The power of one: Luis Palau

EVANGELIST Luis Palau vividly remembers the death of his father. He was just 10, his father 34. The successful businessman was struck down by pneumonia. 

‘‘There was no penicillin in Argentina in those days, at end of World War II,’’ recalls Palau on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon. 

‘‘He died singing, clapping his hands and saying, in the words of Saint Paul in the Bible, ‘I’m going to be with Jesus, which is better by far’, and he was gone.

‘‘I said to myself, you know, this is the way people should die – singing and knowing where they’re going. That’s when I started thinking that I should help as many people as I can to meet God and to have the assurance of eternal life.’’

Now 77, Palau is upfront about his bumpy spiritual path which saw him rebel as a teenager while attending an Anglican boarding school in his birthplace of Buenos Aires. 

‘‘We have a carnival week, you know, just before holy week begins, before Easter,’’ says Palau, whose responses are coloured  by his Spanish accent and liberal use of the Americanism ‘‘you know’’.

‘‘You party like crazy because then you have to behave and repent. I was 17 and getting ready to goof off with some of my friends and I felt that if I kept going this way, too much partying, too much drinking, I was going to mess up my life. It was time to shape up once and for all.

‘‘I was at my grandmother’s home and I felt I should get serious with God. I knelt by the bed and I said, ‘God, get me out of this dance, this whole weekend, so I don’t stumble and do something really foolish’. He gave me the heart to change; I started over with God.’’

Palau, the founder and CEO of the Luis Palau Association – his 49-year-old son Kevin is the president – has now shared the gospel with more than 25million people in 70 countries. Before settling in the United States in 1972 with his American wife Patricia, whom he met while studying theology at Multnomah University in Oregon, Palau was known as the Billy Graham of Latin America.

His festivals  attract  thousands of people; as many as 425,000 at a two-day event in Guatemala City in 2009 and 80,000 over two days in Sacramento in June. More than 25,000 people are expected to flock to the Newcastle Foreshore this weekend for CityFest, a free event during which Palau and his son Andrew will preach. 

‘‘He preaches the gospel just like I do, only he does it better,’’ boasts Palau of his 47-year-old son (he has four children, all sons). 

‘‘To be quite honest, more people come to Christ when he’s preaching  than when I am,’’ he laughs. ‘‘Maybe he learnt from watching not what to do. He is really gifted; this isn’t something you create, you don’t manipulate a person [to become a preacher].’’

Palau believes the ability to evangelise is a gift from God. 

‘‘The Bible puts it that it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit,’’ he says. 

‘‘You have a passion to reach out to people in need, and it takes empathy to understand people and to love them and not despise them just because of their behaviour. And you also then try to communicate deep truths but in a simple fashion. You have to be able to communicate with people of all levels, from the highly educated to children.

‘‘It’s also the ability to communicate the good news in a winning fashion to people who are not used to it. An evangelist stands at the door of the kingdom of God and says, ‘Come in, come in’.’’

Andrew Palau’s decision to become an evangelist echoes that of Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who also initially turned his back on  his father’s  crusades. 

‘‘He [Andrew] just wanted to party, he wasn’t interested in spiritual things,’’ remembers Palau, who remains close to the ailing 94-year-old Billy Graham.  The leader opened doors for Palau in the US.

‘‘Then at 27, we were having a festival in Kingston, Jamaica, and Andrew attended. He wasn’t there to go to church or Christian events; he was going to fish, play tennis, meet girls, and drink Jamaican beer. Then on the closing night, God spoke to his conscience and his heart and he truly repented and gave his life to Christ.

‘‘He was wild; he was in the world, as we say. Then his life turned around; he met a beautiful Jamaican girl and they married and have two boys and adopted a little girl from Ethiopia.’’

Palau has no doubt Andrew can fill his shoes and he has focused on ensuring that the Luis Palau Association will continue after his death. ‘‘If I should go down tomorrow, we feel the team can go forward,’’ he says. 

‘‘My sons are developing their own relationships, building connections. We are at peace, my wife and I, that if we shut down our own work tomorrow, it will go on. I will start to slow down ever so slightly, which will please Pat. We’ve been married 51 years and we worked out we’ve been separated 17 years with all my travelling and working.

‘‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but you also have to be careful because you can grow distant.’’

Palau is full of praise for Billy Graham, who counselled US presidents from Eisenhower to Bush. 

‘‘I met him when Pat and I were just married, way back in 1962. He was having one of his crusades in California and I volunteered with my wife. One day he had a breakfast when he was in town with all his team members and volunteers, and it just worked out that I sat smack bang in front of him. I didn’t request it, it just happened this way.

‘‘He asked me questions, encouraged me and stayed in touch with me. He gave me opportunities to preach – as a young fellow I had no right to it – but God evidently wanted him to do it for me. He gave me superb advice. He’s a very transparent man; all of his life he’s kept above reproach, kept his nose clean financially, personally. He’s one of those men, you can’t point the finger at a single mistake. I have always tried to follow his lead; be as transparent and as honest as you can, don’t change your message, which should remain constant and strong.

‘‘I revere him.’’

Like Graham, Palau is determined to reach out to people from all walks of life. He will hold festivals – updated versions of Graham’s crusades featuring skateboarding and music events for young people – in Alaska next year and New York City in 2014. He has great affection for Australia and regards Newcastle fondly having preached here in 1979 and 1982. He also made a short visit last December to begin work on CityFest, which has united churches throughout the Hunter and enlisted the support of 750 volunteers. 

‘‘I’m looking forward to meeting your new mayor Jeff McCloy,’’ says Palau after asking about the weather. 

‘‘A successful business with a love for the community is a good combination.’’

While more than happy to meet politicians and world leaders,  Palau remains tight-lipped about his own politics and believes that they have no place on the stage. 

‘‘Being brought up in Argentina, where politics was very dangerous, I learnt very early on that a person like me should abstain completely from political activity.

‘‘I think clergy can speak about moral issues, but when you get into partisan politics then it’s certainly not for a person like me, and in my opinion any Christian clergyman, to speak publicly. You can be a believer in Jesus and vote for whatever party you want. I don’t have an answer from God about who should be president. You vote as your conscience dictates.’’

Our phone chat happens on the eve of the United States presidential elections and Palau, who has already sent off his postal vote, is eager to overturn the popular perception that being Christian in the US automatically means one is  Republican voter.

‘‘The studies show that 55per cent of Americans who came to be followers of Jesus vote for the Democratic party; it has always been the party of the working man. There are 45million Latin Americans in the USA and they tend to vote Democratic, not because they aren’t conservative in their personal lifestyle, but because they feel the Democratic party serves their needs better than the Republican party.’’

He also abstains from commenting on social issues  such as gay marriage.  He says he doesn’t belong to one particular denomination, but ‘‘works with all of them’’. 

‘‘I am asked often [to comment], but I truly feel that when an issue is politicised, I definitely must stay away. I want to draw people to God, I don’t want to alienate people. When issues get politicised, the emotions get very high, people can get angry before they hear you out.’’

Could his decision be interpreted as cowardly? 

‘‘It’s not cowardice, it’s just wisdom,’’ he counters without a hint of tension. 

‘‘A person in my position should not get involved in emotional issues; people can make their own decisions, they’re pretty bright. Read the scriptures for yourself and make your own decision.’’

This year, Palau and Patricia returned to the church in Buenos Aires where he was first encouraged to preach to help celebrate its 75th anniversary. The Rincon Church is interdenominational and was a pivotal factor in guiding Palau. 

‘‘They took me in as a teenager looking for direction, baptised me and taught me. I learnt the Bible, I practised preaching on street corners.’’

 Palau  then joined forces with three ‘‘buddies’’ and started a daily lunchtime radio program. 

‘‘We’d make comments on the news of the day, you know, if there’d been a plane crash, or world event, then give a little Christian application to it.’’

Palau was only 19. The young men then appealed to ‘‘three business fellows’’ in the congregation and asked them to buy a large tent that they used to host a summer of Christian meetings for children and adults.

His big break came while working at the Bank of London in Buenos Aires as a 25-year-old. 

‘‘Two Americans came by and because I spoke English, I helped them. One had been a missionary to China and a prisoner under Mao Zedong and the other a minister in California. We chatted and they encouraged me to study in the US and got some business people to provide the cash. My mother said, ‘All right, go’ and I went to Oregon to study a one-year graduate course in theology and that’s where I met Pat.’’

The couple married and travelled as missionaries to Costa Rica for four years before moving on to Columbia and Mexico. Palau has always been keen to engage people through the media – be it TV, radio, and now Twitter and Facebook. 

‘‘My team members who are younger do that job [social media], you know, I am an old guy,’’ he laughs. 

‘‘It really is amazing; it’s kind of exciting, actually. It’s a new day and you’ve got to adapt to it and we’re learning, we’re learning, yeah!’’

CityFest is a free event this weekend at the Newcastle Foreshore. Kids’ activities start at noon. Luis Palau will preach from 7.15 each night. His son, Andrew, will preach tomorrow from 5pm. See luispalaucityfest.com.

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