SN&R chats with evangelical leader Luis Palau
SN&R talks faith and politics with global evangelical leader Luis Palau on the eve of his visit to Sacramento
Luis Palau, a global evangelical leader who has preached to 30 million people in 75 countries, will be coming to Sacramento June 16 to 17, as host of a free festival at Cal Expo—one with a decidedly Christian bent. Often compared to Billy Graham, the preacher’s ministry includes regular international radio broadcasts in English and Spanish, a new book Changed by Faith, and “more than 1 million registered decisions for Jesus Christ.”
A native of Argentina, Palau has spent the past many decades in Portland, Oregon, a place where he began Season of Service, a program that has volunteers by the thousands—including in Sacramento—helping people in need. The SN&R decided a conversation with Palau was in order.
Jeff vonKaenel: Many of our readers do not regularly attend religious services and never have been to a religious festival. What should they expect at your upcoming Sacramento event?
Luis Palau: When we started the festival model, one of my great dreams was to show that we are just normal citizens. We’re not a group hiding behind closed doors on Sunday morning—we are regular people who know how to enjoy ourselves, but who also take spiritual life seriously. So, there will be great sports and super events for the children and contemporary music and so on. We get serious about three-quarters of the way through with a serious message. We remind people that spiritual life also counts—that they should not just live in two dimensions, but live a full life. We always think of three dimensions, body, soul and spirit. So your audience, the ones you write for in Sacramento, are perhaps very involved in their physical conditioning and health and preventative medicine and all of that, and probably pretty well-read and educated and so on. But what we are addressing is the spiritual element that might be missing.
If you could crystallize your spiritual message, what would that be?
We would like to see a revival of spiritual intensity and a revival of thinking about God. We emphasize the importance of adding a spiritual component to life. I want people to think about their creator, to be reconciled to him and to begin to enjoy life to its fullest by knowing Jesus Christ, by settling the problem of evil and by walking with God in the exciting life that it is. I want to communicate that. …You can know God for yourself and you don’t become a religious extremist when you do.
You have an audience of millions—between your radio broadcasts and events—in America and all over the world. Why are you now bringing the festival and your spiritual message to Sacramento?
I feel that there is a need for a spiritual reawakening in America as a whole. But coming to Sacramento … well, the capital always had a grip on me. To me, as the old saying goes, “As goes Sacramento, so goes California; as goes California, so goes the United States,” and some of us—we’re international—so, “As goes America, so goes the world.” And it’s still a fact. But when you look at the society right now, the national mood is dark; the attitudes are sometimes almost demonic. Like we are trying to commit collective suicide as a nation, you know, the hatred, the insults, the mocking of each other. … We have gone way over the top as a nation, and I feel [we’ve] got to bring back the nation to a spiritual responsibility where we respect each other and use the word love. Not because we agree, but because we are people, you know? … We desperately need a change. And if the believers in Jesus can’t do it, then I am not sure who can.
Let’s talk about the Season of Service. I’m very excited about that and impressed with the work you’re doing in Portland. Tell me about what your plans are in Sacramento.
Well, in Sacramento it’s already been going on for about three months. They’ve already had about 200 projects—cleaning up schools, helping the homeless—all over the area. They have mobilized, with our encouragement, 20,000 volunteers, which is good.
Yes, in Sacramento. And of the 420 or so participating churches, 200 projects are planned. Some of the churches double up, and they will work on a school project or a medical project or the dental-health issue. What encouraged me is that the large churches and the smaller churches have cooperated together, have connected with the mayor and the mayors of the surrounding towns, and, apparently, the reaction has been very good. The big ones like Bayside [of South Sacramento] and Lakeside and Capital Christian Center—they kind of lead the way, you know. It is isn’t like they didn’t do it before, but working together, I think, has a double impact. To see people doing practical things: fixing up schools, painting classrooms, helping single mothers who are homeless find a house, training high-school students in their reading and their ability to graduate. This, apparently, is going on in Sacramento, and it is very exciting.
Do you want the nonchurchgoers to join you in these projects?
Absolutely. It isn’t a holier-than-though club. Also, the Season of Service is not a one-shot deal, the plan is to continue it for 20 years in Sacramento. The committee leaders are really involved and are looking at it as an event to hold every year. And we are committed to doing it and going to the city council and saying, “What do you need this year?”
I have been on the Habitat for Humanity board for more than eight years, and I’ve met the families that we were building houses for. It’s very rewarding. But I always try to remember that while helping one person or family is gratifying, housing policies help thousands of people. And the same thing goes for hunger programs. Food stamps are reaching hundreds of thousands of people with help. One of the concerns that I have is that these programs are being cut drastically. Do Christians have an obligation to support government social programs and prevent those cutbacks from coming?
Absolutely. And I think many churches are beginning to. You see, we started out with a very low threshold so as not to frighten people away. But the demands are never ending, of course. And now, with the cutbacks of all governments, Churches have been stepping up to the plate and saying, “OK, we have got to do even more.”
So, with that obligation, one of the things that we are currently facing in America are proposals that take almost a quarter-trillion dollars out of social services, housing programs, food stamps and then give tax breaks to the rich!
Yeah, we see that battle in [Washington,] D.C. I tell you, whenever I hear of it, I get a little tired; I can hardly watch TV anymore. I literally get on my knees and pray. Because I don’t see how, if I was a senator or congressman with low-income constituents, how would I handle it? And I tell you, I just pray for these people, because they have got decisions to make that will affect the future of America. And I really am urging the Christian leaders to—instead of pointing the finger and angrily accusing—write respectful letters and talk to their representatives. But also to just pray. I know it sounds esoteric, but I really believe it, you know? I believe from reading the Bible and looking at history that there is great power in praying for our elected officials that they will do the wise thing for the country, not for their re-election, not for egotistical purposes. And I really am urging pastors to do that in their churches.
But what I fear is that we are going to work really hard to help the homeless and fix schools with Seasons of Service, but that the same people who do these good works are going to vote for politicians who take money out of social programs.
Well, I know. And that’s an on-going around-and-around problem. We are working with the rich in a quiet way. I was looking at what St. Paul says to those that are wealthy … he said command those who are rich in this present world, not to be arrogant, not to put their hope in wealth, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment; command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds and to be generous and willing to share. In this way, they will share a big treasure for themselves and a foundation for the life that is to come, the life that is truly life. I’ve spent a lot of time with some rather well-off people, and many are eager to help.
As for the politicians, I don’t have proposals for them. They meet with us and, you know, they listen. And it is easy to give advice, but they make the decisions. But we are trying, we are making an effort. … We are doing the spiritual awakening as well as the practical service. And I’m pleased by the way things are going. I think the churches in America have become far more involved and active and the younger generation of pastors are really committed to all this.
Still, I am worried that if the Republican proposals are agreed on in this upcoming election—well, it’s going to be horrible. And I’m afraid that the very people coming to your event are helping put these people in office. What do we do about this?
Well, I think it is a bit of a mistake to think that evangelical Christians are all voting to the right all the time. There is a lot of debate going on internally, and many people openly see the extremism—where acquiring wealth becomes and end in itself and basically becomes what the Bible attacks, which is greed and the love of money.
I come from Argentina where dictators do whatever they want, and the voice of the people doesn’t count. In America, I’ve seen it all for 50 years, from [Presidents] Eisenhower to Kennedy to Nixon … the whole thing. And I’ve seen how the balance is kept with the two-party system and seems to work better than any other I’ve seen … it seems like we managed to keep the ship going in pretty good shape. So we need to not give up on the system; encourage people to really participate.
What I’m personally hoping for is that in the Season of Service, people have the kind of experiences that will lend them to doing more … and thinking more. Saying, “OK, we need to increase our taxes to provide social services so that we can really solve these problems. We need a combination of government programs along with spiritual programs if we are going to solve these big problems.”
Yes. I agree with you, and we are not there yet. We are progressing and moving forward as we get people involved, they begin to see what you see. But there was a period where everyone just said, “Every man for himself,” and I think people now are saying, “What can we do? Can we employ a few more people?” … That is being pushed quite heavily in the circles I move in, where people are really thinking seriously, as you were suggesting, not just doing a few charitable deeds and hoping for the best, but actually seeing some structural change. How far to go with taxation and so on? That is beyond me.