stickers on several cars parked near the massive religious
gathering in Tampa, Fla., ask the same question: ''Luis
The man who has
attracted tens of thousands to worship on a rain-soaked
day--Luis Palau--is unfamiliar to many, as the
festival's volunteers lightheartedly note. But
millions of people in dozens of countries have heard
idolizes the Reverend Billy Graham and is among the few
successfully organizing mass rallies in the way the elder
minister once did, albeit with modern twists that
range from heavy metal musicians to motocross riders.
As with Graham, a
message of salvation through Jesus Christ trumps all.
For instance, he has refused to make the fiery issues of
homosexuality and abortion major topics at his pulpit.
''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.''
reluctance to enter the political fray, his focus on God's
love, and a hesitance to mention his wrath have earned Palau
some critics who dismiss his sermons as a feel-good,
diluted brand of Christianity. He dismisses them.
circles, they think that swinging a bat and hitting them
over the head is not watered-down,'' Palau said. ''It
may not come over as swinging like a bat, but it's
plain and clear that sin is wrong.''
The message is
connecting. More than 25 million people have turned out to
hear him speak, hundreds of millions have listened to him on
radio and TV, and copies of his nearly 50 books have
been translated into dozens of languages.
suggest that maybe the day of mass evangelism is over,''
said Jeffery Sheler, the author of Believers: A
Journey Into Evangelical America. ''I think what
Palau and some of the others are doing is sort of a
Here in Tampa,
where about 140,000 people turn out over two days,
organizers spend about $2.8 million to host Palau's rally.
BMX riders flip
in the air while children play carnival games and get
their faces painted.
On the main stage
a young bleached-blond host warms up for Palau. Wearing
torn blue jeans and piercings in both ears and above his
chin, he 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 of his songs 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 with little
fanfare, waiting silently at stage right. When he finally
appears he is illuminated by pink and yellow lights
and delivers his message tamely;
it's not the fiery crescendo of some of his peers.
He urges 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 at one point. ''I beg
you tonight, get right with God.''
The scene is
different from Graham's crusades of years past, a model
Palau embraced until 1999, when he changed to his
''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
acknowledges the approach is not for everyone, even him. He
says he often finds the music at his events
exhausting, and when he travels he typically attends a
more traditional service with opportunity for quiet
meditation. Asked if any reverence is sacrificed in his
balloon animal-twisting, corporate-sponsored,
music-blasting events, he is quick to respond.
needs to be restudied,'' he says.
Palau was born
into a well-to-do family in Buenos Aires on November 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 for seven years before moving to the U.S. and
beginning studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in
Portland, Ore., where he met his wife, Pat. They began
building a team of evangelists, and Palau became
involved in Graham's ministry.
gave his protege funding and support to start his
own ministry, and Palau began making appearances
around the globe and grew to rock star status in his
visits to Latin America. He resisted holding rallies
in the U.S., though, out of deference to his idol, until the
1990s. He doesn't mind the relentless comparisons to Graham,
but he said he needed to go on his own to be
''Who wouldn't be
honored to be compared with the best?'' he said. ''But
I realized that the organization really is so devoted to
him, which is only right, that it would not be easy.''
Those who know
Palau call him an extrovert. He is easygoing in person,
appears to relish conversation, and is perhaps more
compelling one-on-one than onstage. He's
smallish--about 5 foot 8--and on this day is
neatly dressed in a black V-neck sweater with a plaid
shirt underneath, khaki pants, and a black leather
No collection is
taken at Palau's festivals. From his organization's
roughly $20 million annual budget he receives a $142,500
salary, a $50,000 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. (Matt Sedensky, AP)