Luis Palau sat at a head table in a hotel ballroom near the White House in April, the night before the National Day of Prayer. Around him were 300 U.S. representatives and senators, Christian leaders and – walking through the door – Attorney General John Ashcroft.

 

Pray for me and for President Bush, Ashcroft asked the group. Then he moved to a piano and pounded out a bouncy version of "Jesus Loves Me," an old Sunday school favorite.

   

The next day, Palau led prayer in the White House with President Bush. Then it was on to the Capitol. Later, in a staff briefing back at his Beaverton, Ore., headquarters, the evangelist squeezed his eyes shut and thanked God for his access to power.

 

"Thank you for opening doors to the Pentagon, the House of Representatives," he said. "We pray for the president. We thank you that he's a man of prayer, that he shoots straight and that as far as he knows, he does the right thing."

 

This month marks Palau's 50th year in evangelism, a calling that transformed a 19-year-old street preacher from Buenos Aires into an international evangelist who has met with dozens of heads of state, from Latin American leaders to former President Clinton.

 

Once considered the heir apparent to evangelist Billy Graham, Palau has arrived in Christian circles as a star in his own right. At 68, he is a prolific author, a radio celebrity in Latin America, and president of a nonprofit ministry with an $11 million annual budget that operates out of a former Tektronix plant. His trademark Christian music festivals, held in four countries and nine U.S. cities since 1999, draw enormous crowds, including 300,000 who police said attended "Beachfest" in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the spring.

 

In everything, Palau sees the opportunity to persuade others to accept the claims of Christianity. He calls his life's work "spiritual warfare," God vs. Satan. Access to decision-makers is simply part of the battle.

 

Palau is uncompromising in his belief that Christianity is the only path to God. Yet unlike evangelists who grab headlines by attacking Islam or condemning abortion providers, he rarely stakes out public positions on polarizing social issues. He's looking to win souls. Anger isn't good for business.

 

"Without offending or punching people in the nose, I present the case for Christ," he said.

 

On a summer Sunday at Portland Christian Center, he made his case. As guest pastor, he pointed the congregation to passages in I Corinthians that describe the body as God's temple and sexual immorality as a sin against God. To Palau, that includes homosexuality. But he stopped short of explicit condemnations.

 

"Everything is forgiven by Jesus. Guilt, shame, evil, everything bad you've ever done," he said.