The signs are all over buses, banners and billboards: A shot of a smiling, silver-maned man, next to a guitar or skateboard and the words “Free Event. Portland CityFest. Luis Palau. Waterfront Park.”
Forgive yourself if the nature of this weekend’s mega-event eludes you.
The marketing never says it’s an open-air evangelical revival led by Palau, a 73-year-old Argentine-born Christian evangelist who preaches at massive “festivals” organized from his worldwide headquarters in Beaverton.
Notwithstanding Portland’s godless reputation, organizers estimate at least 100,000 people will show up on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 22-23, to Waterfront Park (30,000 more than came out one day for Barack Obama in May).
Though Palau may be little known to unchurched Portlanders, he’s been huge in evangelical circles since the 1970s. And he’s a contender to succeed Billy Graham as the movement’s elder statesman.
Yet CityFest’s $200,000-plus marketing campaign—ads, handbills and 25,000 lawn signs—all sell CityFest as “the largest party you’ve ever attended” instead of pitching Palau’s sermons.
Spotlighted is a free concert, with hip-hop, punk and gospel, plus country from sixth-season American Idol finalist Phil Stacey. There’s an extreme-sports event featuring skate, BMX and motocross stunts. And it’s a family fun center, with giant inflatable play stations and tomato and cucumber characters from the Christian animated VeggieTales.
It’s also a celebration of a summer-long “season of service” in which 25,000 volunteers from nearly 600 churches worked, with the blessing of city officials in Portland and the area burbs, to offer free health and dental clinics as well as serve meals to poor children.
“We want people to feel comfortable,” Palau tells WW. “The point is, come and hear good music…have a hot dog, mingle with people, see extreme sports, have a good time and listen about Jesus.”
The omission on the posters and lawn signs of any mention of Jesus is no accident anywhere Palau does these festivals.
“We’re not stupid,” Palau says. “We don’t want to raise barriers before we get a chance.”
Palau’s ministry steers clear of polarizing issues like abortion and gay marriage. But as a brand, evangelical Christianity still has some image problems when it reaches beyond its base.
University of Washington comparative religion professor James Wellman—who wrote the just-released Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest—says Palau and other evangelicals are responding to critics by pushing more volunteerism and toning down socially divisive stances.
“Especially in this region, in urban areas it’s becoming unacceptable to speak out against gays and lesbians without being charged as being a bigot,” Wellman says.
The music and extreme sports that mark Palau’s festivals, Wellman says, are proven effective at attracting more young people although Palau’s “core message is still theologically relatively conservative.”
Softened up by hours of freestyle motocross and profanity-free pop music, attendees may be persuaded by the charismatic and likeable Palau to come to Jesus.
Will believers be uncomfortable with the opening-day welcome from gay Mayor-elect Sam Adams? After all, Adams will spend 90 minutes onstage before a crowd of festival-goers, many of whom probably oppose gay marriage.
“There may be a few who get uptight,” Palau says, “because there’s been a confrontational spirit in the last few years. But Jesus Christ mingled with the ladies of the night. He even mingled with the alcoholics of his day. I mingle with everybody whether I agree with them or not.”
Adams says he’s all right working with Palau despite comments likening gays to prostitutes and alcoholics.
“We don’t agree on all issues,” says Adams, who attends Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, a congregation that welcomes and supports GLBT members. “But we share a passion for helping citizens make a difference in improving Portland.”
FACTS: The $2.25 million cost will be covered by donations from local churches and corporate sponsors, including Wells Fargo, KeyBank, Pacific Power, the Trail Blazers, Beavers and Timbers.
CityFest will be preceded by a Homeless Connect event, in which homeless individuals and families will get food, clothing, haircuts and a chance to sign up for social services.