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A rollicking good time in the name of Jesus

Luis Palau, an evangelist in the Billy Graham vein, adorns his message with new showmanship.

Razzle-dazzling though his festivals are, Palau himself seeks out more traditional settings for his personal worship when he travels.
Razzle-dazzling though his festivals are, Palau himself seeks out more traditional settings for his personal worship when he travels.Read more

TAMPA, Fla. - The bumper stickers on several cars parked near the massive religious gathering ask the same question: "Luis Who?"

The man who has attracted tens of thousands to worship on a rain-soaked day - the Argentina-born Luis Palau - is unfamiliar to many, as the festival's volunteers lightheartedly note. But millions of people in dozens of countries have heard him preach.

Palau, 72, idolizes the Rev. Billy Graham and is among the few evangelists 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 trumps all. For instance, Palau has refused to make the 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."

The minister's 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 in turn dismisses them.

More than 25 million people have turned out to hear Palau speak. Hundreds of millions have listened to him on radio and TV. The nearly 50 books he has written have been translated into dozens of languages.

"Some people suggest that maybe the day of mass evangelism is over," said Jeffery L. 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 transition."

In Tampa, where about 140,000 people turned out over two days for a recent festival, organizers spend about $2.8 million to host Palau's rallies.

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. He wears 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, Fla.?" 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, not with 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 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 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.

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 for seven years before moving to the United States 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.

Graham eventually gave his protege funding and support to start his own ministry. 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 United States, though, out of deference to his mentor, until the 1990s. He said he does not mind the relentless comparisons to Graham, but he said he needed to go out on his own to be successful.

"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 on stage. He's about 5-foot-8, and on this day is neatly dressed in a black V-neck sweater over a plaid shirt, and khaki pants and a black leather jacket.

No collection is taken at Palau's festivals. From his organization's annual budget of roughly $20 million, 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 that 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."