Luis Palau: New York Times dug deeper than the 'Billy Graham of Latin America' label

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It was the kind of question that general-assignment television reporters asked Billy Graham, since they didn’t realize that it had become a cliche: Who will be the “next Billy Graham?”

I heard Graham answer this question several times (and discussed it in depth with him in a 1987 one-on-one interview) and his response almost always included three key points.

First of all, he would say that he really didn’t know how or why he became “Billy Graham,” as in the world’s most famous evangelist (click here for his famous “turtle on a fencepost analogy). Second, Graham thought it was strange that reporters seemed to assume that he would know who the “next Billy Graham” would be. And finally, why did evangelists in other parts of the world need to be compared to him?

Take Luis Palau, for example. Graham said he didn’t consider him the “Billy Graham” of Latin America or anywhere else. Luis Palau, Graham told me, was Luis Palau, and that was who God wanted him to be.

I bring this subject up, of course, because of the double-decker headline that ran atop the recent New York Times obituary for this singular figure in modern evangelical history: “

Luis Palau, the ‘Billy Graham of Latin America,’ Dies at 86

He rose from preaching on street corners in Argentina to ministering to millions around the world, then focused his ministry on liberal corners of the U.S.

I’m not blaming the Times for using that image, since it appeared — to one degree or another — in almost every major news feature about his passing. In fact, the key to the Times feature is that dug deeper than that cliche and showed why Palau was a major player, in his own right, in global evangelicalism.

Still, everyone knows where this story will begin. But note the transition in this key summary passage near the top of the Times obit:

Though his headquarters were in Oregon, Mr. Palau was often called “the Billy Graham of Latin America.” He addressed that region’s 120 million evangelicals through three daily radio shows (two in Spanish, one in English), shelves of Spanish-language books and scores of revival crusades, in which he might spend a week, and millions of dollars, preaching in a single city. The Luis Palau Association estimates that he preached to 30 million people in 75 countries.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that he was the premier evangelical in the Spanish-speaking world, maybe in the whole world, second only to Billy Graham,” the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said in a phone interview.

But if Mr. Palau followed in Mr. Graham’s footsteps, he didn’t copy them. Instead he charted a course between the conservative evangelism of his mentor and a more socially conscious Christianity that found deep roots in communities of color, both overseas and in the United States.

Read that third paragraph again. The problem, of course, is that — in doctrinal terms — Palau was just as conservative as Graham. What the Times team is trying to say, whether editors knew it or not, is that the lives and beliefs of evangelicals in the Global South cannot be jammed into American political templates.

I would argue that Palau was a crucial player (along with Presbyterian Leighton Ford and Anglican John Stott) who helped shape Graham’s thinking and work during the second half of his career — when he focused much of his attention on raising up new evangelists in cultures around the world. At the heart of this, of course, was the Lausanne Movement, as expressed in its global conferences and in its historic doctrinal covenant. Journalists struggling to define “evangelical” should read that landmark covenant.

The key, for me, is that Graham helped raise up Palau, but Palau then helped influence the work of Graham and others. If you want insights into that equation, read this Palau tribute to Graham. I would also recommend this Christianity Today sidebar collecting key tributes to Palau.

As always, the Times team struggled to separate politics and doctrine. However, readers can still see key details that point to understanding that tension:

Mr. Palau was especially aware of the common assumption that evangelicals are rabid right-wingers — one reason, he said, that he often held his festivals in bastions of liberalism like New York City, the Pacific Northwest and New England. In 2001 he held a $2.5 million weeklong campaign across Connecticut.

“In New England, when you say ‘Christian,’ they think ‘those maniacs on the right,’” he told The New York Times in 2001. “I feel a challenge in Connecticut. I want to show that we are not maniacs but that we are well educated. This is a rational faith, but a faith that fires you up.”

Here is another key passage along those lines, including the now familiar “liberal” label being pinned on the man who would become Pope Francis:

Partly in deference to Mr. Graham’s dominant hold on American evangelicals, Mr. Palau spent the first 20 years of his ministry focused overseas. Along with crusades in Latin America, he ventured to Europe and the Middle East and was one of the few Western religious figures allowed to preach in the Soviet Union.

Like Mr. Graham, he kept his crusades apolitical, in terms of both his message and the people he was willing to work with. He befriended a liberal Argentine priest named Jorge Bergoglio long before he became Pope Francis. But he also drew criticism for collaborating on a 1982 crusade in Guatemala with the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who had recently taken power in a coup.

Read it all. This is a solid piece, even it it is missing one or two pieces of this global puzzle.

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