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May 20th, 2009 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

Undercover Jesus

A sweet-talking son of a preacher man has persuaded the City of Portland to become a partner with 500 churches. Here’s how.

     
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IMAGE: Brian Lee Photography

And lo, on Feb. 26, in the seventh week of the Beau Breedlove scandal, Sam Adams stood before 15 Portland pastors and 74-year-old evangelist Luis Palau, and received a $100,000 check for the city and its public schools.

And Adams said unto them: “As you might know, I’ve suffered from a bout of profound idiocy. There are people in this room from the pastoral community that have reached out to me and have been welcoming when I reached out to them. So I just want to thank you, as Sam.”

But this is not a story about what Sam Adams said. It is a story about the organization run by Palau, the Beaverton-based Christian evangelist known as the Billy Graham of Latin America, a hugely popular preacher who ministers at rallies that often exceed 300,000 people. That morning of Feb. 26, he pledged not only $100,000 to Portland, but also promised to aid the financially strapped city and school district for five months with more than 26,000 volunteers from 500 churches—providing meals for children, medical and dental checkups for the uninsured, and maintenance work for school buildings.

In other words, a Christian ministry has moved its unashamedly evangelical operations into the most secular of cities with nary a peep of protest.

“If we’re successful,” City Commissioner Nick Fish remarked to applause at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, “perhaps someday we’ll be known as Jesus’ favorite city.”

This unusual partnership of secular Portland hosting one of the nation’s largest civic faith-based initiatives was outshined by the klieg lights of the Adams scandal. Yet there it was. And it was not the product of preacher Luis Palau or Mayor Sam Adams.

Instead, it was the work of Kevin Palau, Luis’ son. He’s overcome his father’s worries about changing the family business to fashion a kinder, gentler face for evangelicalism, which claims 100 million believers—one in three Americans.

“The direction in which Kevin is taking the Palau Association…is that it’s time to retire the old evangelism model,” says Tom Krattenmaker, an associate vice president of Lewis Clark College who writes about religion for USA Today, “where you basically just shout out your theology and try to convert people, and instead show what Christianity looks like in action—in terms of compassion and good deeds.”

So, why should the rest of us care?

Because conservative Christians, long considered political lepers in Portland, have been invited to help provide public services like health care, cleaning your schools and tutoring your kids. Can that really happen without a little Jesus talk along the way?

For all his influence, Kevin Palau works in a former Tektronix warehouse in Beaverton. The most noticeable features of his unremarkable office are a poster for Livin’ It, a Christian skateboarding movie he produced in 2004 with Stephen Baldwin, and a Miami Dolphins football helmet—a gift from Wayne Huizenga Jr., son of the former Dolphins owner and Blockbuster Video tycoon, who’s also a board member of the Luis Palau Association.

Kevin is the oldest of Luis Palau’s four sons (five minutes older than twin brother Keith), three of whom work for their father’s ministry. He’s worked for his dad for 23 years, and at 46 is the organization’s executive vice president.

But he isn’t following his father’s path of preaching to huge gatherings across the globe—that’d be little brother Andrew.

“My gifts aren’t preaching in front of big crowds,” Kevin Palau says. “I’d be scared to death.”

Instead, he has spent the past decade on the development side of the $13 million, 66-employee organization, reinventing the ministry.

That ministry began in 1978, 17 years after Luis Palau moved from Buenos Aires to Beaverton to attend Multnomah Bible College and marry his wife, Pat. Since then, he has followed the model of Billy Graham’s crusades: traveling at the behest—and with the donations—of local church congregations. Luis Palau held revivals, with the daily sermons lasting as long as 16 weeks. As recently as last year, he preached to a one-night crowd of 300,000 on a city street in Buenos Aires.

But in 1999, the Luis Palau Association experimented with a different model: Portland Festival, a Waterfront Park carnival with Christian rock acts like Audio Adrenaline and dcTalk playing to crowds of 80,000 over five days. Speculation in a WW cover story at the time (see “Closing for Christ,” Aug. 25, 1999) was that Luis Palau was trying, slightly desperately, to carve out a youth-friendly niche that would position him to succeed Graham as America’s pastor.

In fact, Portland Festival was Kevin Palau’s idea. And he was hatching something far more radical.

When the festival returned to the waterfront in 2008—rebranded as CityFest and featuring clean-living musicians MercyMe and motocross racers, along with Luis Palau’s preaching—it attracted 180,000 people over two days. More tellingly, it was the concluding event for the first Season of Service—a partnership with the City of Portland.

City Hall and corporations like the Trail Blazers were backing the five-month volunteer effort by 26,000 Portland parishioners, logging more than 100,000 hours refurbishing 50 school campuses, giving haircuts to the homeless and donating 45,000 pounds of canned goods to food banks.

This year’s Season of Service has 500 churches affiliated, the $100,000 check, a promise to increase volunteer hours from 2008—and no CityFest. That means no preaching of any kind during the partnership, since the ministry pledged that Season of Service would include no proselytizing—just a goal to be an annual link between local churches and city services.

On the advice of Kevin Palau, the Luis Palau Association has decided the best way to evangelize in Portland is not to evangelize at all.

City Hall is happy to have him.

“I didn’t know anything about [Luis] Palau other than the fact that he was an evangelical preacher and did these big events at the waterfront,” says Commissioner Fish. “My guess is that he and I probably have some pretty strong disagreements on a number of policy issues. But the Season of Service concept, to me, has a lot of promise.

“They raise a lot of money.... They have a lot of influence,” adds Fish, who was raised Episcopalian and now periodically attends several churches in Portland, as well as making synagogue visits with his wife and two children. “And what they have said to me, repeatedly, is that they were tired of the old broken record between the evangelical wing of the faith community and the progressive community here in the Portland area, where they’re always fighting over issues like gay rights and abortion, rather than finding common ground.”

Kevin Palau isn’t surprised the city took him up on the offer.

“Why wouldn’t they respond positively if our question is, ‘How can we serve?’” he asks.


THE OTHER BROTHER: Andrew Palau preaches. (top left) DOWN TO THE RIVER TO PRAY: 2008’s CityFest attracted 180,000 people in two days. (bottom left) SHOUT TO THE LORD: CityFest crowds at Waterfront Park listened to Christian rockers like Kirk Franklin. (right)

Especially when it saves Portland and its schools so much money: The 2008 school-beautification projects alone saved the school district $481,828 in landscaping and labor costs, according to Portland Public Schools.

Such gifts suggest Kevin Palau has positioned his father’s ministry at the vanguard of a new movement in evangelicalism. Known broadly as the emerging church, it contends Christians should back away from conservative activism and court a broader audience through acts of charity. That shift is part of what’s allowed evangelical mega-minister Rick Warren to sidle up close enough to the Obama administration to pray at the presidential inauguration.

The new tactic has led to national attention for the Luis Palau Association: Reader’s Digest has a profile scheduled for June, and—in a reversal that is especially gratifying for Luis—the Billy Graham Association, now led by Franklin Graham, has asked the Palaus for help in copying the approach.

Kevin Palau is neither Billy Graham nor Luis Palau. Instead, he acts as God’s diplomat, influencing one skeptic at a time. Relentlessly earnest and immensely self-correcting, he has a hard time finishing a sentence without a qualification. He fills his schedule with coffee meetings—evangelical Christianity’s version of barroom deal-making. Yet Kevin doesn’t drink coffee: Half a cup, and he gets the jitters.

Kevin didn’t follow the path of the prodigal preacher’s kid turned repentant, a story most recently incarnated by Franklin Graham, who raised hell on motorcycles and was expelled from college before accepting Jesus and succeeding his dad in the crusade pulpit. (In the Palau family, that role belongs to brother Andrew, who joined a University of Oregon fraternity that “partied so much they had their charter revoked” before he was saved at a Luis Palau revival.) Kevin rededicated his life to Christ a dozen times as a teenager, got his B.A. in religious studies from Wheaton College outside Chicago, and joined the family business at age 26.

And then, in 1996, he told his wife, Michelle, he couldn’t do it anymore.

He knew it at a Luis Palau crusade in a rented basketball arena on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. The place had 9,000 seats. Seven thousand stayed empty.

“Still, this many years later,” Kevin says, “it still fills me with a kind of a dread. And you feel ashamed. You feel like, ‘What did we just do?’

“It was not a crisis of faith in terms of ‘I’m not even sure that there’s a God anymore.’ It was a crisis of, does this approach even meaningfully work anymore in the Western world?” Kevin continues. “You’d look out into the audience and say, ‘This is 99 percent evangelical. We’re preaching literally to the choir.’”

For years, he worked at launching a hipper festival model. That was the 1999 Waterfront Festival in Portland.

And then, in 2001, a man named Randy Thomas—then an employee of Portland Public Schools’ maintenance department, and a member of City Bible Church—offered Kevin Palau an alternative.

Thomas said the city’s public schools needed upkeep, badly, and he thought the churches could solve the problem, if properly organized.

Kevin Palau organized them. In the first Community Care Day in 2001, more than 50 schools received assistance from nearby churches.

After five years of that effort, Kevin realized in 2006 that the churches could take on more city services: summer lunch programs for kids, homeless family mentoring, environmental cleanups, after-school tutoring services. He just had to persuade his dad.

The second thing you notice about Luis Palau (the first thing being that he and his son both look like Jack Palance from City Slickers) is that Kevin’s conversion effort has worked: The white-haired globe-hopping revivalist now talks about finding a role in civic life.

“It makes you feel like an honest-to-goodness citizen,” Luis Palau says. “Ever since we got into this thing—I’ve never said this before—I feel like a real American, because we got involved with Portland.”

It took 18 months for Kevin to win Luis over to the idea of pursuing an official service partnership with the city of Portland. The persuasion was handled in classic Kevin Palau style: nonconfrontational meetings, in which Luis listed all his objections until he didn’t have them anymore.

“He’s a sneaky guy,” Luis says of his son, only half kidding. “When he wants to convince you of something, he’s laser-focused. Everything reminds him of Season of Service.”

The preacher who once termed his altar calls “closing for Christ” isn’t entirely comfortable even now with a plan to share faith without discussing it.

“I always worry,” Luis says. “I keep warning the younger guys, and I see them rolling their eyes, including Kevin—he doesn’t roll his eyes, but I know inside he’s rolling them. It can happen [that] all you have is taking care of people, but not their most vital need, which is their spiritual life.”

Kevin, chewing a chocolate muffin, denies rolling his eyes. And Luis is quick to compliment his son as a consensus-builder: “In a place like Portland, you’ll take any friend you can get.”


GROUP EFFORT: 2008 Season of Service projects included painting Gresham’s Sam Barlow High School (left) feeding families at Compassion medical care days (top right) and a backpack drive (bottom right).

Roosevelt High School Principal Deborah Peterson doesn’t identify herself as a friend of evangelicalism. “I think the most important thing in our democracy, and based on the foundations of public education in this country, is we keep a total separation of church and state,” says the principal of the high school in North Portland. “The kids are counting on that.”

At last year’s Community Care Day at Roosevelt, well-heeled SouthLake Foursquare Church in West Linn joined with Nike to provide an estimated $182,776 in renovations to the rundown school (where a quarter of the students are homeless by federal definitions). Talking about the event to WW, Peterson took pains to stress Nike’s role and to downplay church involvement: “I cannot begin to tell you what Nike has done for us.”

Nike has certainly done a great deal for Roosevelt: Led by employees who are members of SouthLake Foursquare, the company is currently raising $3 million to $4 million for the Theodore Roosevelt Athletic Center. But Nike and SouthLake Foursquare were introduced to Roosevelt in a meeting with Kevin Palau. And when 1,000 volunteers rolled onto the school’s campus, Palau press materials say Peterson had a much simpler reaction: She started to cry.

It’s hard to find anybody, in fact, who objects strongly to what Kevin Palau has wrought. Even the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State aren’t complaining much.

“As I understand the Season of Service, it’s the churches reaching out without any strings attached,” says David Fidanque, executive director for the ACLU of Oregon. “Now if there were any, that would be different. But if there aren’t any, it’s no different than a Rotary group doing the same thing, and that’s terrific. So far, from what I’ve heard, there isn’t any quid pro quo—and that’s the key.”

Bruce Adams, president of the Columbia chapter of Americans United, is more wary. “I think there’s some risk,” he says. “I think the city needs to be careful, because it could very easily appear that the city is promoting religion. It’s something like the slippery slope: How far do you go before you cross the line?”

In practice, those lines do blur with Season of Service.

At 7:30 am on Saturday, May 2, people began lining up in the gymnasium of Binnsmead Middle School on Southeast 87th Avenue. They were waiting for the free medical and dental checkups provided by Compassion Montavilla, one of the monthly neighborhood healthcare programs organized by local churches affiliated with the Season of Service.

By 3 pm, 58 people from the poor communities surrounding 82nd Avenue had received dental care (including on-site tooth extractions). Another 150 got haircuts donated by SuperCuts. A Burgerville franchise served more than 600 lunches (cheeseburgers, mostly). Six doctors performed exams in the school’s classrooms. Students from the Western State Chiropractic College adjusted 90 backs.

Most of the patients spoke limited English. The 250 church volunteers had prepared for this: All signs were marked in four languages, while Victor Yektiurip, worship pastor of the multicultural Pentecostal congregation Oregon City Blessing Church, had recruited 20 interpreters to translate Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian and Chinese.

But either Yektiurip didn’t warn his interpreters about crossing the line into preaching, or they didn’t care. In the crowded waiting area, outside a sixth-grade classroom, two Chinese-language interpreters began conducting an impassioned prayer for a middle-aged Asian woman seated in a plastic chair. One man gripped her hand and began to weep, while another woman placed a hand on her temple. They were not speaking Chinese—their prayers had the fervid, nonsensical rhythm of the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues. “Come into her life, Holy Spirit,” one said in English. “This is your temple.” The woman, also crying, had come for health care, and she was getting a healing service.

The other volunteers looked uncomfortable. After five minutes, a nurse stepped in to announce the woman’s appointment and end the prayer session: “We have a lot of people waiting.”

Another nearby volunteer explained what happened: “I think it was more of a spiritual thing,” he said.

When I tattle to Kevin Palau about this demonstration, he thanks me and grows pensive.

“If the person requested prayer, more power to ’em,” he finally decides. “If a person’s coming from a developing-world situation where prayer is a bigger part of daily life, that’s serving that person.”

The Luis Palau Association’s internal marketing literature doesn’t clarify matters much.

In the opening letter of the fall 2008 edition of Palau magazine Proclaim!, Luis Palau wrote about the Portland Season of Service: “People asked questions. They listened to what we had to say. It has opened incredible doors for sharing God’s truth, and it has begun to change the fabric of our community as a whole.”

Fish, however, is adamant that the city will tolerate no evangelism in the partnership.

“It is fundamental that there be no explicit proselytizing,” he says. “We’ve been very clear. We just have to be vigilant.”

Kevin Palau says Fish and the rest of City Hall need not worry.

“The reason the City of Portland can get behind the Season of Service is because we’ve agreed to play by the rules. And the rules clearly would be, of course you don’t go and serve in some public school and say, ‘Oh, Johnny, I just finished helping you read—’” he breaks into a fake whisper—“‘have you heard of Jesus Christ, Johnny?’”

Kevin Palau means this. He’s very intent on it. It’s the whole point of his diplomatic mission, really.

But that leads to a question: Isn’t the whole Season of Service really just a soft sell? Even if Kevin Palau has put a kinder face on evangelicalism, does that change the fact that Kevin Palau believes that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, and that it’s his job to tell people that?

“If you give me the opportunity and you want to hear,” Kevin Palau says, “I’ll happily tell you about how Jesus Christ changed my life. Man, I’d love to tell you about that. But I’m not going to shove anything down anybody’s throat.”


Portland City Hall has declared the 2009 Season of Service to run from May 1 to Oct. 31. A second Season of Service begins this summer in Little Rock, Ark., and a third is planned for San Diego.

Synagogues and mosques are welcome to join the Season of Service programs, Kevin Palau says. None have.

Stephen Baldwin met the Palaus at one of their festivals in Syracuse, N.Y. His first Livin’ It skateboarding video, produced by Kevin, sold 150,000 copies in 15 months and inspired a sequel, Livin’ It LA.

The only Palau brother not to work for Luis is Steve Palau, who is a teacher at William Walker Elementary School in the Beaverton School District.

Neither Luis nor Kevin Palau will say whom they voted for in the 2008 presidential election.

In visits to 68 schools in 2008, Season of Service volunteers picked up 381,600 pounds of yard debris and collected 14,195 pounds of trash, according to Portland Public Schools.

The Luis Palau Association dropped the term “crusade” in 1999, citing its offensively medieval tone. “I’m so against the word ‘crusade,’” Kevin Palau says, “that I literally stutter over using it.”

Corporate partners in the 2008 CityFest were the Portland Trail Blazers, the Portland Timbers, Wells Fargo and KeyBank. In 2009, they are the Blazers, Pacific Power and Kuni Automotive.

The $100,000 given to the city was raised in two weeks by local churches—on Sundays in December, when attendance numbers were driven down by snowstorms.

 
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