Luis Palau, the 'Billy Graham' of the Hispanic world, passes away
Although based in Oregon, the Argentinian-born Palau addressed 120 million evangelicals across Latin America and preached in 75 countries.
He could spend millions of dollars to preach in one city and his evangelistic crusades are counted in dozens. But how did a preacher born in Argentina become the most charismatic disciple of the famous pastor Billy Graham?
This is the story of Luis Palau, the voice of Latino evangelicals, who died last Thursday, March 11, at his home in Portland, Oregon, aged 86.
Born in 1934 in Ingeniero Maschwitz, a town about 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires, and of Scottish and Spanish descent, Palau's father died when he was just 10 years old and the family, which had had a thriving business and had recently converted to evangelical Christianity, fell into poverty.
When he was 18, Luis heard Pastor Graham preach on the radio for the first time, and was so inspired that he combined his job in a bank with preaching on the street until he convinced a local radio station to give him his own show.
But his official baptism into the waters of evangelical leadership came when he met Palo Alto, California writer and pastor Rady Stedman at a Bible study group and traveled to Portland in 1960 to study at what is now Multnomah University.
As fate would have it, he met Patricia Scofield there, whom he married a year later.
At the time, Pastor Graham was preparing an evangelistic crusade and Palau joined him as a translator of his sermons for the Hispanic community, a task he continued to perform for 20 years after he was ordained in 1963 and became a minister of a missionary organization, Overseas Crusades — today OC International.
Since Graham preached primarily in the United States, Palau crusaded and founded churches in Latin America during the 1970s, and also traveled in Europe, the Middle East, and even preached in the Soviet Union.
While he intended to keep politics out of his evangelistic work — he was a friend of Pope Francis when he was a liberal priest — some shady alliances tarnish his mission: In 1982, Palau collaborated with Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt right after his coup d'état.
After Graham's retirement in the late 1990s, Palau took over his religious mission with a slight shift towards Latinidad:
He began holding festivals lasting a few days in city parks, where he included concerts and family and youth activities, and managed to be a bridge between the evangelical community and Hispanics — today, Latinos account for 11% of the evangelical population in the U.S.
"His ministry bridged the gap between whites and Latinos in a way that white suburban ministers could not, especially in the 1980s and 1990s," University of Notre Dame historian Darren Dochuk told NYT's Clay Risen.
The president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, Gabriel Salguero, said that "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he was the leading evangelical in the Spanish-speaking world, perhaps in the whole world, second only to Billy Graham."
Today, Palau is recognized as a pioneer within the evangelical community: not only was he the first to bring Christian rock or hip hop groups on stage during festivals or to organize skateboarding exhibitions, but he also opened up the more conservative beam of his predecessor and addressed communities of color in a flatter and more horizontal way.
Palau broke, in short, with the stereotype of the "evangelical preacher" giving sermons from his pulpit, and tried to break out of the traditional fiefdoms and the often far-right discourse attributed to them.
In an interview with the NYT in 2001, Palau said: "In New England, when you say 'Christian', they think of 'those right-wing maniacs (...) I want to show that we are not maniacs, but that we are well educated. It's a rational faith, but it's a faith that fires you up."
After a hard fight against cancer, he died an innovator and a bridge between communities, regardless of the faith we profess.
Rest in peace, Luis Palau.