Portland is a city of stories.
During my three weeks in the city, I ate lunch with an immigrant from Vietnam, living in Seattle, who visits his girlfriend in Portland every weekend. I sat with a man who trades jokes for food outside a pharmacy (he told me a good one about Jesus and Moses playing golf). I served dinner to a comedic veteran with a brain tumor on his birthday.
I met a young man from New York, who screamed at strangers on the train, and then turned and became incredibly friendly with me. He showed me pictures of his father meeting the President, told me stories about getting an engineering degree, and explained that he had just opened a t-shirt shop at the local mall. He also told me how much he hated Portland, and the people who live there.
I heard at least three accounts of a shooting that took place in the city a during our first week there, all from homeless men who live blocks from where it happened. A man dead, a woman wounded, and a community in fear.
I heard the stories of students gathered from all over the world; people of all ages and origins seeking something in the classroom.
Stories permeate this city. Sometimes they are only glimpsed in laughter on a bus, or a conversation on the street, or a few words on a cardboard sign–yet they are there if you listen.
Those Who Wander
Portland is, statistically speaking, the least religious city in the country, so honestly I expected to meet some kind of vague, general hostility when I began trying to have spiritual conversations with its residents.
I was wrong.
Granted, we did face enmity in some of our conversations; I was laughed at, yelled at, and turned away more times than I can count. But behind that, past the initial awkwardness or tension, there was something I never accounted for: a person with a story much like my own.
This wasn’t something I witnessed in just in one conversation. Again and again I heard the same things from the people we talked to.
I’m lonely. I’m trying to find myself in school, or friendships, or success, but it’s not working. I know there is something out there, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t feel like I am good enough. I wish I had something greater to live for.
The specifics varied. I spoke to students from Japan, and Russia, and California, and Oregon, all with different backgrounds and beliefs. Yet these themes, these common threads in their stories, made me feel like I was looking into a mirror, back into my life before I understood who Christ says I am.
In my conversations, this is what I have found to be true: The Gospel is less well known than we would hope, but more simply understood than we could dare to expect.
This stood out to me when I began sharing the Gospel with the people of Portland. Most everyone, when I asked, thought that the main message of the Bible was, quite simply, “Be good.” I can’t tell you how many times I told them that it is something completely different, and it was the first time they truly heard the good news of what Christ did. I told them that Jesus came not to teach people to be good, but to tell them that they are loved even when they are not good enough.
So often, as Christians, we look at the Gospel as something that is universally known, but so large as to not be understood except through rigorous study and extreme theological competence. We are steeped in the story of Jesus, and we attach to it so many secondary ideas that we can forget what we truly believe. In fact, the Gospel is frighteningly simple and universally sought; the story of a God who loves his people so much that he would go to any length to bring them back and make them whole.
There is something that the statistics miss: Portland may be the least religious city in the country, but it is searching for the same thing that everyone else is.
Portland is searching for a love unconditional.
A Heart for the City
This is something that is easy to forget. We get so caught up in our own lives, our own circles, that we are blinded to the stories around us everyday. At times we are so enamored by our salvation, that we even forget the circumstances that we were saved from!
Think for a second, and really consider, what were you rescued from by Christ? Don’t just say ‘sin’ as a cop out. What darkness is in your past? What is your story?
Now think about the people you pass on the street. The people you sit in class with. The people you work with. The people you don’t know. Each one has a story every bit as vivid and painful and detailed as yours.
The world is only made up of two types of people: Those who have been salvaged from their brokenness, and those who are wandering, still seeking a satisfaction that nothing of Earth can provide.
If there is one thing that my trip to Portland taught me, it is that I need to have a heart for my city. I need to care about the people around me everyday, about their stories and their hurt. I want to be able to share my story with them, and perhaps point them towards someone who will tell them they are no longer a broken wanderer, but a redeemed heir. Someone who will give them a home.
My time in Portland gave me a glimpse of The Wandering City. It isn’t a place on a map. It is the same city that used to be our home. We too were once wanderers.
And the city surrounds us still.
What we are doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.
2 Kings 7:9