Luis Palau, International Evangelist, Dies at 86

Luis Palau at the Twin Cities Festival in August 2004. Photo by Steve Smith, courtesy of the Luis Palau Association.

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Luis Palau, a Christian evangelist known for his smile and hearty laugh and described by some as “the Latino Billy Graham,” died Thursday (March 11) at his Portland, Ore., home. He was 86.

Over the past half-century, the Luis Palau Association, based in Beaverton, Ore., estimates that it has reached 30 million people in 75 countries. Under its Argentine-born founder’s leadership, the association “has coordinated hundreds of citywide campaigns in dozens of nations, including major evangelistic festivals on five continents.”

In the process, he worked with thousands of churches in hundreds of cities around the world, with gatherings in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago, Moscow, Madrid, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Washington, and elsewhere.

Related: CityFest West Michigan Draws More than 30,000 People to Banks of Grand River

Palau wrote dozens of books and was featured in radio broadcasts in English and Spanish on 3,500 radio outlets in 48 countries. In April 2019, the ministry released a feature-length film about the evangelist’s life and legacy in North and South American theaters, as well as in Spain.

In a January 2018 video, Palau disclosed to ministry supporters and friends that he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer and that his illness was terminal.

“Everything is ready, and if the Lord wants to take me home in the next few months or two years or whatever it is, I’m ready,” he said. With him in the YouTube video were his sons, Kevin and Andrew, who Palau said would lead the team that succeeds him.

For several more years, Palau did well, appearing at an outdoor crusade in Madrid in the summer of 2019. Then, last week, Palau’s sons wrote to friends and supporters: “As you know, Dad has been fighting lung cancer for more than three years. For most of that time he has felt great. It has been a blessing.

“Sadly, at the beginning of the year that changed and Dad took a turn for the worse. He spent two weeks in the hospital in January, dealing with heart and lung issues. … Although the doctors thought they had stabilized his condition and were happy to send him home, he returned to the hospital last Friday.

“After meeting with doctors, the decision was made to stop all treatment and start on hospice care. All the medications and treatments were proving to be too much for his body to handle. On Tuesday, Dad returned home where he can rest, be more comfortable, and spend time with family.

“We know this is probably hard for you to hear. Please know that the entire family is so thankful for your encouragement, prayers, and friendship.”

Palau, born in Buenos Aires in 1934, heard a Billy Graham Crusade on a radio broadcast while still a teenager, by which time he had already dedicated his life to Christ. He moved to Oregon in 1960 to attend Multnomah Bible College and married his wife, Pat, there. After several years of missionary work, the couple returned to Oregon and, with $100,000 seed money from Graham, Palau founded his association.

His evangelism was conducted in English and Spanish. In 1980, his nine-day Festival of the Family Crusade, held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, drew 52,000 to hear Palau preach in Spanish at a time when, according to Christianity Today, fewer than 25,000 Latino evangelicals were estimated to live in the greater LA area.

“Luis Palau was the quintessential bridge between Hispanic Christians and the collective of American evangelicalism,” said the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, chairman of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “He emerged as a Latino evangelical. He departs this planet as an evangelical—a period, without a hyphen, without an asterisk. He was literally the first to have achieved such a grandiose task.”

Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Association, remembered the influence Palau had on him throughout his life. “I grew up evangelical, so I knew about Luis Palau since I was a child,” Salguero said. “He was legend in Latino evangelicalism; I knew about his crusades, his revivals with hundreds of thousands of people. He’s like Billy Graham; I listened to his radio show since I was very young.”

At about the turn of the 21st century, Palau began hosting free outdoor festivals. Christian hip-hop music was added, along with Hollywood stars and professional athletes. Few crosses or other Christian symbols were in evidence, but Christian messages were given throughout the day.

Normally, Palau would speak each day at dusk, holding performances of the best-known musicians until he finished his message. “The people came,” he said, especially young people hungering for faith. The ministry’s monthslong, 2015 New York “CityFest” drew tens of thousands of people at a Central Park evangelistic rally.

Palau was devoutly nonpolitical and nondenominational, and took no offerings at his festivals. In each city, his team offset costs by recruiting corporate sponsors. 

Palau, said Salguero, “reinvented himself with his festivals. He was an innovator. Any young Hispanic evangelist in America or Latin America owes a debt of gratitude to Luis Palau, for his ministry and his role modeling.”

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