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 &
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 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."
The minister's reluctance to enter the political fray, his focus on God's love and a hesitance to mention his wrath, has earned Palau some critics who dismiss his sermons as a feel-good, diluted brand of Christianity. He dismisses them.
"In some 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, copies of his nearly 50 books have been translated into dozens of languages.
"Some people 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 transition."
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. He wears torn blue jeans and 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 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, 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 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. Asked if any reverence is sacrificed in his balloon animal-twisting, corporate-sponsored, music-blasting events he is quick to respond.
"Even reverence needs to be restudied," he says.
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 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.
Graham eventually 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 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 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 jacket.
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.
'Luis Who?' could replace Graham
TAMPA, Fla. &