Luis Palau: 50 Years of Making the Case for Jesus
- 2003 11 Nov
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.
At 5 feet 7 inches, Palau manages to be dashing -- wavy silvery-white hair, an elegant charcoal suit -- and moves like a prizefighter around his lectern. Back and forth, arms jabbing into the air. Bold pronouncements trail off into self-deprecating tangents, which he delivers in a gravelly continental accent shaped by his European grandparents, Argentine upbringing and British schoolmasters.
An insatiable reader, he salts the straight-ahead anecdotes in his sermons and 45 books with references to Tolstoy, Marx, Bob Dylan, the Wall Street Journal and the Bible. Reading is his only hobby.
"I will remember no more," he belts out, quoting the New Testament and drawing out the "more" as he arcs one arm through the air between him and the congregation. The verse, from Hebrews, refers to God's promise to wipe away sin and guilt. Then comes the take-home message, the heart of Palau's case.
"If you don't know (Jesus), you better hurry and give him your life quick, before something really bad happens to you," he says. "If you don't have the son of God living in you, then you don't have eternal life. Make a decision and settle it once and for all."
Everything for Palau is about life and death -- but he emphasizes life, what he calls the good news of Christianity. He downshifts a bit at home, a two-story of gray wood and faded brick in an affluent, hilly neighborhood near Portland.
Three of the Palaus' four grown sons live within four miles of their parents. At a recent family gathering, seven grandchildren scrambled across the pale hardwood floors. A hymnal rested on a piano, beside a copy of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart."
Out on the back deck, Palau is king. The meal is steak, preferably from the United States. Argentines are better cooks, he says, but U.S. cattle are better fed.
"Luis thinks chicken is an insult," says his wife, Pat, 66, half-joking. To the barbecue? "To the process, and to life in general."
Pat, raised in Beaverton, was a kindergarten teacher studying to become an overseas missionary when she met Palau at Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, now Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary.
After their marriage, the couple spent eight years as missionaries in Colombia and Mexico before they returned to Oregon to build Palau's ministry.
These days, three of his sons work for the Luis Palau Evangelical Association. The youngest teaches fourth grade in Beaverton.
The association's mission is the festivalls, free to those who attend, and the fund raising that pays for them. A board of directors, made up of businessmen from around the country, sets Palau's annual salary at $103,000, plus a $50,000 housing allowance and the use of a 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis. Palau travels about 70 percent of the year.
At home, Palau goes to bed around midnight and is up before 6, praying and reading in his book-lined study. He hates the thought that he hasn't heard of something that he might incorporate into his next sermon or radio address. Every surface in his study is piled with books -- evangelists' biographies, best sellers about religious trends, histories of Buddhism and Islam -- and clippings from Forbes, Fortune and Christianity Today. If he's not reading, he turns the television to CNBC for financial news.
"What else is there? (If) there's no money, there's nothing happening in America," he says with a laugh.
His travel schedule is intense. Six festivals -- in Argentina, Spain, Fiji, Peru, Reno, Nev., and Minneapolis -- are planned for 2004. Another eight events are scheduled for 2005 and 2006 in Washington, D.C., Houston, Orlando, Fla., China, Scotland, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
At Palau's festivals, the music dominates -- popular Christian entertainers such as tobyMac, Jaci Velasquez and Third Day. Palau himself preaches for only 40 minutes. The message is simple: Jesus, and only Jesus, saves. And he is far from finished delivering it.
c. 2003 Religion News Service