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'Luis Who?' is inventing new model for American evangelists

'Luis Who?' is inventing new model for American evangelists

The bumper stickers on several cars parked near a massive gathering here ask a question frequently heard: "Luis Who?"
The name of the man who has attracted tens of thousands even on this rain-soaked day _ Luis Palau _ is not yet a household one, a fact his festival's volunteers lightheartedly note. But millions of people in dozens of countries follow Palau _ an important evangelical Christian presence, particularly with the Rev. Billy Graham now gone from the public stage.
The Argentine-born Palau, 72, idolizes Graham and is among the few successfully organizing mass rallies in the way the elder minister once did, albeit with modern twists of everything from heavy metal musicians to motocross bike riders.
His beliefs are familiar Christian ideals. But he has refused to make the fiery issues of homosexuality and abortion major topics at his pulpit or to become involved in the divisive politics that surround such issues.
"In my work, we love everybody, we speak to everybody and we want to be above petty divisions. We want people to know what we're for, not what we're against," he said. "Some among us have made such a noise about two particular issues that people don't perceive that there's much more to it. I seek to activate the conscience, but it's not my duty to be the one who points the finger implying I'm holier than you."
The minister's reluctance to enter the political fray has earned Palau some critics who describe his sermons as a feel-good, diluted brand of Christianity. He dismisses them, saying he does not believe in "swinging a bat and hitting them over the head."
The more gentle message evidently is connecting. More than 25 million people have turned out to hear Palau speak, hundreds of millions have listened to him on radio and TV, copies of his nearly 50 books have been translated into dozens of languages.
Palau has organized festivals in Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Spain and Peru, along with many within the United States. A November event is planned in Cairo, Egypt.
Jeffery Sheler, the author of "Believers: A Journey Into Evangelical America," said it remains to be seen whether Palau's approach will continue to be embraced in the years ahead.
"Some people suggest that maybe the day of mass evangelism is over," he said. "I think what Palau and some of the others are doing is sort of a transition."
Here in Tampa, where about 140,000 people turn out over two days, organizers spent about $2.8 million (euro2.1 million) to host Palau's rally. Bike riders flip in the air, people in vegetable costumes tell Bible stories and children play carnival games and get their faces painted. On the main stage, the bleached-blond host wears torn blue jeans, has piercings in both ears and above his chin and introduces musical acts to throngs of shouting, jumping, fist-pumping audience members.
One of the singers, TobyMac, tells the crowd he was inspired to write one song after seeing "The Passion of the Christ." Before another song, he screams, "We got any Jesus freaks in Tampa, Florida?" The fog from shrieking fans' mouths fills the air on this unseasonably cold night.
Palau slips out of his trailer and up a back staircase. When he finally appears, he is illuminated by pink and yellow lights and delivers his message without fiery crescendos, urging his youthful audience to wait until marriage for sex, to pray and to pass up Satan's temptations.
"Give your heart to Christ tonight," he pleads. "I beg you tonight, get right with God."
The scene is far different from Graham's crusades of years past, a model Palau embraced until 1999, when he changed to his festival-style approach.
"We adapt into the culture for the sake of communicating the good news, the best news that ever was," he said. "If we did it the old way, it would be fine but nobody would be listening."
Palau was born into a well-to-do family in Buenos Aires on Nov. 27, 1934. His father was a successful contractor who began preaching after leaving the Roman Catholic Church to become an evangelical Protestant. His mother played the organ at church.
When Palau was just 10, his father died suddenly of pneumonia. The loss, the preacher says, taught him to be a realist.
He was a bank executive before moving to the U.S. and studying at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Oregon, where he met his wife, Pat. Palau became involved in Graham's ministry, and Palau later got support from Graham to start his own organization.
Palau made appearances around the globe _ growing to rock star status in Latin America _ but resisted holding rallies in the U.S. out of deference to his idol until the 1990s. He doesn't mind comparisons to Graham, but he said he needed to go on his own to be successful.
"Who wouldn't be honored to be compared with the best," he said.
Palau is easygoing in person, appears to relish conversation and is perhaps more compelling one-on-one than on stage. He is about 5-foot-8 (1.7 meters) and on this day is neatly dressed in a black V-neck sweater with a plaid shirt underneath, khaki pants and a black leather jacket. He is an avid reader, a loyal viewer of financial news shows and a fan of afternoon naps.
No collection is taken at Palau's festivals. The Luis Palau Association's Web site offers books, DVDs, CDs, T-shirts, caps and ways for ordinary people and corporations to donate. From his organization's roughly $20 million (euro14.7 million) annual budget, he is said to receive a $142,500 (euro104,810) salary, a $50,000 (euro36,775) housing allowance and use of a car.
Palau says he doesn't think about retirement, though his wife briefly halts her knitting to say she does. One of his four sons, 44-year-old Kevin, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Luis Palau Association, but says his father will continue his work as long as he can.
As for what it was like to grow up the son of a preacher who attracts massive crowds, Kevin Palau says it wasn't that big a deal. "It's not like anybody knew who Luis Palau was anyway," he said.


Updated : 2021-05-08 17:37 GMT+08:00