushing all of us toward greater levels of compassion, understanding, and support for our fellow neighbor. We have been reminded of the all-too-often-forgotten reality that life is about relationships. Authentic, vulnerable, real relationships with those we agree with as well as those who don't share our same perspectives. It reminds me of the life of Jesus.

Jesus lived a life of radical inclusiveness, building relationships with those far outside what would have been socially and religiously acceptable for a rabbi of his day. It's precisely these common-ground relationships that can build bridges of better understanding along with greater impact in the community. For me, it is foundational to the good news we love to share. The Gospel of love. A love that is willing to sacrifice. To cross the street. To knock on a neighbors door. To serve those in need. And to share a message of hope with those around us, no matter their background.